An Important custom at one time
“Chaddar” literally translated means Bed sheet. Before I write anything further on this subject its worth stating that in Hindu society particularly in the Punjab a woman had no share in the property. Thus in case a husband died his wife would have a difficult time as she inherited nothing. All this was only changed in 1955 when Nehru brought about the Hindu marriage act
How Society Reacted to Widows Rehabilitation
Punjabi society had its own solution for a problem of a widow and her future life. They adopted a custom that took care of this problem. Nobody is aware how this custom originated. The custom involved the wife of a deceased man marrying the younger brother (her brother in law). This was done in a brief ceremony where the widow placed a white Chaddar (bed sheet) on the younger brother. From that moment she became the wife of the younger brother. This was done to keep the woman in the same family and provide protection to children from the first marriage. Otherwise her life was doomed. As can be assumed woman was forced into this alliance by the mother in laws.
Practical Aspects of Chaddar
Placing the chaddar had its own problems. In some cases a widow became the second wife of her brother in law. In other cases the bridegroom was much younger than the widow, yet the marriage was consummated. There were cases of a widow entering a new house hold where there were already pubescent daughters. This had its own problems but the generally placing the chaddar on the younger brother gave a new lease of life to the widow in terms of sex, companionship and status.
Effect of the Chaddar on Land Holdings
One reason for placing the chaddar is to stop fragmentation of land holdings. In the Punjab land has tremendous value and agricultural land in particular is a status symbol. This is particularly prevalent among the Jat community, who are the major owners of land in the Punjab.
Once a woman cast a chaddar on her husband’s younger brother she became his wife and all the land owned by the elder brother came to the younger brother. Thus fragmentation of the agricultural lands was avoided and land remained within the family.
New Life for the widow.
Women in Hindu and Sikh society had no place after she became a widow. Widow remarriage started vary late only in late 19th century. By having the ceremony of the Chaddar, in fact gave a new life to the widow. She again became a married woman a ‘Suhagan’. There was no stigma attached to such marriages and the religious leaders supported this custom.
Children born of the elder husband also found a home. Though some piquant situations were created in that an earlier wife (in case the brother was married) had to adjust to the new wife also.
Success of Such marriages
Such marriages were generally successful. One reason for this is the fascination in Indian folklore for the Bhabhi or wife of the elder brother for the younger brother. Umpteen tales and ballads talk of the love between a Bhabhi and her Devar (younger brother of the husband). Thus all marriages fell in a groove and were generally successful.
The opinion of the widow was never taken and she was expected to place the white chaddar around her husband’s younger brother at the earliest opportunity after the funeral of her husband. Grieving and mourning for any length of time was not in vogue.
Many writers have written about this custom. But the most famous novel on this subject is “Ek Chaddar Mailee see” (One soiled Bed sheet). This novel which was also made into a film mirrors the clash in Punjabi society when such marriages took place.
The novel relates the tale of a husband who is murdered by some people who suspected he had raped their sister in a temple. The widow named Rano is forced to place the chaddar around the shoulders of her brother in-law who is 10 years younger to her and who she had treated all along as a child. The pubescent daughter becomes very zealous of her mother and uncles marriage and even tries to end her life. The novel highlight’s such incidents, but overall the effect of placing the chaddar on the younger brother’s shoulders was good.
The custom has now almost frittered away as with greater awareness and new laws brought in by the government incorporating rights for women, the chaddar is almost obsolete. But when it was active it served a purpose.