Melka Nilsa and Wetka Polang, two women belonging to the Kandha tribe in the state of Orissa, India, were married in a traditional Kandha ceremony in 2006. The marriage was conducted by a priest of their tribe and recognized by their local community elders. The couple, their families, and community elders chose to disregard the 145-year-old colonial-era Penal Code criminalizing homosexuality that was in effect at the time of their marriage.
Nilsa and Melka settled the initial conflict with their families and their community by submitting their unorthodox union to the requirements of Kandha custom concerning marriage as a communal issue, with the understanding that a way would be found within folk tradition to allow the couple to stay together as spouses. Since the tribe to which they belong has a degree of autonomy in matters concerning folk custom, Nilsa and Polang’s wedding may have made them the first legally married same-sex couple in India.
When Nilsa and Polang decided to live together as a married couple, members of the tribe strongly disagreed with their arrangement. Threats from their respective families did not convince them to end their relationship. Pressure from their community grew worse, so the two women fled their home village of Dandabadi. A compromise was reached to bring them home. Members of their families brought their case to the Kandha villagers of Dandabadi, who eventually gave their consent to a formal wedding. “[Wetka and Melka] wanted to prove that they can live without the help of men. They also love each other very much. So we decided to forgive them,” said village elder Melka Powla, a Dandabadi elder.
Forgiveness came with a price: Nilsa and Polang were fined. They had to provide liquor, two oxen, and rice for a feast (which would have been held anyway in a traditional wedding). In keeping with the marriage ritual, Polang applied vermillion on Nilsa’s forehead before the Kandha priest and village elders, thus marking Nilsa as her spouse.
“We are leading a blissful married life. We love each other very much,” Polang told the British Broadcasting Company. Both the women were day laborers and lived together in Dandabadi. At the time of their marriage, the couple wanted to adopt Polang’s nephew and raise him as their own, thus including in their marital bond the duties of raising a child.
Legal Standing of Same-Sex Marriage
The Penal Code of India, based on the law code of the British Empire, classifies same-sex relationships as unnatural offences, and does not recognize same-sex marriage. In 2001, Jaya Verma and Tanuja Chauhan, an openly Lesbian couple, were married by a Hindu priest in the town of Ambikapur in the state of Chattisgarh, India. But the local registrar refused to legalize the marriage because of the Penal Code. In addition, they were evicted from their home.
But the Penal Code is not followed in its entirety by all Indian ethnicities. Officially registered tribal minorities, known as scheduled tribes or adivasi (original autonomous peoples), enjoy a degree of independence with regards to folk customs. The Kandha is the largest of the 62 Scheduled Tribes of Orissa (17.5% of the total Scheduled Tribe population). Kandhas have their own codes of conduct, often settling things within the community rather than utilizing the Indian legal system.
Traditionally, governance is in the hands of the village council,the governing body that certified their marriage, which was the site of negotiations that finalized the requirements made of Nilsa and Polang.
Jena, Sanjaya. “Tribe Blesses Lesbian ‘Marriage’” Dec. 6, 2006. BBC News, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/6212756.stm.
Mann, Rann Singh. Tribes of India: Ongoing Challenges. New Delhi: MD, 1996.
Singh, Joytsna. “Gay Couple Hold Hindu Wedding” May 29, 2001. BBC News, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/1357249.stm.