Practice of Reet

30th August 2018 By Sarla Publications


Reet is a custom that defines the diverse social practices concerning marriage, remarriage and divorce in colonial Himachal Pradesh in the early twentieth century. In this context, the term ‘diversity’ has been central to twentieth-century debates on post-modernism and multi culturalism. This term is generally used to describe societies that comprise different religions, races, languages, and cultures. It does not simply indicate the absence of cultural homogeneity. Rather, it suggests the presence of several distinct and heterogeneous cultures. Contemporary multiculturalism also endorses the idea of difference and heterogeneity that is exemplified in the concept of diversity. The custom of reet can help us understand and problematise the question of 'social reform' in colonial India and also provoke us to re-examine the role played by reformers in these debates.

Kipling argues how the nature and sexuality of the women of the hills became an object of the colonial gaze. He assigns typical characteristics to hill women, like 'her falling in love at the first sight', 'openness about her feelings', 'unmanageable', 'barbarous and indelicate', and 'unclean'. Reforms aimed at controlling such active desires and aggressive impulses of women. The reorganisation of gender relations, especially conjugality and the strengthening of patriarchy, proved to be the most crucial elements in this enterprise. Fundamental elements of social conservatism, such as the maintenance of caste distinctions and patriarchal forms of authority in the family, and an acceptance of the sanctity of the shastras were conspicuous in the reform movements of the early and mid-nineteenth century.

Why the Reet custom?

Himachal’s interaction with colonialism resulted in the creation of a complex socio-political environment. Colonial domination was introduced through administrative necessities and triggered by Punjabi migrations to this region. Changes in the economic and administrative spheres of this region had a log-term effect on its socio-cultural outlook. Its diverse customs and practices relating to conjugality became a site for contestation in the early twentieth century. In the 1920s, a custom called reet, a native form of marriage, remarriage, and divorce, evoked critical response. Reformers, such as Thakur Surat Singh campaigned for its abolition, as it involved bride-price and alleged sexual immorality, which was supposedly prohibited in the shastras. Under the influence of the reformers, this custom came under the scrutiny of the colonial government and the native states. This criticism was the result of changes brought about ever since the emergence of Shimla as the summer capital of British India in 1865. Gradual immigration of British officials and Indians from the plains, and transformation in the relationship between the colonial government and native states, led to the emergence of complex socio-political underpinnings in the social outlook of this region.


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Legality of reet

Local customs and traditions also opposed with the legal structure of the colonial government and native states. In colonial Himachal Pradesh there were two types of regions—British territories under the direct administration of the colonial government and the semi-autonomous native states. The areas under the British government were administered through colonial legal procedures. Native states also adhered to these legal procedures but their attitude was incidental to interstate disputes. They had their own set of customary laws guided by the customs of the praja and the authority of the Raja or king. The political control of the Shimla Hill States was entrusted to the Superintendent, Shimla Hill States, who exercised 'residuary jurisdiction' in cases beyond the powers of a chief. Reet, which was practised throughout the hill territory, appeared to be an issue too large to be dealt with in its entirety by any single hill chief. Yet, specific cases involving reet amongst the subjects of a particular state lay well within the traditional domain of the Raja. As a result, the custom became an object of legal scrutiny of native states on the one hand, and the Superintendent of the hill states on the other.

Reet diversities

Reet was a highly localised culture, especially striking to those acquainted with the people of the plains lying to the south of Himachal Pradesh. There were fewer castes in the hills and there has traditionally been freer interaction among castes, while occupational specialisation was less rigid. A number of rules pertaining to marriage would probably have been unacceptable to many groups of the plains, especially those of the higher caste. These practices included bride price marriage with no necessity for a Sanskritic marriage ceremony, polyandry in some areas, levirate, divorce by mutual consent, remarriage of widows and divorcees, and toleration of inter-caste marriage within the high-or-low caste group.

Sexual freedom in reet

Among the Paharis (hill people) there was some degree of post-marital sexual freedom and relations of brothers with one another's wives. Marriage was universally prohibited only among one's own and mother's siblings. Village exogamy wasn’t the rule everywhere. There was freer participation of women in more aspects of life than in the plains— in singing and dancing in festivals. There was relatively free informal contact between the sexes. Marriage in the hills included a cash gift from the family of the groom to that of the bride, rather than dowry from the bride to the groom as is generally true for the plains. This practice had different local variants and was known by various names throughout the Pahari region. In Nepal, this practice is popularly known as jhari. The exercise was widespread in Himachal Pradesh and was locally known as reet.

Different meanings of reet in the princely hill states

Literally speaking, reet means 'a custom'. To some, it was a form of marriage but to others it was a payment usually made on the occasion (of marriage). Reet was a temporary marriage without any formal ceremony and was dissolved by the woman while taking a new husband—she simply paid the first husband the money originally paid to the girl's parents. In Bashahr State of the Shimla hills, reet was a name applied to the value of clothes and ornaments given to the bride by her husband at the time of marriage and it also included the other expenses incurred by him on the marriage. To some, reet was a form of marriage, without ceremony, contracted by paying a price with a woman already legally married. There was no limit to such marriages, and these could be as easily dissolved as they were freely undertaken.

A letter written to the Superintendent Hill States, Shimla, in 1925 noted that reet invariably takes place when a woman actually runs away from the husband's home. The man with whom the woman goes to live makes a payment to her husband, for her, and in the even of his death, to the heirs. Another opinion is that reet was not a form of marriage at all, but merely the payment usually made on marriage. The marriage tie being loose at best, if the woman goes off with another man, the new husband was required to reimburse (the amount to) the former husband.

The Secretary of the Himalaya Vidya Prabandhani Sabha (HVPS) and chiefs of the native states and the colonial understanding of reet do not give a sufficiently clear account of this.

The world itself means 'custom'. The pamphlet (brought out by the Himalaya Vidhya Parbandhani Sabha) describes it as a form of marriage, without any ceremony, contracted by paying a money price... to the guardian of a girl, if unmarried, or to the husband of the girl if married. But the extract from the Sirmur State Gazetteer.... describes it as discretion to the women, 'to dissolve the marriage contract at any time by paying compensation. The essence of the custom and the feature to which objection appears to be taken is the lack of ceremony.

Prevalence of Reet in the past

Reet was prevalent in the erstwhile hill states of Bashahr, Jubbal, Baghat,. Baghal, Tharoch, Rawingarh, Koti, Keonthal, Nalagarh, Theog, Kumarsain, Mangal, Bhajji, Dhami, Mahlog, Balsan, Kuthar, Kunihar, Beja, Darkoti, Shangri, Khaneti, Delath, Madhan, Ghund, Ratesh, Dhadi and the British territory of Mandi, Suket, Sirmaur, Chamba, Bilaspur, Bharauli, Kotkhai, Kalsia (hill region) and the hill tracts of Patiala, Ambala, and Hoshiarpur districts. It was also practised in Kangra, including Lahaul and Kullu, although in a different from.


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Dr Yashwant Singh Parmar's views on Reet

Parmar regarded reet as an institution, which served as marriage to some and divorce to others, or again simply as marriage to some, or remarriage or widow remarriage to others. Reet was followed in Kangra, Bashahr, Kullu and Saraj, Lahaul, Jubbal and Kumarsain as a form of marriage. However, in Sirmaur, especially in the Trans-Giri tract, Parmar observed that it was regarded as a form of dissolution rather than marriage. To some, reet 'was a form of marriage without any ritual or ceremony and contracted by paying a price. Interestingly, it has also been treated as a 'system of divorce' and remarriage.

Various forms of reet

Reet was practised with a dissimilar logic in different hill regions. It had an important element of marriage, no matter in what way it was practised—marriage, remarriage, or divorce— and defined the nature of conjugal relations. These conjugal relations were fundamentally different from the Brahmanical principles of ritual purity and chastity. In Kullu, cohabitation was considered equal to marriage and the son of a woman who had been received into a house and treated as a wife was considered an equal successor, just as the legitimate children. Marriages in Sirmaur differed fundamentally from the Brahmanical theory of marriage as a rite. It regarded marriage as a civil contract terminated by the mutual consent of both the parties, and the Hindu idea that the wife is one-half of her husband's body was hardly existent. Due to these reasons, this custom regarded the women of Shimla hills as 'lewd and prone to temptation.'

Reet: custom and law

Reet also had within it an important element of divorce, which evidently 'shook the Hindu sentiment'. If a woman in Sirmaur 'disliked her husband, she returned home, arranged a marriage with someone else, paid reet to her first husband, and went to live with the new one. Her first husband could not refuse to accept the reet, though he may dispute over the amount. Women could therefore change their husbands when and as often as they chose and this liberty was not considered as evil. The existence of such notions of sexuality led to the emergence of many debates relating to their legality. Although reet had customary validity in most of the native hill states, in many cases it was questioned in the court of law on the pretext of morality. It was also argued that there is no provision in the Hindu scriptures enjoining so much liberty to a woman.

Debate and contradictions

Thakur Surat Singh, who was General Secretary of the Himalaya Vidya Parbandhani Sabha (HVPS), Shimla, wrote a detailed letter in 1924 to the Superintendent Hill States, Shimla hoping to elicit the latter's support to the Sabha's effort in the matter of eradicating a supposedly pernicious and prevalent custom of reet. Under the baneful influence of reet, marriage had lost its sanctity, domestic relations had lost all their felicity and society all the ties, which made it a means to civic welfare'. In 1924, the HVPS convened meetings to bring home to the people the vices of the custom and passed a resolution directly attacking the women of the hills. It was postulated 'that no woman shall remarry in her husband's life time'.

Reet and morality

An appeal was made to the Superintendent Hill States to take suitable steps to uplift the people of the Shimla hills and free them from this most prevalent form of corruption, which was hindering their progress and defaming them in the eyes of the civilised world. Until June 1924, reet was questioned for its laxity of 'public morality'.

The Shimla District Hindu Conference also passed a resolution and said that reet was the root cause of degradation of the hills. It was said to be contrary to the shastras, and responsible for depopulation, poverty, misery, and outrage. This argument of shastric invalidity added a new dimension to the opposition against reet.

Reet and the shastras

The question whether reet was prohibited by the shastras or not is rather complex. The Gazetter of Sirmur State says that 'of the eight forms of marriage recognised by the Hindu law, the asura or marriage by purchase is the one peculiarly distinctive of the people. Reet was the most prevalent form of marriage in the Trans-Giri areas, which suggests that is was identifiable with the asura form of marriage. Reet may have been invalid for Brahmins and Rajputs, but it may have had shastric validity for the lower castes. Among some of the Kanets, Bhats, Kolis, and so on, of Sirmaur, and Trans-Giri in general, marriage was not performed in the orthodox manner by circling the sacred fire (phera). Rather, the simple rite of jhajra or putting the nose-ring onto the bride's nose was practised to solemnise marriage.

Existence of reet

The Hindu Conference held at Shimla on 28 June 1924, passed a resolution requesting the British Government to abolish reet by legislation. The efforts of the states seem to have borne little fruit. No attempt was made to see reet in the context of customary practice. Reet was widely prevalent in almost all the hill states and was practised since 'times immemorial'. Several hill states had put a tax on reet contracts; marriage by reet was recognised as legal and it conferred legitimacy on the children. A campaign to abolish reet was reported to be legitimately practised in both the British and the native chief's territories.

In 1924, another significant debate emerged regarding bardafaroshi, or traffic in girls, for the purpose of marriage in British India.

It directly related reet with bardafaroshi, which became a tool for the moral and legal justification of the Sabha's attempt to legislate against reet. Bardafaroshi did exist, but the attempt to relate it with reet was wrong. Reet was a traditional custom diversely perceived and practised by the majority of the people in the hill states. Bardafaroshi, on the other hand, was traffic of a different kind.

Types of reet in Kullu and Kangra

Reet had different forms in Kullu and Kangra. In Kullu, the bridegroom as a rule was a made to give money, but this was taken to ensure some provision for the girl, should she be deserted by the husband or should she be turned out. Strictly speaking, reet was no more than harjana (compensation). Reet apparently did not exist in Kangra to the same extent. The government was also reluctant to take official action against reet. It distanced itself from these reformist proposals for the hill states, because it regarded it as a purely internal matter, which had not led to any 'grave misrule and maladministration'. The government felt that it would be unwise to adopt a legislation for abolishing reet, since the custom was deep-rooted in the hill states. The government avoided direct participation in the organisation of the conference on the abolition of reet.

Reaction of hill chief to reet

The reaction of the hill chiefs varied. Bhagal state, under Rana Dalip Singh, initiated measures to discourage reet and framed a legislation against it as early as 1917. This was the first legislation on reet by the hill states. The Act came into force from 23 July 1917. It forbade marriage by reet where a woman's husband was alive. Whoever committed the breach of these laws was liable to be punished under Sections 363, 366, 494, 496, 497, and 498 of the Indian Penal Code and anyone proved to be an accomplice in a reet affair was liable to be punished under Act XXV of 1856. An elaborate legislation was enacted by Baghal state in 1924, for compulsory verification and registration of marriages (a fee was to be charged for every entry). It also restricted the parents and relatives from giving refuge (not more than three months) to a 'runaway bride'. Any woman who deserted her husband 'in adultery' was liable to punishment, and children born out of such 'illegitimate unions' were excluded from inheritance rights.

Different posture of hill chiefs

The state of Bashahr framed its own set of rules against reet. Significantly, these rules applied only to the Brahmins and Rajputs of the state. It specified the valid set of marriages, that is, either according to dharamshastras or informally with a childless widow. Marriage by reet and kidnapping a girl by force was forbidden. Inter-caste marriages were prohibited. Even marriages outside the boundaries of the state (foreign ilaqa) were forbidden. Besides reet, practices, such as jhind phuk or marriage by elopement became illegal and liable to fine and punishment. As a result of the new laws, many traditional practices were suddenly declared immoral and questionable. The British Government, however, expressed serious reservations to these rules.

British non-interference

These Reet measures had an interesting bearing on the relationship between the hill states and the British government. The chiefs wished to cooperate with the government on the question of reet, because they did not want to antagonise them. They were hesitant on the other hand to legislate against the will of the people. There were different versions of the hill chiefs. The chief of Koti State remarked that 'time was not yet ripe to interfere in an old custom of the land and its people.' The rana of Ratesh said that the people of his state wished to continue with this custom. Bhajji State too, was not inclined to abolish the custom of reet as its subjects 'did not like the idea'. Nalagarh state said that although its people were against child marriage and wished that the custom of reet be discontinued, they would not welcome any legislation on the subject.

Similarly, Madhan state expressed its difficulties in abolishing this custom. Jubbal suggested an alternative to the problem of reet through the consent of the people. Baghal was not comfortable with the assertion of shastric principles on regulations related to reet. Other states, such as Bashahr (which interestingly had drafted its own rules to abolish reet) Theog, Kuthar, Darkoti and Kumarsian expressed their inability to legislate against reet until the people among whom this custom was prevalent decided amongst themselves to stop this practice. The Wazir of Bilaspur state observed that reet was widespread in the hill areas and it could not be eradicated all at once by legislation, without creating unrest among the masses.

The British government was reluctant to push the issue because it was not convinced that a marriage according to Brahmanical notions of the shastras was in any way better than reet. The government felt that it was only men who were proposing it, and there was no evidence of any consultation with the concerned women.

The British government emphasised its policy of non-interference in the matters of native states. Even then, it remained anxious about the progress made towards the abolition of reet. The HVPS' intervention helped the British and the chiefs strengthen and legitimise their power relations.

Positive impact of reet

Reet had a certain positive bearing on gender relations in Himachal Pradesh. In Kangra, it acted as a check on infanticide and led to girls being better cared for by their parents and restricted early/child marriages. 'Early marriages were not common in Kullu (Kullu), as women were valued as useful for labour in the fields. Unlike the plains, women in the hills did not observe purdah, which is quite common in other parts of North India.

Marriage ceremonies were simple and usually informal. In the upper hills of Bashahr, it was usual for Brahmans, Rajputs, Banias, and 'the Kanets' to have at least one wife by formal marriage. But the majority of Kanets and the lower castes primarily used informal ceremonies.

In Kullu, though early betrothals were common, marriage did not often take place until the parties were of an age to cohabit. In Mandi state, early marriages were rare, and among boys less than 10 years of age they were almost negligible; even among girls they were confined to the higher classes. There was no stigma attached to widowhood and widow remarriage. There was a saying in Mandi that a woman is never a widow and she certainly was rarely without a partner. Widow remarriage was a simple affair in almost all the hill states, and in case a widow's second husband was a stranger (from outside the family), it was usual for him to pay reet called makhtal to the first husband's family.


Besides the diversity in the forms of social organisation, the legal procedures of various hill states too varied from region to region. In order to evade the demands of damages and criminal or civil suit by the 'injured husband', runaway couples of Kullu took asylum in the neighbouring native states of Mandi, Suket or Bashahr, where no extradition was permissible in such pardonable matters. Equally diverse were the rules pertaining to the custody and inheritance rights of children affected by various forms of social organisation. In Sirmaur, sons by a woman who was kept as a wife, but for whom no reet was paid, or with whom no formal ceremony was arranged, generally inherited the father's property. The Gaddis of Chamba state had a custom whereby a widow's child born at any time after her husband's death succeeded to his property, provided the widow continued to live in his house. Similarly, when a Kanet of Mandi, or other 'inferior agriculturist class' took a woman of the same tribe into his own house, the children were entitled to succeed even though no formal rites of marriage had been performed.

Reet prevented overpopulation

Reet was also an acceptable practice in areas that followed polygamy and polyandy. In Bushahr state, where fertile agricultural land was scarce, the custom was defended on the ground that it prevented both overpopulation and subdivision of family property.

Reet divorce customs

Reet enabled simplicity in the practice of divorce. In Spiti, when both the parties consented, husband and wife held the ends of a thread, which was severed by applying a light to the middle. After the divorce a woman was at a liberty to marry whosoever she pleased. In Bashahr state, an additional ceremony was associated with the dissolution of marriage by reet. The husband gave the wife a small stick called dingil to break. If she broke it, the divorce was considered complete. In Chamba state, a Pangwal husband broke a dry stick over the wife's head or over the reet money to conclude divorce.

Absence of dowry

Dowry was generally non-existent. Wherever it did exist, it was very small. In the trans-Giri and Cis-Giri hill tracts of Sirmaur state, even rich people did not give a big dowry. The idea of giving a small dowry was that in the event of the dissolution of the marriage, no difficulties should arise when the husband was expected to refund the dowry. Until 1934, reet as a form of divorce and subsequent remarriage in Sirmur, was held valid under Sections 497 and 498 of the Indian Penal Code. At Nahan, both Hindus and Muslims followed the customs of the plains. Though early marriage was a rule, the girl could dissolve the contract upon coming of age. She simply had to return home, arrange a marriage with someone else and pay reet to her first husband. Significantly, reet continued to be accepted as a valid social practice in the courts established by the British in India.


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