In her classic study of Nayar marriage arrangements, Kathleen Gough, considers both the general anthropological position that marriage is a universal and that it performs a similar set of functions in different societies (Gough 1959). The Nayar are an upper caste group, who are organized politically into small kingdoms and territorially into localized matrilineal descent groups. Although many of their practices have changed after the imposition of British colonial rule, a reconstruction of their traditional system suggests that no substantial marital institutions were present, at least from a Western perspective. On reaching puberty, a woman could entertain an indefinite number of lovers, usually between three and eight, without any public concern over sexual fidelity or paternal responsibility, the two basic features of marriage in European societies. Women would assume the responsibility for raising children within matrilineally constructed households, focusing on mothers, daughters, and sisters. The domestic group also included male members of the matrilineage, i.e. the women's brothers. However, since their main activities were devoted to warfare, all but the eldest men were usually absent during the better part of the year.
In spite of the apparently casual attitudes towards sex and fatherhood, a number of rules were strictly applied and failure to observe them could lead to severest punishments: ostracism and death. The most important focused on two ritual acts: the tying of the tali and the payment of the midwife's fees. In the tali ritual, girls and boys from allied lineages collectively performed a symbolic wedding ceremony in which each "groom" tied a gold ornament on his "brides" neck. In the successive rites the couple was secluded and may or may not have engaged in sexual activity (usually the girl was too young). At the conclusion of the ritual no specific rights or obligations between the couple were established, other than the expectation that the "wife" and her children would make special mourning observances when her "husband" died. However, without the tying of the tali, a woman could not engage in any sexual activity. If she gave birth, her child would be considered to be illegitimate. After the ceremony, she could start receiving lovers provided that they did not come from a lower hereditary caste or subcaste as she did. When the woman bore children, one of the lovers was expected to acknowledge his paternity by presenting gifts to the midwife who assisted in the delivery. While this, like the tali tying, was an almost exclusively symbolic act and incurred no subsequent responsibility, it was considered essential to both the legitimacy and the status of the child insofar as it provided an assurance that it was not the product of a relationship between its mother and a socially inferior man.
The Nayar case imposes a strict test on the understanding of marriage, as it completely dispenses with the child-care functions so strongly emphasized in Western understandings and differs in its concepts of sexual exclusiveness and propriety. It does however impose an important set of rules and fulfills functions that are quite understandable in the context of a lineage and caste based society. The rites and regulations assume the following significance appropriate the broader Nayar social order:
According to these observations, along with a consideration of other variations such as woman-woman marriage, Gough suggests a broadened definition of marriage as follows:
Marriage is a relationship established between a woman and one or more other persons, which provides that a child born to the woman under circumstances not prohibited by the rules of the relationship, is accorded full birth-status rights common to normal members of his society or social stratum.Although her example and definition have attracted a good deal of criticism (Bell 1997), they at least point to the range of variation that marital forms and functions have assumed and the problem of a cross-culturally valid designation.