Despite being the birthplace of Buddha, in Nepal the most widespread religion is Hinduism. This is one of the oldest and provides for the worship of various deities. Among these, there is one that is called the living Goddess: the Kumari. The name means “virgin” and indicates purity. According to Hindu culture, the child reincarnates the deity Taleju Bhawani, better known as Durga in India. The veneration of a living Goddess in Nepal dates back to the 17th century, but some researchers believe the tradition is much older.
It is difficult to draw up a definitive list of the Kumari: there seem to be many others in the Newar villages, but they follow different traditions and ceremonials. The most important are the Royal Kumari of Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur, connected directly with the king. From 1300 to 1760 there were three kingdoms in the Valley, each with its own royal palace and a temple for the Goddess. In 1769, following unification, only the Kumari of Kathmandu retained the title of Royal, conquering superiority over all the others. The current Royal Kumari is called Trishna Shakya, 3 years old child who became a Goddess since October 2017.
A golden jail for the living Goddess
The Goddess lives in the Kumari Bahal, a red brick building located in Durbar Square, in the historic center of Kathmandu. She is revered by the whole Nepalese population. In fact, her existence is really important for the legitimization of power in Nepal. During the “Kumari Jiatra”, the most important festival lasting 3 days, the Goddess is taken on a chariot that runs through the streets of Kathmandu. On the third day it stops in the square of the royal palace and the child-goddess marks the king’s forehead with a red sign, called “tika”. This gesture legitimizes royal power for a year.
The girl is chosen from the high Buddhist castes of Newar families residing in Kathmandu for at least three generations. She must not have suffered blood loss, not even by a simple scratch and his horoscope must not be in contrast with the one of the king. The child must have “32 physical perfections”, but some are difficult to interpret and what is really important is that Kumari is beautiful and has no scars. The most important characteristics are behavioral: she must not be capricious, frightened or restless, she can’t cry. To assess these characteristics the potential Kumari must face a test: to sleep in a completely dark room between heads of goats and 108 dead buffaloes, with men disguised as demons that frighten the girls. Those who are not frightened, don’t cry and remain impassive are ready for the last test: to recognize the personal effects of the last Kumari, because a Goddess knows what her things are. Once identified the new child-goddess, this will be purified with rituals, made up, dressed in red and carried in her new home.
The life of Kumari acquires a totally different rhythm and style. She leaves the palace only for special ceremonies and in the rare public outings she is always transported on a palanquin, because a Goddess can’t touch the ground outside her palace. The girl is followed by many people, called Kumarini, who take care of her for every need and fulfil every wish she has, considered as a divine order. They are also responsible for her baths, clothing, make-up and education for her ceremonial duties. She can’t attend public school, in fact she is educated in the building with teachers who are dedicated only to her. No one is authorized to give orders to a Goddess, so educators can’t give her homework or compel her to study, but only guide her and find ways to interest her. Her family can rarely visit her and she has very few friends selected among children of her own caste, she can’t play or touch animals, because she risks hurting herself. She is always dressed in red and made up in a particular way, with an eye in the middle of the forehead, which represents her divine powers. The luckiest and wealthiest visit the Kumari in her palace bringing offerings or food, and she receives them in silence. Every reaction of the Goddess has a particular meaning: if she remains immobile and impassive during the meeting it means that the requests will be answered, a choice between the offers means a financial loss, a crying or a complain indicate a serious illness coming, the shiny eyes signal an imminent death.
The abrupt return to a normal life
The divine presence abandons Kumari at the time of her first menstrual cycle, or at a loss of blood or illness. The girl’s life changes suddenly, in the space of just four days she is deprived of her powers through rituals, the symbols of her divinity are removed and she returns to her family. On the other hand, however, she is given a dignified life pension: an annuity of 6000 rupees a month, three times the average salary in Nepal. The return is anything but simple since she was used for years to be worshiped, served and revered. The former Goddess is considered flawed and has difficulty returning to society, making new friends, building a future and finding a husband. In fact, she is almost forced to remain unmarried because a belief wants her spouse to be seized by a certain death within a few months of marriage.
The tradition of Kumari in Nepal is very far from our modern civilization, but some things are changing or at least there are trying. Since 2008 the Nepalese Supreme Court has established that the Goddess can attend public school, eat what she wants and stay with her family, to help re-enter society once the divine powers have been lost. Despite this, however, even today the most ancient customs are maintained.
It is certainly fascinating to find such ancient traditions still today, made strong and lasting by people who don’t change their habits and customs in spite of the modernization, but we shouldn’t forgot they are human beings, girls taken from their families at an early age and deprived of fundamental aspects for a normal growth.
In this case it is better to take a step back and open mind, at least by removing some superstition.
The Kumari are a beautiful reality, but they deserve their rights because, after all, they are little girls like all the others.
Picture by Nicolas Brunetti