The Nepalese touch the feet of a young girl. Even the king bows down to her. She is the Kumari – the living goddess.
The Kumari, or living goddess, must be brave, courageous and have a calm temperament.
The word Kumari is a derivation of the Sanskriti word Kaumarya, which means ‘a young unmarried girl.’ Many Hindu women use it as a part of their name: Meena Kumari, Radha Kumari, etc. In Nepal, the word has much more significance. It has sacred connotations.
A Kumari in Nepal is a living goddess – a prepubescent girl “considered to be the earthly manifestation of divine female energy,
The tradition of elevating a young girl to the position of a living goddess is relatively new in Nepal. However, the practice of worshipping virgins, known as Kumari puja, has been around for as long as 23,000 years.
the incarnation of the goddess Taleju, the Nepalese name for Durga.” She receives the utmost respect from the Hindus and Buddhists of Nepal and is worshipped by them. The country has many Kumaris – in some cases a single city has several living goddesses, but the most prominent and revered among them is the living goddess of Kathmandu, called the Royal Kumari.
The tradition of elevating a young girl to the position of a living goddess is relatively new in Nepal. However, the practice of worshipping virgins, known as Kumari puja, has been around for as long as 23,000 years. The ritual is based on a verse in the Shakta text where Devi Mahatmyam or Chandi declared that she resides in all female living beings in this universe. The selection of only young girls who haven’t reached puberty is justified on the basis of the qualities of inherent purity and chastity associated with young girls. These are also considered to be the principal characteristics of Durga.
However, not every other girl can be chosen as a Kumari. Only the girls from the Shakya or the Bajracharya clan of the Nepalese Newari community are selected for this position. The Newars are the indigenous people of Kathmandu Valley and its surrounding areas. They are regarded as the “creators of the country’s historic civilization.” It is also the clan to which the Buddha belonged.
The selection process is rigorous. The girls selected for the sacred position are usually below four years of age. Sometimes, they are as young as two. They must possess certain qualities that are deemed ‘godly’ while their horoscope is also taken into consideration. Some of the physical traits necessary for a Kumari are jetblack hair and eyes, dainty hands and feet, soft voice, eyelashes like a cow, body like a banyan tree, etc. The Kumari must be brave, courageous and have a calm temperament. Her fearlessness is checked through rigorous rituals. It is said that during the Hindu festival of Dashain, when 108 buffaloes and goats are sacrificed to the goddess Kali, the young candidate is taken into a temple and “released into the courtyard, where the severed heads of the animals are illuminated by candlelight as masked men dance about.” Also, she must spend a night alone in a room “among the heads of ritually slaughtered goats and buffaloes without showing fear.” If the candidate undergoes these tests without showing any signs of fear or nervousness, she is selected as the living goddess. However, a former Royal Kumari Rashmila Shakya has refuted these notions in her book ‘From Goddess to Mortal’. She writes that this has nothing to do with the selection process, “but rather is a ritual the Royal Kumari goes through each year.” She also writes that there were no men dancing around in masks trying to scare her and that “at most there are only a dozen or so decapitated animal heads in the scary room test.”
Once selected, the girl is shifted to a palace called the Kumari Ghar. She is not supposed to go out of the house except on special occasions. Even then, she can’t place her feet on the ground as they are considered sacred. Therefore, every time the Kumari goes out of the palace, she travels in a palanquin or is carried around by her caretakers. At the Kumari Ghar, she receives visitors, mostly Hindus and Buddhists, as non-Hindus are not allowed in the goddess’s chamber. However, tourists can visit her palace. The Kumari spends most of her time in receiving visitors who come to seek her blessings. For her public appearances and rituals, the Kumari dresses up in red and wears heavy jewelry. An essential part of her unique outfit is a ‘fire eye’ drawn on the forehead. People who seek the Kumari’s blessings often bring gifts for her, touch her feet or bow before her. Even a glimpse of the Kumari’s face is believed to bring good luck.
In the past, the Kumaris were not allowed to go to school or receive education during their term as the goddess since they were supposed to live in seclusion. However, the tradition is changing and the young goddesses can now receive private tuition. The Kumari of Bhakatpur can even attend school and lead a fairly normal life. However, the living goddesses are not allowed to speak to people other than their family members and caretakers. They are allowed to make friends from among a selected group of children who invariably belong to the Shakya clan.
A Kumari’s tenure ends the moment she reaches puberty. Once her term expires, she is allowed to go back to her home after undergoing a cleansing ritual in which the Goddess Durga leaves her body. The girl can then lead a normal life. However, after living in a conditioned environment for years, the young girls find it difficult to come to terms with the routine of a normal life. Some of them have difficulty in walking, as they are not allowed to walk during their tenure. "When I had to step out of my house for the first time, I didn't know how to walk properly. My mom and dad, they used to hold my hands and teach me how to walk," says a former Kumari Chanira Bajracharya.
They also experience isolation at school as most children are afraid to talk to them. Some Kumaris complain of the void they feel at the sudden loss of respect. The people no more touch their feet or bow down to them. The Kumaris also lose the amenities they enjoy in the Kumari Ghar where many caretakers are always at hand to do their bidding. A superstition that adds to the woes of a former Kumari is that marrying her will bring bad luck to the husband and he may die within months. This perception has changed considerably during the last few decades and many former Kumaris went on to marry and have children.
All the difficulties notwithstanding, to be chosen as a Kumari is an honor of the highest degree. "Being a Kumari was a matter of great pride and respect for me and my family. It was a blessed life," says Bajracharya. The writer is assistant editor at Southasia. She focuses on issues of political and social interest.