Living God­dess

The Nepalese touch the feet of a young girl. Even the king bows down to her. She is the Ku­mari – the living god­dess.

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By Jave­ria Shakil

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Pakistan

© PressReader. All rights reserved.