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In the era where modernization and advancement in technology take the forefront of cultural evolution, the idea of gods and goddesses seem to be relegated to ancient mythology, folklore, and movies. Coming to Kathmandu drastically changed my view on that. Here, the idea of a goddess exists not only symbolically but literally in the full sense of the word. Kumari is a living and breathing goddess worshiped and revered in Nepal like any other mythological goddess could be.
Royal Kumari (Photo credit: associated press)
Kumari which literary means “virgin” in Nepalese is a pre-pubescent girl, about 3-4 years old selected to personify the Goddess Telaju (Goddess who takes care of the Kathmandu Valley). Kumari is worshiped by both Hindus and Buddhists in Nepal and thought to be an incarnation of Durga (the multi-arm slayer of demons). While there are several Kumaris throughout Nepal, with some cities having several, the best known is the Royal Kumari of Kathmandu, and she lives in the Kumari Ghar, a palace in the center of the city.
Not every girl from Nepal can be a Kumari. An eligible candidate must come from a Newar Sharka family — the clan to which the Buddha belonged. She must be free of diseases and have never had an injury that led to bleeding. Young girls who passed these basic requirements are further examined by the queen before they move to the “thirty-two perfections” portion of the selection process. Her horoscope is scrutinized as well, it should be in complementary to the King’s horoscope as she must confirm the King’s legitimacy each year of her divinity.
Worth noting here is the fact that in 2008 the Nepalese monarchy was abolished and Nepal become a federal republic with its secular form of government, but the royals still perform various culturally significant functions here. This is one of them.
After that royal pre-selection, the girl must undergo yet more rigorous tests. The candidate is taken into the Taleju temple and released into the courtyard, where the 108 detached heads of the animals are illuminated by candlelight and masked men are dancing about. The real goddess is unlikely to be frightened, so the one who is calm and collected throughout the tests is the only girl who is entitled to sit on the pedestal for worship as the Living Goddess. If she exhibits fear, another candidate is brought in to be tested in the same manner.
The unflinching candidate has proven that she has the serenity and the fearlessness of the heart to become the embodiment of the Taleju deity, which for centuries has been regarded as a protector of Nepal and its royal family. The girl then undergoes a number of secret Tantric rituals to cleanse her body and spirit of her past experiences. Once these rituals are completed, it is said that Taleju enters her body and she becomes the new embodiment and manifestation of the Taleju deity. From that point on, Kumari is no longer regarded or treated as a mere mortal. She becomes the Living Goddess herself. She can no longer go to school, play outside or touch her friends, all of which are considered to make her ritually impure.
Royal Kumari (Photo credit: associated press/Niranjan Shrestha)
Her face is painted with rich shades of red and yellow as well as striking black around her eyes. A symbolic “third eye” is tinted on her forehead. Her feet are also painted and she is dressed in an ornate, traditional red costume accessorized with jewelry that is passed down from one Kumari to the next. Red is an important color in Nepal. It’s a fabled Newari color in clothing thus the Kumari wears nothing but red clothes.
The Kumari’s feet never touch the ground during her tenure and whenever she leaves the palace, she is carried in a golden palanquin especially during the annual Indra Jatra festival. (Photo credit: associated press)
Devotees carry Nepal’s living goddess. (Photo credit: associated press/Binod Joshi)
Although non-Hindus are not permitted to enter the Kumari’s chamber to seek her blessing, there are several occasions where she is presented to the public. Tourists can also catch a glimpse of her looking out at the world from her ornately carved window. The window is opened at 4pm sharp every day for a brief 5 seconds. It was said those who sees her will be blessed…..When I was in Kathmandu, I was thrilled with expectations to see the Kumari. Unfortunately, I was not able to see her because she was sleeping when I came.
Kumari gives her blessing to one of the devotees. (Photo credit: associated press)
Kumari looking at the window (Photo credit telegraph.co.uk)
Kumari’s reign ends once she starts menstruating, even a minor scratch on her body that bleeds can make her invalid for worship. She then goes back to living a normal life like everybody else, while a new Kumari is selected to continue the task of being the Living Goddess of Nepal. There have been several controversies in regards to children’s rights, human rights activists said the Kumari tradition was ‘child abuse’. But the local leaders made a convincing case for keeping a tradition that has come to be the symbol of the unique cultural heritage of Kathmandu.
Today’s Kumari is perhaps relatively lucky. Under quite new arrangements, living goddesses nowadays are all entitled to a formal education with a tutor of their choice. But then again imagine the transition between being a living goddess to living a normal life, which can really be tough. Another struggle faced by many goddesses is the difficulty in finding a husband. Whether because of apprehension over marrying one so protected in childhood or because of the superstitious believe that men who wed a former Kumari will die young.
If you are interested in this fascinating cultural phenomenon, you can read a book written by the best-known ex-Kumari, Rashmila Shakya, titled “From Goddess to Mortal”. I haven’t read it yet, but definitely looking forward to it.
So, what do you think? Would you like to be a living Goddess? Share your thoughts by commenting below.
Happy travels everyone!