Young girls regarded as living goddesses live in Palace of the Living Goddess near Dunbar Square in Kathmandu and elsewhere in Nepal. The girls are called “kumari” (Nepalese for "virgin"). The are revered by both Hindus and Buddhists and are believed to be inhabited by the goddess Kumari Devi. Even the King of Nepal traditionally paid homage to them girl.
The main kumari lives in Kathamandu. In the 2000s there were important kumari (Kumari Devi) and about 16 other living goddesses scattered around the country. There are fewer of them today. Among their followers they are worshipped as omnipotent deities.and retire upon reaching puberty typically around age 11 at the Hindu festival of Dashain in October. Their reign ends during their first period or some accidental loss of blood.
Gopal Sharma of Reuters wrote: “Under the Kumari tradition, a girl selected from a Buddhist Newar family goes through a rigorous cultural process and becomes the “living goddess”. She is considered by many as an incarnation of the powerful deity Kali and is revered until she menstruates, after which she must return to the family and a new one is chosen. Many Nepali Hindus and Buddhists consider Kumari as an embodiment of Taleju Bhavani, the goddess of strength. “I believe she is the goddess,” 50-year-old Saili Tamang told Reuters, selling the present Kumari’s pictures outside the temple. “Otherwise why would people respect her ?” [Source: Gopal Sharma, Reuters, August 13, 2008]
“But critics say the child is denied a normal life and the practice violates her fundamental human rights. Those who support the tradition say parents were free to decide whether they want to send their daughter to serve as Kumari or not, the girl gets state allowances and is looked after well. In the past even the kings of Nepal sought her blessings, but foreigners are barred from the upstairs chamber of Kumari, a leading tourist attraction.”
History of Kumari
The kumari system dates to 769, 1615 or 1768, depending on the source. There are many legends as to how it originated. According to one, a Malla king regularly played dice with the goddess, Taleju, the protective deity of the Kathmandu Valley. The king made a pass a goddess and she threatened to withdraw protection of the valley. Later, the goddess promised to return in the form of a young girl. [Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times, February 14, 2011; Jofelle Tesorio, Asia News Network, November 11, 2008]
Isabella Tree wrote in National Geographic: “The tradition dates back to at least the tenth century, when young girls and boys across South Asia performed in Hindu and Buddhist rituals as agents for divination. Their presumed connection to the divine and ability to predict the future were of particular interest to Asia’s rulers. Centuries later the tradition was taken up by people who lived on the periphery of the Indian subcontinent — in Kashmir, Assam, Bengal, Tamil Nadu, and Nepal — and who followed subversive religions that emphasized female power, or shakti, and tantric possession, a state brought about by magical invocations and rituals in which humans supposedly can be transformed into divine beings with supernatural powers. [Source: Isabella Tree, National Geographic, June 2015]
“Only in the remote mountain fastness of Nepal did the practice of glorifying prepubescent girls (in Nepali the word “kumari” means “virgin girl”) as living goddesses for years at a time become a deeply rooted cult, and only in Nepal is the tradition nurtured with vigor today. To Newar Buddhists, the kumari is regarded as the embodiment of the supreme female deity Vajradevi, a Buddha. To Hindus, she incarnates the great goddess Taleju, a version of Durga.
“Today there are just ten kumaris in Nepal, nine of them in the Kathmandu Valley. They’re still selected only from families attached to certain bahals, or traditional courtyard communities, and all their ancestors must have come from a high caste. Being chosen for the position is regarded as the highest honor, one that can bestow innumerable blessings on a kumari’s family. So despite the financial burden and personal sacrifices involved in maintaining a young girl as a living goddess in the modern world, and the challenges of her rehabilitation once she reaches puberty and has to live a normal life again, certain families are still prepared to put their daughters forward for selection.
“In medieval times almost every town in the Kathmandu Valley had its own kumari. In the cities of Kathmandu, Bhaktapur, and Patan there was one for almost every locality, as well as a special “royal” kumari, worshipped by the former Hindu kings. Many traditions have since disappeared, some only in the past few decades. In Mu Bahal, a courtyard community five minutes’ walk north of Kathmandu’s Durbar Square, devotees have been worshipping an empty throne since their last kumari retired, in 1972.
Kumari Ghar: Palace of the Living Goddess
Kumari Ghar — Palace of the Living Goddess — is located near Durbar Square in Kathmandu. A popular tourist attraction, it is a marvelous building with lattice windows and decorated wooden carvings. Living inside is the most revered kumari. Since the young girl is a living goddess she receives no education or medical and is carried through the streets by a relative, when she leaves the palace, because her feet are not allowed to touch the ground. Occasionally she is paraded through the streets in a chariot.
The Palace is visited by followers who make offerings of ornaments, food and money. Even the King of Nepal used to make visits to pay homage to the girl. It is possible to enter the courtyard of the palace where you may be able to catch a glimpse of the goddess on the balcony. Tourists are not allowed on the upper floors of the palace.
Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times: “At the Kumari Ghar, or palace-temple in central Kathmandu, a five-story red brick courtyard building with dark wood inlay built in 1757, signs warn foreigners not to enter the kumari's living quarters or take pictures if she peeks out. (Potential beef-eaters are considered unclean.) A few minutes later, a little girl's head briefly appears before darting back. At the Kumari Bakery next door, VIPs stop in to buy the brightly colored cupcakes on dirty glass shelves when visiting the living goddess, something that occurs daily as people solicit her blessing. "I can't be sure she eats my treats," says baker Kamal Shrestha, 20. "But I sure hope so." [Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times, February 14, 2011]
Kumari Procession at the Indra Jatra Festival
During many Hindu and Buddhist festivals the kumari, dressed in red and gold colored costumes, are carried in a wooden chariot pulled by men through the capital. Every August or September, during the Indra Jatra festival, the living goddess in all her bejeweled splendor is pulled by devotees in a religious procession through parts of Kathmandu. Thousands come to see her and seek her blessings. [Source: Nepal Tours & Travel]
Indra Jatra (Indrjatra) celebrates the divinity Indra, the king of heaven and the god of rain and rainbows and one of the most important Hindu deities in the Kathmandu Valley. It is celebrated in Kathmandu’s Durbar Square, with dancers wearing huge papier-mache masks to impersonate gods and demons. Women decorate the streets with tiny lighted clay lamps that are believed to guide the gods and demons to the place they will fight. A large papier-mache elephant winds through the streets knocking down any slow movers. Kumari traditionally blessed the king of Nepal during the festival. On old Newari song associated with the festival goes: ‘Laa Chaku Wayka Samay Baji, Walla Walla Pulu Newari Food Kishi’ (“Serve us Samay Baji with a piece of meat as here comes the white elephant”). Samay Baji is a favorite festival food. People sing the song as men labor hard to pull the chariot with the kumari through the streets in anticipation of the feasting that will take place after their duties are over.
Jofelle Tesorio wrote for the Asia News Network: “The most awaited part of the eight-day Indra Jatra festival is the special appearance of the Kumari or the living goddess, on the third day of the celebration. The pre-pubescent girl, believed to be the reincarnation of Hindu goddess Durga, is wheeled through the capital on a chariot pulled by devotees. On this day, a throng of people wait outside the kumari bahal (house of the living goddess), an ornately designed three-storey building just opposite the British-inspired former royal palace.
“This is one of the few times of the year when the Kumari is allowed to see the outside world. Most of the time, her life is very restricted and confined in the kumari bahal. She occasionally peeps through a craved window to see the onlookers in the square but no one is allowed to take a picture or even talk to her. The Kumari is only meant to be worshipped like god so no mortal could interact with her. She lives inside the 250-year old palace and is taken care of by priest and other women. [Source: Jofelle Tesorio, Asia News Network, November 11, 2008]
“The presence of the Kumari during the Indra Jatra festival is the highlight. People become frantic and wild at the sight of the chariot that carries her. For three days, she is paraded around the city and accompanied by chariots carrying images of Ganesh and Bhairab, two other important Hindu gods. Ganesh is the son of Shiva and Parvati who has a head of an elephant and Bhairav is another form of Shiva himself. The sight of the innocent goddess in the chariot is believed to bring good luck and blessings.
Search for New Kumari
Priests generally search for candidates after Nepalese New Year in April or May and introduce new goddesses in October at the Dashain festival. On the recruitment of new kumari in 2008, Gopal Sharma of Reuters wrote: Religious authorities in Nepal have begun the search for a girl who could be as young as three or four to serve as the new Kumari, in a centuries-old tradition. Astrologers were consulting horoscopes of candidates from Buddhist Shakya families to replace the current Kumari, Preeti Shakya, who is 11 and should retire during the annual Hindu festival of Dashain in October, temple officials said. [Source: Gopal Sharma, Reuters, August 13, 2008]
“If we don’t change her now, we’ll have to wait until next year which could be late,” said Deepak Bahadur Pandey, a senior official of the state-run Trust Corporation that oversees the country’s cultural matters, told Reuters. “If the girl starts menstruating while serving as Kumari, it is considered inauspicious,” Pandey told Reuters. Pandey said the keepers in Kathmandu’s elaborately carved wooden temple where the “goddess” lives, have already started the secret selection process.
Isabella Tree wrote in National Geographic: “Every Newar has a horoscope, drawn up at birth by an astrologer. A hand-painted scroll of complex tables and diagrams kept in a strongbox in the family worship room, the horoscope bears a person’s private birth name and the astrological signs believed to influence his or her life. A candidate’s horoscope must have no inauspicious indications. The most favorable sign for a kumari is the peacock — symbol of the goddess.” [Source: Isabella Tree, National Geographic, June 2015]
Requirements for the Living Goddesses
The girls who become kumari must come from the Newari Shakyas Buddhist clan and are recruited when they are five-years-old or younger. The Shakya clan is a community of jewelry maker and part of a former monk caste viewed as able to appease the angry Taleju.
Kumari must be pretty and have perfect skin, teeth, hair and eyes. They are supposed to have 32 physical “perfection” including flawless skin, the right color of eyes, properly-shaped teeth and a voice “soft and clear of a duck”, “the body of a banyan tree and “the chest of a lion”. Some have been deemed unsuitable for being afraid of the dark and having a poor horoscope. [Source: The Times of London]
Former kumari Rashmila Shakya told the Los Angeles Times she was “selected when she was four, after a kumari caretaker ensured she had an auspicious horoscope and bore no physical defects in line with "32 perfections" — including thighs like a deer, eyelashes like a cow and a voice as clear as a duck. [Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times, February 14, 2011]
Gopal Sharma of Reuters wrote: “The “Kumari” must not have even a small scratch to her skin. Traditionally it was believed that the girl’s horoscope should be in harmony with that of the king of Nepal. One priest told National Geographic “that few people today know how to identify the 32 lakshina, or signs of perfection. Traditionally priests examined the candidates to identify these signs — thighs like a deer, neck like a conch shell, a gold complexion, the soft voice of a duck, and so on — which are indicative of a bodhisattva, or enlightened being. “Nowadays,” he says, “we simply ask the parents to make sure their daughters are healthy and have no blemishes or birthmarks. Then we check their horoscopes.” [Source: Gopal Sharma, Reuters, August 13, 2008]
Isabella Tree wrote in National Geographic: “Unika Vajracharya could be standing on the brink of divinity, about to become one of Nepal’s most celebrated figures. She is six years old, at present a simple schoolgirl. Despite her shyness, her eyes sparkle with curiosity. She isn’t used to receiving strangers. A smile dimples her cheeks when I ask her what she’ll do if, later today, she’s chosen to be a kumari, or living goddess, a role that will bring people to their knees before her. “I’ll keep quiet,” she says. “I won’t be allowed to go to school. I’ll study at home and receive worship every day.” [Source: Isabella Tree, National Geographic, June 2015]
“Unika is a Nepali from the Newar ethnic group. She lives in Patan, officially known as Lalitpur, a city of 230,000 people of mainly Buddhist influence in the fertile Kathmandu Valley, in the foothills of the Himalaya. The Newars pride themselves on being the custodians of culture in the valley, and an agelong cornerstone of their culture is the worship of little girls as living goddesses.
“The selection process involves a secret ritual from which even Unika’s parents will be barred. Is she nervous? I ask. “No,” she says, brightly. “Just excited.” It’s a short walk to Hakha Bahal, the courtyard where for centuries members of her extended family have lived and gathered for religious rituals and festivals and where the first part of the selection will take place. Unika’s wearing her favorite yellow fleece hoodie with “Snoopy” on the back. If she’s chosen, this will be one of the last times she’ll be able to wear it. A living goddess can wear only red — the color of creative energy, usually reserved for married women. A woman, a neighbor, touches Unika’s cheek as she passes. “Are you going for kumari, little one?” she asks.
“This is Unika’s second time as a candidate for kumari. She was two years old the first time, too young to remember the esoteric rituals of the selection process. It’s partly Unika’s own eagerness that has persuaded the family to put her forward again. She longs to dress up like a kumari, her hair bound into a topknot on her head, thick kohl lines drawn around her eyes right up to the temples, and on festival days, a red tika painted on her forehead with a silver agni chakchuu — the third eye, known as the fire eye — staring out from the center. This desire to wear the kumari ornaments is in itself considered something special, a sign perhaps that fate, or karma, is pulling her.
“Unika’s grandmother Masinu worries that the little girl will be disappointed if she’s not chosen this time. “My hopes are with her. I don’t want her to feel sad.” Unika’s father, Ramesh, who runs a small shoe shop, has other concerns. “I’m worried about the costs,” he tells me. “And the purity restrictions that would be imposed on the family.”
Choosing a Living Goddess
Kumari candidates must pass a series of difficult tests including sleeping among the heads of ritually-slaughtered goats and buffaloes. Jofelle Tesorio wrote for the Asia News Network: “ Part of the test is when the potential candidates, aged 4 to 7, are holed up in a darkened room. There, they are made to confront ‘evil’ — demon-like mask dancers scare them and buffalo heads are scattered around. The one who is calm and collected (as the goddess is never afraid of anything) is most likely to be chosen. [Source: Jofelle Tesorio, Asia News Network, November 11, 2008]
Tree wrote in National Geographic: “The courtyard of Hakha Bahal, with its towering pagoda roofs, wooden resting platforms, and repoussé bronze shrine to the Buddha Akshobhya — now encased in an ugly antitheft metal cage — is crowded by the time Unika, Sabita, Biphasa, and I step inside. Amid the throng of local spectators and well-wishers is three-year-old Anjila Vajracharya. She’s the only other kumari candidate, and she’s dressed for the occasion, perhaps optimistically, in red, like a kumari. [Source: Isabella Tree, National Geographic, June 2015]
“Ananta Jwalananda Rajopadhyaya, the head priest of the Taleju Temple — which adjoins the old royal palace where Patan’s kings used to worship the royal kumari as their lineage goddess, Taleju — is waiting in the courtyard. This is the first time, the 77-year-old priest tells me ruefully, that there have been only two candidates for the final selection. It would be auspicious to have three. He blames family planning for the dwindling pool of eligible girls to select from and says parents are also becoming more reluctant. “People are not used to following the religious disciplines these days. They are becoming distracted by other things.”
“Rajopadhyaya takes the two girls behind a closed door in a corner of the courtyard for the secret first step in the selection. This is intended to whittle down the number of candidates to three. But since there are only two girls, it’s just a formality, over in minutes. The final selection is made by his wife, Maiya, at their house, a concrete building under construction in the neighborhood of Pim Bahal, to the north of Hakha Bahal. It takes us — a procession of 40 or so onlookers and well-wishers following the priest, kumari candidates, and their families — ten minutes to get there, dodging the traffic along Patan’s main thoroughfare.
“Having prepared herself through meditation, Maiya is waiting in an empty room upstairs, lamp, waterpot, garlands of flowers, puja trays, bowls of curd, leaf plates of beaten rice, known as baji, and other ritual paraphernalia laid out on a part of the concrete floor that’s been smeared with a purifying mixture of red clay and cow dung. The girls, separated from their mothers, are seated on red cushions facing her. Little Anjila is excited and leaps from her cushion to Unika’s and back again. Unika sits rock still, but her eyes dart about the room. All the onlookers, including the two candidates’ mothers, are directed to leave. Only Maiya and an assistant, a daughter-in-law, remain inside with the candidates.
Isabella Tree wrote in National Geographic: “Crammed in the dim stairwell outside, with daylight fading, we’re alert to the hum of mantras, the tinkling of a handbell, and the aroma of incense wafting from the room. Moments later we hear Anjila begin to wail. By the time the door is opened again, she’s hysterical and rushes to her mother. Unika remains perfectly composed on her cushion. There’s an air of release after the agonizing suspense. [Source: Isabella Tree, National Geographic, June 2015]
“With growing aplomb, the kumari-elect begins to receive offerings from her well-wishers as, one by one, they kneel and bow their foreheads to her feet. From now on, she’ll no longer be known as Unika but Dya Maiju — Little Girl Goddess. It’s not only her steady demeanor that confirms for the supplicants the presence of the goddess within her. Much to the priest’s gratification, her horoscope, scrutinized moments before the ritual began, bears the portentous sign of the peacock. Samita Vajracharya, the outgoing kumari, had been conspicuous by her absence at the gathering in Hakha Bahal. Though her house overlooks the courtyard, she had been too shocked by her dismissal five weeks earlier, following the start of her first period, to make an appearance.”
Later I was taken to encounter Patan’s new living goddess. The kumari’s eyes flashed as I entered the puja room. She was sitting on the golden throne, silver staffs of office on either side, a canopy of golden cobras spreading their hoods above her head, protecting her as they’d once protected Samita...and generations of previous kumaris. The face in front of me was familiar as Unika’s, but it was hard to believe this was the little girl I’d met on her way to the selection five months before. Her gaze bored into me with an aura of imperiousness that made me feel like a child myself. Around her neck hung a silver amulet. Her feet, adorned with silver bell anklets and stained with vermilion, rested amid rice and flower petals on a bronze offering tray. Kneeling on the rice mat before her, I offered a coloring book, crayons, and a modest donation of Nepali rupees. Deftly, she dipped her fingers into a dish of vermilion paste at her side, and I craned forward to present my forehead for her blessing.
Life of the Living Goddesses
A kumari must always wear red, tie her hair in a topknot and have a third eye painted on her forehead. She can eat whatever she likes. Here parents receive a small stipend but can not discipline her. For a long time it was believed that since the young girl was a living goddess she received no education or medical care. The girls have tutors but since no one can tell a goddess what to do, the teachers can't force the girls to study and hence they didn't learn much.
Each girl has attendants that cater to her every whim. When she leaves the palace she is carried by a relative because her feet are not allowed to touch the ground. Once a year the living goddesses are paraded through the streets in a chariot — during the Indra Jatra festival described above — and are given offerings of ornaments, food and money. One former living goddess told AP, "As the living goddess I was carried everywhere and did not need to walk to go out to the market. I played and everyone listened to me."
Kumari are not allowed to mingle freely with outsiders. Their tutor lessons are given privately in the temple in their home. After their first period — or before — they supposed to step and let new girl take their place. But this not always the case however. Chanira Bajracharya, a kumari from Patan, told Reuters: “I don’t feel sad (just) because I can’t go out. I don’t miss that. I have no friends but I can play with my two brothers. “I feel a little bit proud when people come to visit me and respect me as a goddess...I enjoy my Kumari life.” [Source: Gopal Sharma, Reuters, April 7, 2010]
A former kumari named Rashmila Shakya told the Los Angeles Times: "I don't remember much from the beginning because I was so young. By the time you're around 6 or 7, you start realizing you're the living goddess and get used to being worshiped." Once chosen, Shakya was whisked off to a palace-temple to be waited on by eight attendants for the next eight years, staying indoors except for 13 annual festivals when she appeared on a chariot — her feet never touching the ground — wearing a painted third eye. Fed specially prepared meals that she ate while seated alone on a raised platform, her only playmates were the caretaker's children. She received a stream of supplicants and almost no education, because a goddess knows everything. [Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times, February 14, 2011]
Jofelle Tesorio wrote for the Asia News Network: “A former living goddess Rasmila Shakya, says she was not allowed to eat chicken and talk to people who came to visit her. The controversial Rasmila has not married and she is the only former Kumari to travel overseas and write a book about her experiences. Kumaris are forbidden to leave Nepal during their reign. Rasmila says the only time she was so happy was during Indra Jatra festival where she could see many people, meet her relatives and bless the former king of Nepal, which made her feel like a true goddess. [Source: Jofelle Tesorio, Asia News Network, November 11, 2008]
Kumari Responsibilities and Beliefs About Them
Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times: “By tradition, one royal kumari at a time reigns before the mantle is passed to the next little girl. Local areas have lesser living goddesses, but Kathmandu's was traditionally the only one linked directly to the king. This link between god and king traditionally meant that any misfortune to kumari signaled that Nepal's Hindu monarch had lost his heavenly mandate, hence the rules against her playing outside lest she have an accident. [Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times, February 14, 2011]
Isabella Tree wrote in National Geographic: “Kumaris are revered in the Newar community. They’re believed to have powers of prescience and the ability to cure the sick (particularly those suffering from blood disorders), fulfill specific wishes, and bestow blessings of protection and prosperity. Above all, they’re said to provide an immediate connection between this world and the divine and to generate in their devotees maitri bhavana — a spirit of loving-kindness toward all. [Source: Isabella Tree, National Geographic, June 2015]
“A kumari is an onerous responsibility for all, one that would weigh heaviest on Ramesh as the family’s breadwinner. She must wear special clothes and makeup every day and have new festival dresses made of expensive cloth at least twice a year. A room in the house — a precious commodity in the overcrowded city — must be set aside as a puja, or worship, room with a throne where the goddess can receive devotees. The family must perform nitya puja — daily worship rituals — before her every morning. She cannot go outside, except on festival occasions, and then she has to be carried, either in someone’s arms or in a palanquin, so that her feet don’t touch the ground. She can eat only certain foods and no taboo items, such as hen’s eggs or chicken. Everything in the house has to be kept ritually pure. No one in contact with her can wear leather. Above all, the kumari must not bleed. It’s believed that the spirit of the goddess, the shakti, that enters the girl’s body when she becomes a kumari, will leave her if she loses any blood. Even an accidental graze could end her reign. A living goddess is always dismissed when she gets her first period.”
Life After Being Living Goddesses
After a living goddess has her first period she is relieved of her goddess status and is expected to step down and let another girl replace her. When this happens the girls are virtually thrown on streets and in many ways are worse off than ordinary girls their age because they have no education or skills and they have few marriages prospects because men who marry them are believed to die young.
It is not unusual for 12-year-old girls to emerge from their cloistered world so poorly educated they have to enter the second grade. In the past, families felt honored to have a daughter who was a living goddess. These days they are more practically minded and in many cases prefer if their daughters study to be a doctor or engineer. The only compensation the girls received in the past was a gold coin. New they receive pension that was around $40 a month in the 2000s.
The former kumari Rashmila Shakya wrote in her 2005 memoir, "From Goddess to Mortal": "I was left with nothing but a gold brocade dress and my memories. "I was virtually illiterate." Magnier wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “And virtually spoiled, her family concluded. Although her parents and siblings had visited her freely at the temple, they weren't allowed to stay overnight, and living together again was a difficult transition for everyone. They "worshiped" her for a few days but soon leaned on her to help with the cooking and cleaning, skills she had not practiced. She recalls the shock of sharing a bedroom with her sisters, coping without attendants, watching black-and-white TV. "Was this little hovel to be my home?" she remembers thinking. After years of pampering, she also had to learn how to walk in shoes, choose her own clothes, buy chocolates (people always gave those to you) and make friends (a bit different from ordering people around).
“Resolved not to waste her life, however, she started school sitting with 5-year-olds in tiny desks before eventually catching up. At one point she got a score of 17 percent on a general knowledge test, which said it all. Eventually her determination paid off, however, as she became the first former kumari to travel abroad or graduate from college. She's now a software developer living in the family home. She enjoys shopping and watching Bollywood movies in her spare time. She's also fought to wrench the system out of the Middle Ages, helping ensure that her successors received a proper education. Kumari are now tutored inside the temple, which eases the transition to normal life.
Dhana Kumari Bajracharya, a woman who was a kumari into her 30s because she never had a period, lost her position only because Nepal’s then crown prince Dipendra, who would later massacre his family, deemed to her to be too old to be a kumari. AFP reported: “Forced into retirement, Bajracharya decided to continue living the life she had always known, unable to abandon her duties or end her withdrawal from the outside world. Every morning she wakes up, drapes an embroidered red skirt like the one she wore during her years as a kumari, scrapes her hair into a topknot and lines her eyes with kohl curving upwards to her temples. On special occasions, she uses red and yellow powder to draw a third eye in the middle of her forehead, and then takes to a wooden throne decorated with brass snake carvings. Devotees are received, as when she was an official kumari, on Saturdays and during festivals in a separate room in her red brick home, reached by narrow stairs above two floors rented out to a shop and financial cooperative.” Thirty years after she was dismissed, the memory it still bothers her.“They had no reason to replace me,” she told AFP. “I was a little angry ... I felt the goddess still resided in me.” [Source: AFP, July 20, 2015]
Hard Times and Sex Superstitions for Former Kumari
Isabella Tree wrote in National Geographic: “Then there are the dark rumors about the marriage prospects of former living goddesses. “Men are superstitious about marrying ex-kumaris,” Ramesh says. “They believe terrible accidents will happen to them if they try.” The spirit of the goddess may still be strong in a former kumari, it is said, even after the diffusing rituals she undergoes upon her dismissal. Some believe that snakes issue from the vaginas of former kumaris and devour the hapless men having intercourse with them. [Source: Isabella Tree, National Geographic, June 2015]
Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times: “ Shakya looks uncomfortable when asked about marriage. Although there's no rule against a former goddess marrying — and several have — superstition holds that husbands of ex-kumari die early. "It's considered bad luck," says Manjushree Thapa, author of "Forget Kathmandu." "And it's emasculating to be married to a goddess." Shakya blushes when asked whether men find her intimidating. "I can't go inside people's heads," she says. "No one says they're afraid outright." [Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times, February 14, 2011]
Isabella Tree wrote in National Geographic: “Months later I met with 12-year-old Samita.... She was accompanied — as always — by her mother, because crowds, traffic, public transport, noise, uneven pavements were all too daunting for her on her own. Strangers also were unnerving. Although she smiled as I asked questions, her lips remained firmly sealed. “As a kumari, you never speak to outsiders,” her friend Chanira, also a former kumari explained, “while Samita stared resolutely into her lap. “It was a year or so before I could manage a conversation with someone I didn’t know. Even now, at college, I find it hard to stand up in front of the class to present my work..I was 15 when I got my period, so I was waiting for it to happen,” Chanira said, “but Samita was only 12, so it was more of a shock. It’s a really emotional time. When you give the goddess’s ornaments and throne to someone else, it feels like someone has died. You’re in mourning.” [Source: Isabella Tree, National Geographic, June 2015]
“What was it like for Samita when she was dismissed? I asked. Chanira repeated the question softly in Newari for her friend, painstakingly translating her whispered responses.For Samita, the weeks directly after the appointment of her successor had been exceptionally painful. Ideally a kumari should live next to her ancestral courtyard. Unika’s family had stayed with Samita’s for a month while accommodations were made ready for them next door. Every day Samita had watched devotees queuing in the family sitting room, while another little girl took up the throne in her old puja room.
Kumari and the Modern World
After the end of Nepal's monarchy in 2008 and critcism from Maoists, politicians and human rights groups that the kumari system was exploitative and outdated, the system was reformed somewhat and Nepal’s Supreme Court in 2008 ordered the government to ensure basic education and healthcare for the goddesses. “"There should be no bar on the Kumaris from going to school ... as there are no historical and religious documents restricting Kumaris from enjoying child rights," the supreme court said. [Source: Randeep Ramesh, The Guardian, August 21. 2008]
Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times: “Perhaps due in part to the age of the institution or the child goddess' colorful presence at Nepal's many festivals, the kumari tradition remains popular amid residual belief that she does connect Nepal's leadership and the gods. "There's a belief the kumari gives the state more legitimacy," says Suresh Dhakal, an anthropologist with Kathmandu's Tribhuvan University. "So even under a republic, it'll continue for some time." Others, like sociologist Sanjeev Pokhrel, expect it to gradually lose its meaning, evolving into little more than a cultural sideshow and tourist attraction, "like the panda for China." [Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times, February 14, 2011]
“Nepali society hasn't fully resolved how to handle the royal kumari system in a post-royal age, with the occasional politician still soliciting her blessing for successful rule despite representing a secular state. As modernity has seeped into the mountain kingdom after the 240-year monarchy, more people question the institution's viability and fewer parents are offering up their daughters for this life. Maoists have condemned it as a relic of feudalism, the former defense minister termed it child exploitation.
The choice of the Living Goddess was approved by the king. After the monarchy was abolished, Nepal’s prime minister did the job. There has been is some discussion of the kumari system being abolished. Nepalese are losing interest in offering their daughters, In 2010, only five families offered their daughters. [Source: The Times of London]
Isabella Tree wrote in National Geographic: “In Patan only girls from the Buddhist lineage of Hakha Bahal are eligible to become kumaris, and in the end it was the persuasive powers of the bahal elders, and the desire to continue tradition, that won the day. “We need to uphold the ways of our ancestors,” Sabita tells me. “It is our duty to provide a living goddess from our community.” In the Kathmandu Valley people have a strong reverence for the past, a sense that in times gone by there was a deeper connection with the gods and that for this reason ancient customs must be followed — even if, in the 21st century, they’re no longer fully understood. [Source: Isabella Tree, National Geographic, June 2015]
“In 2008 Nepal’s supreme court essentially rejected a Newari woman’s petition against the tradition, citing its cultural and religious significance. Four kumaris — in Kathmandu, Patan, Bhaktapur, and Nuwakot, a fortress on the trade route into the valley from Tibet — receive government support in the form of a monthly stipend while in office and a pension for life when they retire. In real terms, though, the value of this grant barely covers the cost of clothes and worshipping materials.
Nepal's "Living Goddess" Eyes Banking Career
In 2015, former kumari Chanira Bajracharya was studying business administration at Kathmandu University School of Management. During her kumari stint she was tutored at home by teachers who gave their time for free while she was the kumari. She eventually earned a “school leaving certificate,” graduating with distinction. [Source: Isabella Tree, National Geographic, June 2015]
When she was 15, Gopal Sharma of Reuters wrote: Even a “living goddess” is sometimes faced with tough decisions. Bajracharya has been the Kumari of Patan for nine years, blessing devotees at the temple and riding in decorated chariots 18 times a year during Hindu and Buddhist festivals. Now, with her time as living goddess drawing to a close — the young virgin deities retire on reaching puberty — Bajracharya is contemplating a career in banking if she makes grades good enough to study commerce or accounting. [Source: Gopal Sharma, Reuters, April 7, 2010]
In 2010 “she became the first living goddess ever to take the school leaving certificate examination, which was administered to her in her temple, which is housed in her home. “I want to study commerce or accounting and be engaged in the banking sector,” she told Reuters in a rare interview, dressed in her ceremonial costumes, her eyes rimmed in black kohl and a third eye painted in the middle of her forehead. “Tutors said the girl, addressed as Kumari, was intelligent and eager to learn. “She has a good memory and does not forget things,” said Abha Awale, a teacher.
Kumari, U.S. Visits and Earthquakes
In 2007, a 10-year-old kumari was stripped of her “divine” status for defying tradition and visiting the United States. Reuters reported: “Sajani Shakya was installed at the age of two as the Kumari of the ancient town of Bhaktapur, near the capital Kathmandu. But a recent trip to the United States to promote a British-made documentary exploring Nepal’s traditions and contemporary political turmoil has upset local religious leaders. “It is wrong and against the tradition for her to go on a foreign tour without any permission,” the chief of a trust that manages the affairs of Bhaktapur’s Kumari tradition, Jai Prasad Regmi, told Reuters. “This is impure in our tradition. We will search for a new Kumari and install her as the living goddess,” Regmi said. [Source: Reuters, July 3, 2007]
Dhana Kumari Bajracharya, a kumari in Patan, held on to her post from 1954, when she was two, until 1984 when she was well into her 30s because she never menstruated. She walked outside for the first in her life, at age 63, after she was forced outside by the 2015 earthquake. AFP reported: “When a massive earthquake struck Nepal, Nepal’s longest-serving “living goddess” was forced to do the unthinkable: walk the streets for the first time in her life. Before the 7.8 magnitude quake on 25 April, Bajracharya had only ever appeared in public while being carried in an ornate wooden palanquin. [Source: AFP, July 20, 2015]
“But as the tremor hit, shaking the ground, reducing buildings to rubble and killing 8,800, Bajracharya, 63, left her quarters in the historic city of Patan for the first time in three decades. And for the first time on foot. “I had never thought about leaving the house like that,” she said. “Perhaps the gods are angry because people don’t respect traditions as much any more.”
“As the disaster ripped through Nepal, shaking Bajracharya’s five-storey home, her family stayed inside, waiting to see if the retired kumari would break tradition and walk out with them. “We couldn’t just leave the house like everyone else – we had to think of her. We didn’t know what to do,” said her niece, Chanira Bajracharya. “But when nature forces you, you do the unthinkable.”
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Nepal Tourism Board (ntb.gov.np), Nepal Government National Portal (nepal.gov.np), The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.
Last updated February 2022