How Nepal selects a little girl and turns her into a living goddess
When we think of deities, we often imagine omniscient beings, revered and worshipped for their powers, but never truly known. What we don't imagine is a living and breathing pre-pubescent girl who has been specially selected out of hundreds to become Kumari, a living goddess.
This is exactly the case in Nepal where, rather than existing purely in the spiritual realm, every so often little girls are selected out of thousands to be worshipped as the earthly manifestation of divine female energy, specifically incarnations of the goddess known as Taleju. But is this a blessed little girl who is born under a lucky star and treated like royalty? Or is this unique tradition harbouring a darker side?
The young one who will be worshipped by Hindus and Nepalese Buddhists in question is often not regarded as anyone special. She's merely a child who lives with her family, attends school and spends time with friends. That is, until the day the search gets underway to find a new Kumari.
On this day, senior Buddhist Vajracharya priests (the Panch Buddha, the Bada Guruju or Chief Royal Priest, Achajau the priest of Taleju and the royal astrologer) throw themselves into a frenzy of activity, searching high and low to discover who will be the next living goddess. Finding her is no easy feat though. Young girls must possess a specific collection of traits to even be considered to be eligible, most of which are based on appearance and prior status.
Although different areas of the country may have their own, Kathmandu's living goddess is the most important. This young girl must always originate from the Newar Shakya caste of silver and goldsmiths; any other caste is not accepted. Among other physical characteristics, she must be in excellent health, having never been afflicted by any disease, be without blemish and must never have lost any teeth. She must have a neck like a conch shell, a body like a banyan tree, eyelashes like a cow, thighs like a deer, a chest like a lion and a voice as soft and clear as a duck's. Last of all, and perhaps most problematically, she must never have menstruated. The day she gets her first period, she is overthrown and the search is on to find her replacement.
In order to select one of the many candidates who are put forward by the priests, the young girl is put through rigorous tests, the worst of all perhaps when she is taken to the Taleju temple on the kalratri, the "black night", where 108 buffaloes and goats are sacrificed to the goddess Kali. The potential Kumari is forced to spend a menacing night in a room surrounded by the severed heads of the animals. If she shows no fear, she is put to the final test where she is asked to pick out the personal belongings of the previous Kumari from an assortment of things laid out before her. If she is able to, there is no doubt about it: she is the Kumari.
The chosen girl's life is instantly transformed. And it's open for discussion whether it is for the best. While she is treated like a goddess and adored by all, beneath the admiration, the living goddess' life is more problematic. Now she's a goddess, the young girl will rarely venture outside and spends most of her days in a three-storied courtyard, the Kumari Chowk, her new residence. She will be rarely seen by the public, only appearing at her window for tourists at certain times of the day.
Although things may differ in areas across the country, traditionally she leaves her school friends behind and is privately tutored, no longer able to play outside with them. Rather than seeing her as their equal, her limited playmates must learn to respect her and to surrender to whatever she may want, be it a game or a toy. In fact, she is no longer permitted to talk to anyone but family and close friends, instead spending her days carrying out ceremonial duties, greeting her crowds of admirers.
Her walk through Durbar Square is the last time her feet will touch the ground outside for years, and whenever she leaves the palace - only on festival days - she is carried in a golden palanquin. After years of being carried practically everywhere, former Kuramis have reported trouble walking when they finally retire. Former goddess Chanira Bajracharya, who kept the role from 2001 to 2011, told the BBC: "When I had to step out of my house for the first time, I didn't know how to walk properly. My mum and dad, they used to hold my hands and teach me how to walk."
While she is revered and thought to bring good fortune to her admirers, one too could have the uncomfortable feeling that she may be a little girl who has had her childhood taken from her. When asked about her daughter’s unusual childhood, her mother, Sabita Bajracharya, said through a translator, “I feel little sad that other children play outside, but her friends do come to play with her inside. Whatever she demands, dolls or any plaything, we fulfil her demands.”
There's no doubt over the question of whether this is a healthy lifestyle for a little girl. But as one delves deeper into the mysterious world of the living goddess, things get even murkier. Aside from being shoved aside for bleeding, there are other ways in which her reign can become rocky.
Take Sajani Shakya, for example. In 2007, this young girl was almost removed from her position in Bhaktapur after visiting the US to attend the release of the movie Living Goddess. Afterwards the elders insisted that she needed to step down, arguing that she had been tainted by the visit. Eventually, after agreeing to undergo a cleansing ceremony, she was allowed to keep her title.
Then there is Dhana Bajracharya, who never got her period. The rules tell us that the next living goddess is appointed when her predecessor bleeds, so technically Bajracharya should have lived on as a goddess. However, she was stripped of her position after the crown prince demanded to know "Why is she so old?" The fallen goddess spoke to the Guardian years later, claiming: “They had no reason to replace me. I was a little angry ... I felt the goddess still resided in me.”
Over the years, many activists have criticised Nepal's custom as being a form of child labour which hinders the freedom and education of the chosen one. However, it's not a tradition that the Himalayan country is willing to give up. In 2008, Nepal’s Supreme Court overruled a petition campaigning against the practice, citing Kumaris as culturally and religiously significant. In spite of this ruling, the court still stressed the need for reform, particularly with the young girls' education.
Yet, despite the overarching problems surrounding life as a living goddess, past chosen ones have no regrets at all. Bajracharya, Nepal’s longest-serving living goddess is now in her 60s and has been "human" for more than 30 years now, but looks back at her former life with fondness. Despite her difficulties, she described it as "a blessed life", stating "it was a matter of great pride and respect for me and my family."
Ultimately, the idea of a living goddess isn't a particularly comfortable one. Everyone knows that deities normally come in the form of elaborate paintings and intricate sculptures, so the concept of a divine being living alongside us common folk on planet earth is something that is often the cause for scepticism, marvel or disgust. But like it or not, this is a tradition that has been going on for centuries and one that is ingrained into the very foundations of Nepalese Hindu society. And it's not set to end anytime soon.