Kumari -- Nepal's `Living Goddess'

by Nabanita Dutt, Nov 16, 2002 | Destinations: Nepal / Kathmandu

A slum settlement in an anonymous by-lane of Kathmandu city was abuzz with activity. In spite of the light drizzle which had started early that morning, the crowd milling around a filthy mud tenement continued to swell. People had gathered to watch the final journey of 14-year-old Kumari Rashmilla, Nepal's virgin goddess, whose reign as the protecting deity of the kingdom had just run out. With the onset of puberty, her body had ceased to house the spirit of Taleju (an incarnation of Goddess Durga) and she was being returned to her family, from where she had been picked up at the tender age of 4.

A richly decorated palanquin, escorted by a band of priests and devotees, carried in the Kumari, dressed in her gold and scarlet fineries. Over the next four days, a series of religious ceremonies will take place at her parent's residence. She will be secluded in a dark room, until the priests came to take away her robes and all her jewelry. Attendants from the Taleju temple will undo her bun of hair and remove the last vestige of godliness -- the Kumari's bangle -- from her arm. And she will revert to being a mere mortal, with a gold coin and a paltry allowance from the government as token for her services as protector of Nepal's 22 million people.

After playing God for the last 10 years, she will be uncomfortable in normal society, uneducated, and will probably never marry. The superstition that a Kumari's husband dies early has taken firm root in the Nepalese mindset, and few men are likely to ask for her hand. Like Anita Shakya, Dil Kumari, Nani Maya and eight other ex-Kumaris who are still alive today, she will spend the rest of her days trying to figure out the strange hand fate had dealt her.

But while Rashmilla's star fades into anonymity, another's is rising at the Kumari palace in Kathmandu's ancient Durbar Square. Preeti Shakya, weaned and having just learned to walk, is getting ready to take over her divine mantle. Hereafter, she will be cut off from her family, declared a living goddess, and installed in her royal chambers. She will not talk to ordinary mortals, her feet won't touch the ground and she won't venture out of her palace more than a handful of times a year. The King of Nepal will bow to her and request for favor. During plague, drought and famine, he will appear before her throne on bended knees and plead for her forgiveness. And at the Indra Jatra festival, when she is driven in her chariot through the streets of Kathmandu, she will reconfirm the King?s legitimate claim to the throne by putting a tika (vermillion) on his forehead.

The rest of the time she will remain sequestered in her palace. Tourists and followers will approach her courtyard and call out to her. If the calls are persistent, she will appear before a window for a few seconds and disappear again. Her guards will charge a few rupees for facilitating this meeting. She will not be photographed.

For over 300 years now, the spirit of goddess Taleju has been residing in a succession of pre-pubescent virgin girls in this way, and the future of the country has balanced precariously on their pleasure. With a frown they have held back the rains; a single tear from their eye has resulted in floods. An ancient ruler of Nepal is even said to have died after the reigning Kumari fell asleep during an audience with him.

Stands to reason then, that the Kumari has to be chosen very carefully, so that an immature expression of boredom, mirth or temper does not bring misfortune crashing down on the nation. The selection process is further confounded by the belief that Taleju decides on her own home, rather than depend on any rent-a-body service the learned religious priests may want to provide. The Kumari board's job is only to identify the receptacle correctly from a group of likely virgin candidates.

And the bizarre screening procedure the board has observed for centuries has been contrived just so that there are no mistakes. A brief rundown:

* The girl must belong to the Shakya clan, a community of goldsmiths, no more than a handful in number.

* Her family background must be impeccable with a reputation for piety, and the committee studies the candidate for calmness and poise.

* She must possess all the 32 lachchins (characteristics) of physical perfection. Her skin must be blemish-free, her hair and eyes, very black. Her body has to be sturdy as a Banyan tree, thighs like those of a deer, neck like a conch-shell and tongue, small and moist. The voice will be crystal clear, hands and feet dainty and sexual organs small and well-recessed. Strangely, for a child, she should also have a set of 40 teeth.

* Her horoscope must match that of the king's.

* If the blood-loving Taleju is to reside in her, she must not be repelled at the sight of gore. And to test her fearlessness, the child is pushed into an odiferous room with 108 decapitated buffalos laid out in a sea of blood. Men wearing horrid masks dance among them in an effort to frighten the child, who walks clockwise through this scene of carnage. If she cries out, faints or shows any sign of hysteria, she is immediately disqualified and the next candidate is brought forward for consideration.

Thereafter, a series of Tantrik rituals takes place in the secrecy of the back chambers of the Kumari palace, and the spirit of Taleju -- which having left the ex-Kumari had been drifting unsubstantially during the selection period -- is at last safely housed in her. Word then goes out that the new Kumari has been chosen and the country and the king rejoice at the news.

Over the next few weeks, the new Kumari is allowed to acclimatize to this sudden change in her fortunes. After rice and lentil soup for meals and a straw mat to bunk down on, the abundance of savory food and lavish living quarters require some getting used to.

A small group of attendants is always at hand to ensure that tears of homesickness do not escape from the child's eyes, and they pander to her whims and keep her company whenever she desires it. They take her through an elaborate toilette every morning -- tying the ritual bun on her head, rimming her eyes with thick kohl and drawing a `third eye' on her crimson forehead. Robed in the Kumari's garb of scarlet brocade silk and with gold jewelry hanging heavy from her ears, arms and neck, she's then escorted to the audience room, where she is expected to sit unmoving for many hours at a stretch as devotees -- many of them patients with blood-related problems -- come to her with their hopes and problems.

Solemn and silent, the Kumari holds a cross-legged pose on her gilt-canopied lion throne, while supplicants wait patiently to read a `sign'. If she laughs, cries or rubs her eyes, they are likely to be grievously sick; if she trembles, they will go to jail; if she claps her hands, then they'll have reason to fear the king; if she picks at the food offered, they will lose money. And if she displays none of these ominous signs and remains stoic and composed, then they're home and dry. The supplicants return home as happy men, confident that their wishes have been granted.

The rest of the day is taken up by religious services, which take place in the secrecy of her inner chambers. In her free time, of which she has little, she can play with a few selected playmates indoors, away from sunlight, in rooms hung with curtains. Otherwise, she is left alone.

Cocooned in her palace, however, and living a cotton-wool existence, the Kumari's reign is still not secured. She cannot risk a fall or a cut, for even a drop of blood oozing out of a scratch would drive Taleju's spirit away. Her attendants are briefed to watch constantly for signs of illnesses -- especially small pox -- and the palace priests will delay a doctor call as long as possible, for medical check-ups tantamount to a disqualification.

But the D-Day has to arrive, one way or another, and as the reigning Kumari approaches the age of 12, the board of selectors reactivates their child-hunting network. At the first sign of menstrual blood, it's the end of the road for the present Kumari -- her days of power are gone, the spirit of Taleju has fled her body, and all that's left to do is take her back where she had come from.

This fall from grace has never been smooth, and modern thinkers suggest a sort of half-way house where ex-Kumaris can adjust to the drastic change in their circumstances. Most come away wondering why they are being penalized, and find it tough to settle down in a house where they no longer belong, with a family they hardly know.

`As soon as I began to menstruate, there was a huge flutter in the palace, and I thought I had done something very wrong,' remembers Anita Shakya, whose Kumarihood lasted 6 years. `The priests went into a huddle and then informed me I was no longer a goddess and that I had to go back to my parents. I could not understand what was happening. I did not want to go. I was very sad.'

Parents too have little use for a daughter who may as well have dropped into the household from another planet -- with no social skills, no experience of domesticity, no education, no prospects of catching a husband.

`After all these years, I still cannot cross the road by myself,' says Anita. `I cannot relate to crowds, I shut myself out at family gatherings as I find I have nothing to say. The only time I feel some measure of security is when I'm alone. I've grown accustomed to silence.'

It's as if the days of imprisonment for Anita and her ilk will never really be over. The walls of the Kumari palace are replaced by a vast emotional wasteland and there are no doors this time, which will release them after they have served their time.

Cases like 85-year-old Hira Shakya's -- who got another shot at life -- are far and few. Banished early from the Kumari palace after an almost fatal bout of smallpox, Hira's parents had managed to find a husband for her from a community of craftsmen. And the eldest among Nepal's surviving Kumaris has spent 70 years in happy conjugal bliss with a man who braved Taleju's curse and is still alive to talk about it. `The prophecy that I would die early never bothered me because I loved Hira very much. Her reign was short, which is why she could come out without any emotional scars,' declared her husband, 87-year-old Pratyaknanda. `But I'm proud of the fact that my wife is a former Kumari. Every year, during the Indra Jatra festival, Hira becomes wistful as she remembers herself riding the Kumari chariot in a blaze of glory through the streets of Kathmandu.'

As many children have after her and many more will, so long as financial constraints are an overriding factor in the poverty-stricken Shakya community, where parents willingly hand up their daughters at the prospect of a less mouth to feed. And the superstition that `without them, the country is lost' still retains its death grip on Nepal's Hindu-Buddhist society.

`The Kumari tradition adds to Nepal's image as a land of mystery,' explained a Nepalese tour guide from his commercial point of view. `Foreigners see photographs of living goddesses on brochures, magazines and postcards. They are the most popular symbol of the country: our unique selling point.'

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