Kumari, Nepal's "living goddess"

by AFP/Deepesh Shrestha, Sep 9, 2009 | Destinations: Nepal / Kathmandu

As a child, she was worshipped as a "living goddess" in Nepal after she proved her bravery in an ancient ritual by not crying at the sight of a sacrificed buffalo.

But now Rashmila Shakya, 29, meets friends in cafes, listens to Bollywood music -- and is building a promising career as a computer software developer.

Last year, Shakya became the first former "Kumari" goddess to graduate from college in Nepal, where the centuries-old practice of worshipping a young female as a deity survives.

The girls -- chosen from a single ethnic group native to the Kathmandu Valley -- spend their childhood living in isolation in a small palace, emerging only for feast days when they are paraded through the capital to be worshipped.

The selection criteria are strict. Priests say that to become a Kumari, a girl must have an unblemished body, a chest like a lion and thighs like a deer.

Even if they fulfil all the physical requirements, aspiring Kumaris must prove they can sit in a room with a buffalo carcass without crying as a test of their bravery.

Shakya, who was selected aged just four and spent eight years living in the Kumari's palace in central Kathmandu, said that being a goddess was a lonely childhood.

"Every morning I would be worshipped by Hindu priests and during the day I used to play with the dolls that the devotees brought for me," she told AFP in an interview at her family's modest home in Kathmandu.

"There was a special kitchen where food was prepared specially for me and I had to eat alone.

"Sometimes my caretakers would allow me to sit in front of the window and watch people, but it felt strange to look at the people and cars going by."

Shakya was only ever seen in public in heavy make-up and full ceremonial dress, but now she favours simple Nepalese tunics and trousers.

Her favourite time of year was the annual Indra Jatra festival, when thousands of spectators crowd into the capital's Durbar Square to watch the Kumari as she is paraded around the streets of Kathmandu in her chariot.

Such scenes are a far cry from Shakya's new career with an IT company, and she admits that the transition to ordinary life has not been easy.

"I was not prepared to live a normal life as I had grown up in a different environment," she said. "Before, I was a goddess and everyone worshipped me and treated me with respect.

"Living in society has been difficult, but I am getting used to it. My education and work experience have taught me how to deal with people."

Once the girls reach puberty, they are considered ritually unclean and a new Kumari is selected.

But they often struggle to adapt to life at home, and to catch up on the years of education they have missed.

Many never marry, possibly due the superstition that their husbands will die prematurely, and Shakya said she is currently single.

But she would like to marry one day, and admitted she now has mixed feelings about her past, preferring not to tell clients and colleagues she is a former Kumari for fear they would treat her differently.

"I like it when people don't recognise me as a former goddess because I have found that people's behaviour changes when they know about my past," she said.

"Sometimes the people that I meet through work greet me with respect. It makes me a bit uneasy, but at the same time I am happy that people still recognise me."

Three towns in the Kathmandu Valley follow the custom of having a Kumari, but the one in the capital is considered the most powerful and has the closest links to Nepal's deposed monarch.

Former king Gyanendra and his ancestors would seek annual blessings from the Kumari. Since the abolition of the monarchy, the tradition has been continued by the Nepalese president.

But as the country modernises, there have been calls to end a practice some view as inhumane and outdated.

The Supreme Court ruled last year that the girls should be educated and they are now taught inside the palace where they live and have special dispensation to sit their exams there.

Shakya, for one, does not believe the tradition should be abolished. She said the Kumari help maintain religious harmony in Nepal, where they are worshipped by both Buddhists and Hindus.

"The tradition needs to reformed, but it should not be ended," she said. "Kumari should be given scholarships to attend college, and the government must find a way of preparing the child for normal life."

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