Cultures all over the world have many interesting and unique traditions. Nepal was no different. Probably the most unique of these customs is one I would wager 99% of the globe’s population outside the city of Kathmandu has never even heard before. That, my friends, is of the Kumari.
The Kumari, or Kumari Devi (meaning virgin), is a young girl chosen between the ages of 3 and 5 who undergoes a series of qualifying tests. If you’re familiar with the caste system in the Hindu religion, the girl must be selected from the Shakya clan (ironically a Buddhist sect; the lines between faiths blur in India and Nepal) within the Newari community (traditionally a family lineage containing jewelers and Buddhist monks, including the famous historical Buddha, Prince Siddhartha). You may be scratching your head at this point. What is this little girl chosen for?
Her purpose is to fulfill a legend and become the vessel of a living goddess; and there is actually more than one (Patan and Bhaktapur have their own, but Kathmandu’s is the official Royal Kumari). She is believed to be the incarnation of Taleju Bhavani, or Durga, who is the Hindu goddess of victory of good over evil. Although this practice is relatively recent, the tradition of virgin worship in Nepal dates back over 2,000 years (about the same in Christendom too – Virgin Mary ringing any bells?).
The tale goes like this…
The last Nepalese king of the Malla Dynasty (12th-17th century), a man named Jayaprakash, apparently met with the goddess Taleju nightly over a game of dice (or chess) and to discuss matters of state and ask her for advice. Her only condition: he refrain from telling anybody at all about these meetings, including his wife, the queen. One night, the king’s wife – who had been growing increasingly suspicious of her husband’s behavior – followed him to his rendezvous with the goddess with the hope of outing his infidelity. Instead, she only succeeded in angering the goddess, who ‘broke up’ with the king. She left him with the instructions that if he ever wanted to see her again, he needed to look for her reincarnation as a little girl. To make his amends, the king left the palace to search for the one who possessed the goddess’ spirit.
And the seemingly pointless tradition of the Kumari began.
Once the Kumari is hand-picked (based on 32 perfections of a goddess including a ‘body like a banyan tree’, ‘thighs like a deer’, and ‘a voice as clear as a duck’), she is whisked away to live in seclusion, at the Kumari Ghar or Che (a house on the edge of Durbar Square in Kathmandu), until reaching puberty. Additionally, she must prove herself calm in the face of fear and have never participated in any of the customary Nepali ceremonies of pre-pubescent marriage (like to a piece of fruit, called the ihi). When puberty officially hits, the girl is dethroned and the search for a new Kumari begins. The 12 or 13 year old ex-goddess is returned to her family. But what does this living goddess do while serving her country (previously her king) and her faith? What are her responsibilities? And why does this practice even exist to begin with?
With a position primarily ceremonial, the girl is only allowed out of her domicile for festivals and visits to the palace (only a short jaunt across the chowk or street, her feet cannot touch the ground so she’s carried around on a palanquin) to advise the king (although with the demise of the Nepalese monarchy in 2008, palace sojourns have all but been abolished). The living goddess always wears red and has a third eye painted on her forehead as a symbol of her special powers of perception.
Most of the time, her life isn’t glamourous at all. She’s given friends to play with, but they’re typically the offspring of her caretakers (mainly aunts, uncles, and cousins of her caste) and are 100% deferential to her needs, wants, and whims. Basically, she snaps her fingers and they say ‘sure’. Believers petition for the opportunity to visit her, kiss her feet, and ask for her blessings. Most seem to be mothers with sick children (and journalists). She’s also joined once daily by a priest who worships her (called the Puja) as the goddess she’s supposed to be (or just represent).
Her most outwardly visible duties happen twice daily. She appears in her third story window – overlooking her inner courtyard – for only about 10-30 seconds (once usually between 9am-noon and again between 4pm-6pm). Jen and I were very fortunate to have stumbled into the Kumari Ghar just as she was preparing to stare stoically down to the meager gathering of on-lookers and tourists (they’re not allowed to smile or cry). Her ‘power’ is perceived to be so strong that to glimpse her face will bring the viewer good fortune for life. Heh, heh, heh…
All this good luck must have a balance, right? The gossip ‘round the campfire is that the men who marry ex-Kumaris are cursed. Some have suddenly died; weird and inexplicable circumstances surround these deaths. However, this writer believes the bad luck has less to do with lifespan and more to do with the fact that these men have voluntarily chosen to wed the most stuck-up, rotten girls on the planet (the Kumari never has to lift a single finger to take care of her material or physical needs – heck, I’m not even sure they wipe their own asses). You’ve heard the term spoiled princess? Well this could be even worse: spoiled goddess. Think about it (it isn’t their fault, but still…).
In the past, the Kumari received little to no education or socialization (goddesses already know everything, right?), condemning the girls to lives of ineptitude. Due to the efforts of some of the contemporary, living ex-Kumaris, the Nepali government has enacted both educational tutoring programs for the Kumari while they serve, as well as a monthly stipend, or pension plan, upon completion of their term. The most recent few retired Kumaris have experienced little to no hiccup during the reintroduction back into society (Rashmila Shakya, who held the position between 1984-1991, even obtained a college degree in software engineering and wrote her memoirs… plus she’s actually very well-adjusted).
I can see you’re still asking why. The truth is that this is merely a Nepali tradition; little more than a cultural sideshow and tourist attraction. If you truly believe a young pre-pubescent girl can be the living reincarnation of a Hindu goddess, then sure – there’s your purpose. If not, however, I’m at a loss of words for you. It all seems pretty ridiculous to me. I hope, as does Jen, that our good luck in gazing upon the goddess for a few brief seconds lasts for years to come.
Until Next Time…