A living goddess
In Europe, little girls dream of becoming a princess. In Nepal, little Newari girls dream of becoming a living goddess. This wish is not quite as unlikely to be fulfilled as it sounds: Many towns in the Kathmandu valley have a Kumari, their own living goddess.
In the above image you can see the house (Kumari Ghar) of the Kathmandu Kumari, you can visit yourself and catch a glimpse of the living goddess on most of our Nepal holidays.
The chosen one
This goddess is traditionally a pre-pubescent girl. The Kumari is seen as the reincarnation of the goddess Taleju (also Durga). The girl is not allowed to lose any blood – technically any cut, abrasion or lost tooth would mean an end to her existence as living goddess – however, these days the girls are usually kept on until their first menstruation or the age of 12 (when it is expected, that menstruation will set in soon). When a new Kumari is chosen, horoscopes of 3-5 year old Newari girls from the Shakya caste are collected, and a girl is chosen. In a personal examination, the girl has to pass a test of physical attributes, like having a body like a banyan tree and eyelashes of a cow.
A day in the life
The most important Kumari is the Kumari of Kathmandu. When Nepal was still a monarchy the king received a blessing from the Kumari once a year – if she refused the blessing, this would have meant the end of his rule. The Kumari is worshipped by both, Hindus and Nepalese Buddhists. A regular day for the Kumari of Kathmandu involves giving the tika (blessing) to hundreds of believers. In return, she will receive sacrifices in the form of money, food, sweets or even toys. No one is allowed to order or correct the Kumari, but she is just expected to behave like a goddess. The fact, that the Kumari cannot be corrected makes school education for her rather tricky, but nowadays Kumaris do receive education, either at public schools or through private tutors.
There are many things a Kumari is not allowed to do. She has to keep a strict diet, for example chicken eggs are not allowed for her – anything offered to the Kumari has to be prepared with duck eggs instead. The Kumari has to be fearless and is not allowed to cry or smile – at least not publicly, in front of anyone who is not living with her. Her feet are not allowed to touch the ground… this rule, however, does not apply in the house she lives in, after all, how would you stop a little girl from running around? The girl is not allowed to wear anything but red, and does not wear shoes at any time. She is also not allowed to talk to anyone who is not member of her immediate staff or living with her.
During the most important Hindu festival, Dashain, 108 buffaloes and goats are sacrificed for the goddess Kali – in front of the Kumari’s eyes. Later she has to walk between the heads of the dead animals without showing any signs of fear. Other days of the festival are the only days the Kumari will leave her residence and parade through the streets of Kathmandu, carried in a golden palanquin. Catching a glimpse of the Kumari is believed to bring good fortune – no one except for the king is allowed to look into her eyes though.
Life after being a goddess
Reintegrating the Kumari – especially the Kumari of Kathmandu – into society is challenging. They have to learn to take on daily chores and socialize with other people. They have to get used to wearing shoes and dealing with traffic. Often they have a lot to catch up in school, if their private tutoring did not prepare them adequately. In former times, there was a superstition that marrying a Kumari was unlucky, and the husband was expected to die soon after. However, most past Kumaris are married today, although later than the average woman in Nepal. What is seldom understood in the Western world is that all Kumaris of Kathmandu who were interviewed about their life as Kumari later on, describe their childhood as exceptionally great.