Nepal is rich in cultural heritage and practices. There are so many customs and religious practices which are practiced until today that dates back to the medieval period. The practice of Kumari paratha or living goddess of Nepal dates back to the time to Malla regime, circa 15th century. Legend has it that Jayaprakash Malla, Malla king of Kathmandu used to play cards with goddess “Taleju”, patron goddess of Malla kings in his palace and one night when he tried to seduce her, goddess got angry and vowed to never come back to palace. The king begged mercy and pleaded her to return while the Taljeu replied to him that she would reside inside the body of virgin girls from Newar Shakya and Bajracharya clan, indigenous Buddhists of Kathmandu. Since then, small girls of those communities have been serving as Kumari or living goddess.
But when Yaksha Malla died and his country was divided into three kingdoms for his sons, Taleju temples were built in Bhaktapur and Patan and so were the Kumari House. Today there are three Kumari Bahal (Kumari House) in three districts of the valley: Kathmandu, Bhaktapur, and Lalitpur where living goddess resides until her mensuration when she loses the privilege to remain the goddess.
This article will shed a light on various aspects of this cultural practice like the selection of a Kumari, her treatment inside kumari house, her cultural significance, religious part of the practice, her education, and post-Kumari life.
Selection of a Kumari:
Kumari is selected from Shakya or Bhajracharya clan of Newar, both of which follow Buddhism. She should be a young prepubescent girl without any health concerns. Some basic physical requirements are black eyes and hair, slender body almost like a banayan, unbroken twenty sets of teeth, and eyelashes similar to a cow. Additionally, she should contain thirty-two virtues present in Hindu culture.
While many girls are selected at first, they undergo a major selection process during the eight-night of Dashain( Kalratri) where they are kept on a room while priests sacrifice the goats and buffalo. During the night, the girl who shows no fear and preserves the mental calmness is chosen as the next Kumari.
Life inside Kumari house:
Kumari resides inside Kumari Bahal, a special house built for her where she is taken care of by the appointed guardians. They look after her upbringing, education, and various aspects. Though she is barred to come outside of her house, she has a privilege to talk with her family and a close circle of friends. In Kathmandu, Kumari Bahal is located in Basantapur while there are separate ones in Lalitpur and Bhaktapur too.
Kumari is regarded as the embodiment of young goddess Durga (Taleju Bhawani), so it is said that she and priests talk about the divine matter and she is the channel to divinity. Merely a girl of tender age, she is regarded as the living goddess and is taken care of accordingly. She is not allowed to set foot on the ground except for her home. That’s why she is carried on a chariot during the major festivals (almost 13 times a year) that occur in Valley.
Kumari holds a significant place in the cultural sphere of the Kathmandu valley. She is worshipped by both the Hindu and Buddhists population as she is a Hindu goddess from a Buddhist family. Her cultural significance can be observed by the acceptance of Shah dynasty even after conquering the valley from ruling Mallas. Since then every King would seek advice from Kumari during different occasions until last Shah king Gyanendra.
Besides king, commoners can pay a visit to Kumari at her home to seek her blessings and advice. During the major festivals in Kathmandu valley, a chariot carrying Kumari is circled around along with the chariot of other gods where she offers red tike to the believers and observes the festival. During her outings and special occasions, she is adorned with ornaments and a painting of intricate design which includes a third eye on her forehead.
The religious aspect of the practice:
During the Malla period, people of Kathmandu were mostly Buddhists while still following the major goddess of Hinduism. However, the practice of Kumari makes Nepal a melting pot of Hinduism and Buddhism. Just like Changunurayan and Muktinath, Kumari is revered equally by the believers of both religions. She is chosen from a Buddhist family as an embodiment of a Hindu goddess, which is very unique in itself. Also, the living goddess of Nepal or Kumari remains a confidant to the priest regarding the rituals and practices of the temple.
Till the start of the twentieth century, Kumariwas barred from modern education. But after the Supreme Court verdict in 2008, all three Kumari are homeschooled and are given access to modern tools of studying. She is provided a private tutor who is selected by priests and she is responsible for her day to day HomeWorks and performance.
As you can see from the texts above, Kumari tradition has a deep connection in the livelihood of people of Kathmandu since centuries just like Catholic has with the Vatican. In recent years though, the majority of western media has taken interest in this tradition. Some have disregarded it as a stone-age tradition while some people on the internet has gone far enough to call it torture for young girls. Is it really a backward practice? Does it really sound like a religion’s interference to life?
Well, the answer to the question is not the simple one. It can be argued that in the name of religion, a child is taken from her family and is barred from the outside world. This is the popular view in the libertarian western school of thought. Even though it’s not true and she is allowed to meet her parents and close friends, Kumari is highly regarded by the locals and even the powerful person of the country. In addition, there has been no harm provided to the Kumari during her stay. One of the ex-Kumari Chanira Bajracharya told NPR in 2015 that she was treated like a queen while she was living inside the Kumari house.
Yes, it must be hard for the Living goddess to realize she is no more a goddess after she starts her menstrual cycle and her feet aren’t touched by devotees like it used to once. It must be even harder to come out among the mortals and fast-paced digital society. Secluded at an early age, she might find it hard to make friends in school and find herself normal again but it’s not impossible. It can further be argued that she was subjected to the religious dogmas she didn’t know while she was still a mere child but at the same time, she might be having the best life she’ll forever cherish and remember.