The year was 2005, I was visiting my Aama who lived in Kathmandu, the city of temples. It was the beginning of Autumn and the time for one of the most impressive and revered festivals of the Newar community of the Kathmandu Valley. Hundreds of devotees assembled at the Palace Square and other temples in the vicinity. I held on to my mother’s hand as she led me through the crowd to get a better view of the Kumari. The Kumari, a young girl of six, was clad in luxurious clothes and carried on a golden palanquin, surrounded by masked dancers known as the Lakhay. The crowds of devotees waited expectantly, desperate to get a glimpse of the Goddess, wishing that she would look down at them and bestow them with good fortune.
A century-old tradition, that the people of Nepal believe, endows them with harmony, faith, and strength in times of adversity. As for how the story goes, Goddess Taleju agreed to appear in the body of a virgin girl to bless the people of Nepal with prosperity and hence, the veneration was established. Worshipped by the politicians and the president himself, the Kumari receives royal treatment from the nation. Few people are fortunate enough to visit Kumari in her chambers, where she sits upon a gilded iron throne. Kumari is assumed to have healing powers over illness and disorders. While she receives her visitor, her actions are closely watched and interpreted as the prognostication of the oracle. Kumari is believed to be the manifestation of Goddess, that symbolises power and protection of the country. Revered by Hindus and Buddhists alike, a Kumari is a prepubescent girl chosen from the Shakya caste or Bajracharya clan of the Nepalese Newari community. The Goddess Taleju is said to have conceived the entire cosmos from her womb, and hence is thought to have resided in both animate and inanimate objects. Worship of a human being over the worship of inanimate objects represents reverence and recognition of supreme in conscious beings. It is said that Kumari is chosen to understand the power of divinity in every human being, especially females.
The selection process of the Kumari is not any less than an orthodox one. A Kumari must be a virgin, in exceptional health. She should have never shed blood, neither should she be afflicted by any disease, disfigurements or wounds. Once nominated, she is rigorously examined for “Battis Lakshan” 32-body perfections. The young girl is put through a series of austere tests, to ensure that she indeed has the qualities of the Goddess. In the final test, known as the Kalratri, the young girl must spend a night alone in a courtyard, where numerous heads of dead animals are arranged around her. If she demonstrates courage and fearlessness in such an environment, then she becomes the next Kumari of Nepal. Thereafter she receives the royal treatment, as she is always carried on a chariot and her foot is never set on the ground. When the girl begins her first menstruation cycle, she is replaced by her successor as it is believed that the goddess has relinquished the body. While the life of a Kumari might be royal and regal, this transition back to a normal child is the most difficult part.
A Kumari is just a child, isolated from her parents at a very young age. Her parents have to earn visitation rights, 13 times a year if they are fortunate. She is placed in confinement, in an old palace with meagre lightning. Previous Kumaris did not receive any education, as they were considered as omniscient. This made it particularly challenging for them when they ultimately transitioned back to a normal child without the royal titles. After strict criticisms, the Kumari now gets access to the internet and a private tutor. Some ex-Kumaris describe the transition as difficult, as they learn to become independent or take criticism of their work. Human Rights and Child Rights Activists have strongly condemned this ritual, as they believe it is an exploitation of the child in the name of the culture. While the Kumaris get a pension from the municipality and the government every year, it is hardly enough to restore the childhood that she lost.