The Living Goddesses
In Nepal, a Kumari is a prepubescent girl selected from the Shakya clan of the Nepalese Newari Buddhist community. The Kumari is revered and worshiped by some of the country's Hindus too. While there are several Kumaris throughout Nepal, with some cities having several, the best known is the Royal Kumari of Kathmandu, and she lives in the Kumari Ghar, a palace in the center of the city. The selection process for her is especially rigorous. As of 2017, the Royal Kumari of Kathmandu is Trishna Shakya, aged three, installed in September 2017. Unika Bajracharya, selected in April 2014 as the Kumari of Patan, is the second most important living goddess.
The Living Goddesses
In the Shakta text Devi Mahatmyam, or Chandi, the goddess is said to have declared that she resides in all female living beings in this universe. The entire ritual of Kumari is based on this verse. But while worshipping a goddess, only a young girl is chosen over a mature woman because of their inherent purity and chastity.
Whilst the veneration of a living Kumari in Nepal is relatively recent, dating only from the 17th century, the tradition of Kumari-Puja, or virgin worship, has been around for much longer. There is evidence of virgin worship taking place in Nepal for more than 2,300 years. It appears to have taken hold in Nepal in the 6th century. There is written evidence describing the selection, ornamentation, and worship of the Kumari dating from the 13th century CE.
A third variation of the legend says that during the reign of King Jayaprakash Malla, a young girl was banished from the city because it was feared that she was possessed by the goddess Durga. When the queen learned of the young girl's fate, she became enraged and insisted that the king fetch the girl and install her as the living incarnation of Durga.
Once the priests have chosen a candidate, she must undergo yet more rigorous tests to ensure that she indeed possesses the qualities necessary to be the living vessel of Durga. Her greatest test comes during the Hindu festival of Dashain, also known as Vijaya Dashami. On the Kalaratri, or "black night", 108 buffaloes and goats are sacrificed to the goddess Kali. The young candidate is taken into the Taleju temple and released into the courtyard, where the severed heads of the animals are illuminated by candlelight and masked men are dancing about. If the candidate truly possesses the qualities of Taleju, she shows no fear during this experience. If she does, another candidate is brought in to attempt the same thing.
In the next test, the living goddess must spend a night alone in a room among the heads of ritually slaughtered goats and buffaloes without showing fear. The fearless candidate has proven that she has the serenity and the fearlessness that typifies the goddess who is to inhabit her. After passing all other tests, the final test is that she must be able to pick out the personal belongings of the previous Kumari from an assortment of things laid out before her. If she is able to do so, there is no remaining doubt that she is the chosen one.
But the transition to ordinary life "was tough." And Bajracharya says she would like to smooth the journey for the next generation of living goddesses, who must one day return to the humdrum world of humans.
Unika is a Nepali from the Newar ethnic group. She lives in Patan, officially known as Lalitpur, a city of 230,000 people of mainly Buddhist influence in the fertile Kathmandu Valley, in the foothills of the Himalaya. The Newars pride themselves on being the custodians of culture in the valley, and an agelong cornerstone of their culture is the worship of little girls as living goddesses.
But life is different these days for Rashmila Shakya, the former living goddess, Kumari. She no longer has to pass ritual tests or be inspected for 32 specific attributes of physical beauty. Today, she is a software engineer. And the transition back to daily life for the girls who spent their childhoods as the living goddess Kumari is difficult, she says.
Kumari means virgin in Sanskrit. The ancient tradition entails worshipping young girls, who are regarded as the incarnation of a goddess until puberty, after which it is believed that the goddess relinquishes her body. During their time as goddesses, Kumaris in several cities in Nepal wear red, pin up their hair in topknots, and have a "third eye" painted on their foreheads. The Kumari of Kathmandu is known as the Royal Kumari. The Maoist Republic installed the current Royal Kumari in October 2008, after the monarchy was unseated in May of that year. Matina Shakya, the daughter of a watch repairman, became the Royal Kumari at the age of 3.
While several former Kumaris continue to lament the lack of education they received during their reign as living goddesses, a Supreme Court ruling in 2005 has guaranteed the new Kumaris access to education. Still, former Kumaris say the transition back to normal life, including finding love, is difficult.
Rashmila Shakya, who was the living goddess of Nepal, popularly known as the Kumari, from 1984 to 1992, is 29 today. Like the many Kumari before her, she lost her divine status when she reached puberty and menstruated for the first time. She says she remembers her Kumari days as beautiful. But the transition from being living goddess to just another girl was emotionally challenging.
Shakya says when she returned to her parents home after eight years of living in the Kumari Ghar of Kathmandu, the house where the living goddesses have been kept for centuries, she used to wake in the middle of the night and insist that her parents take her back.
Lawyer Pun Devi Maharjan was the one to finally file a formal court case to try to increase the rights for the living goddesses. She filed a case at the apex court in May 2005, on the grounds that girls selected as Kumaris face exploitation and psychological damage.
After the court ruling, Preeti, the Kumari at the time, began receiving education in the Kumari Ghar. She was the first Kumari to receive a formal education during her time as living goddess. She was even allowed to sit for her exams. She was removed from the Kumari Ghar in 2008.
The government continues to provide a pension of 6,000 rupees, $86 USD per month to the current living goddesses, and retired goddesses receive 3,600 rupees, $52 USD, a substantial sum. The Kumaris also receive a wedding stipend of 50,000 rupees, $725 USD.
Despite the advances in education for the living goddesses, many say that the Kumari tradition is still a violation of rights. "Such a tradition still violates the country's laws on child rights," says Ram Bandhu Sharma, a lawyer who is well known locally. "The Interim Constitution of Nepal guarantees the right to education of children," he says. "Kumaris who are replaced by new girls after they enter [puberty] often struggle to readjust to normal lives after they return home."
What happens to a Kumari after her dismissal is also a matter of conjecture. Former Living Goddesses are said to be extremely dangerous and capable of wreaking bloody accidents wherever they go. No one would ever want to marry an ex-Kumari, Nepalis told us. Snakes slither out of her vagina, threatening to emasculate any man foolish enough to try to deflower her. Some, on the other hand, insisted that sex is the only way these degraded goddesses can earn a living and claimed that ex-Kumaris are trafficked, along with thousands of other girls from Nepal, to brothels in Mumbai or Bangkok.
In Kathmandu, we discovered, all the stories of the past are suffused with myth, and legends run circles around historical facts. To Nepalis this is natural, as if facts alone cannot reveal all the hidden meanings and deeper relevances. Myths are living things, stories to live by. As familiar as close friends, they permeate dreams and waking thoughts, evoking comparisons. Reminiscences and coincidences tumble about, instructive reminders that the present dances hypnotically to the rhythms of the past.
There are two distinct halves to Living Goddesses: the first, in which Gimbutas examines physical and social evidence supporting her belief in extensive Neolithic goddess worship, and the second, wherein she traces the development of goddess worship in several Neolithic and Indo-European cultures, linking the goddesses to what modern aspects of them yet remain.
Gimbutas touches on a wide spectrum of physical evidence that lends credence to her belief that goddess worship was prevalent in Neolithic cultures, not all of which follows convention, but certainly seems plausible as presented. She first discusses images (both two- and three-dimensional) frequently found at Neolithic sites, of goddesses and associated animals, especially the goddess in her generative (bear, goat, fish) or death (snake, bird) aspects. Associated with the images are particular symbols, such as eggs, labyrinths or triangles, which can also be associated with birth and death.
A Kumari smiles as she is being prepared for the "Indrajatra" festival in Nepali capital Kathmandu in this file photo from September 6, 2006. A 10-year-old Nepali girl worshipped as a living goddess has lost her "divine" status for defying tradition and visiting the United States. REUTERS/Gopal Chitrakar
Nepal, situated between China and India, is a small country steeped in legends and myths. It was the crossroads for the salt and silk routes, connecting East and West. A beautiful, awe-inspiring land, Nepal is the birthplace of Buddha and home to the Kumari: the living goddesses who are unique to this country.
These little girls are worshipped as goddesses for a few years. Sometimes they are chosen as soon as their first milk teeth appear and remain Kumari until they reach puberty, which is considered to be when they first start to menstruate. They are then suddenly thrust back into ordinary society; it is common for them to suffer from serious psychological and physical after-effects following the experience. 041b061a72