The Kumari traditions showcase Nepal’s assimilation of multiple religious ideologies into one.
There are very few places around the globe that boast a living goddess that residents and travelers alike can visit. When you come to Kathmandu Durbar Square, stop by the Kumari Bahal / Kumari Chowk to rest your eyes on a real life goddess. Hindus worship the goddess they call the Kumari because they believe she is Parvati, the consort of Shiva, reincarnated into a young girl. This tradition has lasted more than two centuries here.
From the medieval period, the Kumari cult became more common in 1757 when the final Mall king, Jaya Prakash, built the Kumari Chowk still in use today. Legends from those days tell a tale of unbidden lust from Jaya Prakash to Taleju. She found his feelings offensive. Distraught over this, Jaya Prakash sought to make amends most fervently. The goddess at last gave up her anger and agreed to her reincarnation as a Newar virgin thereafter. The king began the practice of the Kumari marking a tika on the next year’s ruler’s forehead during the Indra Jaatra festival held yearly.
Although Hindu in origin, the girl chosen to be the living embodiment of the Kumari always comes from the Buddhist Shakya clan, which consists of silver and goldsmiths. The method used to choose the girl mirrors that which is used to find reincarnated lamas in Tibet. Girls of three to five-years-old are asked questions by spiritual elders. Until 2008, their horoscopes must be identical to the king, though these guidelines were loosened recently as the monarchy is done.
Their physical appearance must also conform to a set of traditional guidelines, namely: black or blue eyes, hair with right-turning curls, cow-like eye lashes, sparrow-like voices, deer-like thighs, and more. In total, the girl chosen to be the next goddess has 32 criteria they must meet. These days, the examination is little more than a doctor’s wellness check every child gets anyway for their health.
Besides health, physical appearance, and horoscopes, the Kumari potential must show she is brave and calm in the face of potentially frightening things. In the dark center of the Taleju Temple in Kalrati, the girl is presented with cut off goat and buffalo heads. These symbols of old Dasain sacrifices are used to prove that the new Kumari is imbued with the calm bravery of Durga, a particularly fierce goddess. If she passes, she undergoes a secret ritual in which the spirit of Taleju is said to take over her body.
The young girl who becomes the next Kumari ceases to live her everyday life at this point. Instead, she is sequesterd in the Kumari Bahal temple, waited on by servants, bathed and dressed every day in ceremonial garb, and adorned with kohl makeup and a third eye chakra design. The red outfit is quite elaborate and beautiful and includes ritualistic jewelry and accessories as well.
Once the living goddess is in place in the temple, she undertakes important religious traditions. The Taleju high priest comes every day to worship the goddess. Also, members of the public who follow her do Kumari puja at an audience with her. This ritual is for improved luck and financial wealth. Other people that come to worship her regular include government officials and women struggling with children, fertility, or menstrual issues. How the Kumari acts during one of these puja times foretells the future of Nepal. Restlessness or even fidgeting may indicate negative things to come.
Other duties include appearing for short intervals in a window so people can see and worship her, attending festivals outside the temple walls, and being pulled through the streets in a chariot for the three-day Kumari Jatra festival. Whenever she leaves the temple, she is carried aloft because the goddess’s feet must never touch the earth. This gives people in other areas of Kathmandu the opportunity to see and worship the goddess. The Kumari also bestows blessings on them from her conveyance pulled by strong men.
Although the Kumari’s official responsibilities are vitally important to the area, she still has time to lead a mostly normal life. Temple cooks bring her good food, she attends lessons within the temple, and gets to play with her attendants’ children. It is considered a great honor to be chosen as the next Kumari, but it does not last more than several years. As soon as the girl begins menstruating or bleeds from a wound, she is retired and replaced. This is due to the belief that the goddess Taleju leaves the body through the blood.
Problems occasionally arise when this transfer is supposed to occur. A Kumari put in place in 1950s Patan remained as the goddess until the 1990s. Her insistence that she never menstruated or sustained any bleeding injury was finally challenged by the temple priests. By that time she was in her mid-forties and much too large for the chariot and other seating and conveyances the Kumari usually used. Upon examination, the priests identified a potential source of blood: a tiny scratch long healed. Amid arguments and dissatisfaction, the priests retired the woman and found a new Kumari child. Many supporters of the former living goddess remained steadfast in their assertion that she, and only she, was the embodiment of the goddess Taleju. They visit the woman’s house in Haka Bahal rather than go to the traditional temple.
Regularly retired Kumaris rejoin society amid honors, but not without some difficulty. Their educational level is on par with their peers, but social issues sometimes occur. The temple provides the girls with their dowry for future marriage. Tradition states, however, that marrying a former living goddess brings bad luck and early death. Fortunately for the men who have married all the former Kumaris, this legend appears quite false. None have died at a young age or found exceptionally poor luck.
The Kumari cult spreads beyond the borders of Kathmandu. Other Kumaris exist in Bhaktapur and Patan, though the Kathmandu one is generally held as more important.
If you wish to learn more about the life of a Kumari, consider the book “From Goddess to Mortal” by Rashmila Shakya and Scott Berry published in 2005. Rashmila herself was a Kumari from 1984 to 1991.