Kathmandu’s Durbur Square, the traditional heart of the old town, offers a dizzying number of gods, goddess and deities on display. Intermingled between the Buddhism and Hinduism symbolism is one of the most fascinating, and somewhat mysterious aspects of Hindu worship, a living goddess know as the Kumari. A young prepubescent girl is elevated to the level of the living incarnation of the Hindu goddess, Teleju the Nepalese word for Durga, the multi arm slayer of demons. Kumari is from the Sanskrit word kaumarya meaning virgin.
The selection of the Kumari is an elaborate ordeal, a young girl between the ages of 2 and 4 is chosen from the Buddhist Newar Shakya caste (Siddhartha who later became Buddha was from this caste of silver and goldsmiths). The child must be free of diseases and have never had an injury that led to bleeding. After passing these two initial tests they move to the “thirty two perfections” portion of the selection process. Color of the eyes, shape of the teeth, and her horoscope which was originally coordinated with the kings horoscope to insure harmony. As a living goddess, the Kumari is higher than the king. Neck like a conch shell, eyelashes like a cow, and a voice that is clear and soft like a duck are among the other beauty traits in the selection process.
After the beauty selection the child is ushered into a dark room filled with decapitated buffalo and goat heads from a recent sacrifice ritual. Dancers with evil looking masks dance around the child while terrifying noises are being made. If the child is the incarnation of Durga, the demon slayer, she will not display fear. After proving her bravery she is shown a selection of clothing and items from the previous Kumari and she must select the ones from her predecessor in a process similar to the selection of the Dali Lama.
A sacred rite is performed at the temple after which she walks across a white cloth to the Kumari Ghar to assume her throne. This is the last time she will walk, until she loses her goddess status, she will be carried everywhere since the Kumari’s feet and body are now considered sacred. From then on she will always be dressed in red and have an agni chakchuu or “fire eye” painted on her forehead.
stark contrast to her previous life, she has extensive ceremonial duties to preform. She receives her devotees in her chambers upon a gilded lion throne. Upon arrival she offers her feet to touch or kiss. Her every move is interpreted as a prediction rubbing her eyes or crying is viewed as impending death while laughter could mean serious illness, if she picks at the offerings it means financial loss. Remaining silent is the sign that all will be well. Even the former kings of Nepal would make an annual pilgrimage for her blessing and bow before her
Foreigners are usually not permitted an audience with the Kumari, but occasionally she makes brief appearances at a window of the Kumari Chowk or courtyard, much to the delight of locals and tourist alike as it is a sign of good fortune.
The position of Kumari lasts until her first menstrual cycle or if she is injured in a manner that causes blood loss, at that time, a search for a new Kumari begins. She is the most powerful of ten Kumaris in Nepal. In India, Kumaris are selected in the same manner but usually only remain a Kumari for certain holy days. At the end of their reign they are returned to their family to resume a normal life. Kumari is the most powerful Hindu deity in Nepal, but more and more controversial in regards to children’s rights given the bizarre and isolated childhood these living goddesses live in the name of tradition.
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