Clambering up the rickety, unlit wooden staircase, I crouched to enter the room, even though I am not a tall person. Seated on a low throne in a bare room sat an even smaller figure, a seven-year-old girl dressed in dazzling red and gold robes, her black hair slicked back into a high knot and her eyes heavily made up with extended wings. A middle-aged man knelt on the floor in front of her, prostrated himself a couple of times and crouched forward to be blessed with a daub of vermilion and stiff grains of rice to the forehead.
I had lived in the Patan neighbourhood of Kathmandu for almost a year, but had walked right past the unprepossessing Kumari Chhen many times, without realising who—or what—was secreted away inside. The house of the living goddess of Patan is less magnificent than many of the nearby temples dedicated to non-tangible deities. But inside lives this small girl with an unblemished body, pretty face, and the thirty other prerequisite attributes required for a girl of the Newari Buddhist Bajracharya caste to be recognised as the living goddess. Isabella Tree, in her 2014 travel-history-mythological narrative, The Living Goddess, writes:
She has to be exceptionally beautiful, with radiant ‘golden’ skin, no blemishes, birthmarks or scars, and no indications of smallpox […] She has to have the chest of a lion, for example; a neck like a conch shell; eyelashes like a cow; body like a banyan tree; the thighs of a deer; small and well-recessed sexual organs; a voice clear and soft like a duck’s.
And all this by the age of three. Yet nobody really knows how the Kumari is chosen, what initiation rites she must go through (though they are rumoured to be ghoulish). Even the scholars don’t know for certain, adding to the little girl’s mystery and the goddess’ power.
Modern-day Kathmandu is comprised of three (main) old kingdoms—Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur—which today are simply suburbs of the same city within a valley. But each of these three kingdoms had its own royal courts and palaces, still visible in the ochre bricks, pagodas and brass details of the Durbar Squares. And each of these old kingdoms still has a Kumari, a living goddess, a little girl who embodies the goddess Taleju.
Taleju is powerful, and as such, the Kumari was kept close by the Nepali royal families over the centuries. It is said that if she smiles at you, you are being summoned to death; if the royal family met with her displeasure, they would be cursed. (The fact that eight members of the Nepali royal family, including King Birendra and Queen Aishwarya, were gunned down in their palace in 2001 has, of course, been connected to the Kumari’s wishes).
On seeing the throng of foreigners enter her chambers, of which I was a part, the little goddess did not chirp “namaste” or “one chocolate?” the way seven-year-old Nepali children usually do at the sight of a bideshi. But this was not a child; or at least, this was not just a child. The Kumari is possessed by the goddess until she first menstruates. She is not allowed to bleed, or play with other children, or live a human-like existence. The traditions are observed differently by the three erstwhile kingdoms these days, with Kathmandu keeping to the strictest rules. The Kumari of Kathmandu is not allowed to touch her feet to the ground. Until, that is, she reaches puberty. Then, she becomes a normal human girl once again, a young woman by that stage.
Traditionally however, ex-Kumaris could not have lived a normal life. Having been isolated from their peers for their entire childhood, they often found it difficult to socialise or be educated alongside others of the same age. It was also considered bad luck to marry an ex-Kumari, as the remnants of the powers of the goddess linger. She was considered too powerful for an ordinary human man. The fate of any man who married an ex-Kumari would be dire. Tree writes:
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.
But times have changed, says Jitendra, my skinny young Nepali guide, with too much Brylcreem in his hair, a twinkle in his eye and a suppressed smirk that I catch. Nowadays, Nepali men like strong women.
Photo by Christope Noel.
Elen Turner is a Kathmandu-based writer and editor, with plans to divide her time between Nepal and India. She's into good literature, street art, white-water rafting and pretty Indian textiles. Her personal blog focuses on travel in South Asia: www.wildernessmetropolis.com