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Wednesday, September 19, 2007

( kumari devi ) living goddess in nepal

Kumari, or Kumari Devi is a living goddess in Nepal. Kumari literally means
virgin in Nepali and was the name of the goddess Durga as a child. [1] A Kumari
is a prepubescent girl selected from the Shakya caste of the Nepalese Newari
community. The Kumari is revered and worshipped by some of the country's Hindus
as well as the Nepali Buddhists, though not the Tibetan Buddhists.

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. The current Royal Kumari, Preeti Shakya, was installed
on July 10, 2001 at the age of four.

A Kumari is believed to be the bodily incarnation of the goddess Taleju until
she menstruates, after which it is believed that the goddess vacates her body.
Serious illness or a major loss of blood from an injury are also causes for her
to revert to common status.

Not only does Nepal have many gods, goddess, deities, Bodhisattvas (near Buddhas),
avatars and manifestations, which are worshipped and revered as statues, images,
paintings and symbols, but it also has a real living goddess. The Kumari Devi is
a young girl who lives in the building known as the Kumari Ghar, right beside
Kathmandu's Durbar Square.

From time immemorial the practice of worshipping an ordinary pre-pubescent girl
as a source of supreme power has been an integral

part of both Hinduism and Buddhism, a tradition which continues even to this day
virtually in every household. They call this girl Kumari Devi and worship her on
all the religious occasions.

The predominance of the Kumari cult is more distinctly evident among the Newar
community inside the Kathmandu Valley as she has become an inevitable feature of
their worship almost in every Vihar and Bahal and including the nooks and
corners of Newari settlements. However, it was the Vajrayana sect of Mahayana
Buddhism that was responsible for establishing the tradition of worshipping a
girl from the Sakya community as the royal Living Goddess.

The selection of the Living Goddess is a highly elaborate tantric ritual. Upon
passing the preliminary test, this is merely concerned with their 32 attributes
of perfection, including the colour of her eyes, the shape of her teeth and the
sound of her voice. Her horoscope must also be appropriate. The 4 to 7 year poor
girls from the Sakya community are made to confront a goddess in the darkened
room. The sight of the Buffalo heads scattered around, the demon- like masked
dancers, the terrifying noises theyencounter scare some of these innocent
babies. The real goddess is unlikely to be frightened, so the one who is calm
and collected throughout the tests is the only girl who is entitled to sit on
the pedestal for worship as the Living Goddess. Then as a final test similar to
that of the Dalai Lama, the Kumari then chooses items of clothing and decoration
worn by her predecessor.

The god-house Kumari Ghar is a store-house of magnificent intricate carvings
where the Living Goddess performs her daily rituals. During her tenure in the
god-house, Guthi Sansthan, the government trust fund bears her entire expenses
including that of her caretakers. Under normal circumstances, her days in the
god-house come to an end with her first menstruation, but if she turns out to be
unlucky, as they say, even a minor scratch on her body that bleeds can make her
invalid for worship. She then changes back to the status of normal mortal and
the search of a new Kumari begins. It is said to be unlucky to marry an ex-Kumari.

On Indra Jatra, in September, the Living Goddess in all her jeweled splendor
travels through the older part of Kathmandu city in a three tiered chariot
accompanied by Ganesh and Bhairab each day for three days. It is really a grand
gala in which people in their thousands throng in and around the Kathmandu
Durbar Square to pay their homage to the Living Goddess. During this festival
she also blesses the King in keeping with the tradition in which the first king
of the Shah dynasty, who annexed Kathmandu in 1768, received a blessing from the
Living Goddess.


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 India for more than 2,600 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.

There are several legends circulating about how the current cult of the Kumari
began. Most of the legends, however, lead back to King Jayaprakash Malla, the
last Nepalese king of the Malla Dynasty (12th-17th century CE). According to the
most popular legend, a red serpent approached the King's chambers late one night
as he played tripasa, a dice game, with the goddess Taleju. The King began to
admire the surpassing beauty of Taleju, the patroness of his royal lineage,
realizing that her beauty surpassed that of his own wife.

His amorous thoughts, however, were read by the goddess. Standing abruptly,
Taleju rebuked the king for his lustful thoughts and declared that if he was
ever to see her again, it would be in the form of a young girl from a shakya
caste. Hoping to make amends with his patroness, the King left the palace in
search of the young girl who was possessed by Taleju's spirit.

Even today, a mother's dream of a red serpent is believed to portend the
elevation of her daughter to the position of Royal Kumari. And each year, the
Nepalese King seeks the blessing of the Royal Kumari at the festival of Indra

A variation of this and other legends names King Gunkam Dev, a 12th century
ancestor of King Jayaprakash Malla as the main character rather than Jayaprakash

Another legend of the origins of the cult of the Kumari is more disturbing.
According to this legend, King Jayaprakash Malla had intercourse with a
pre-pubescent girl who later died as a result. The King, overcome with guilt,
began having dreams that told him that he must begin to search for each young
incarnation of Taleju. To make penance for his actions, he must then worship the
Kumari and ask for her blessing each year.

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.

Selection process

Once Taleju has left the sitting Kumari, there is a frenzy of activity to
find her successor. Some have compared the selection process to the process used
in nearby Tibet to find the reincarnations of Tulkus, such as the Dalai Lama or
the Panchen Lama. The selection process is conducted by five senior Buddhist
Vajracharya priests, the Panch Buddha, the Bada Guruju or Chief Royal Priest,
Achajau the priest of Taleju and the royal astrologer . The King and other
religious leaders that might know of eligible candidates are also informed that
a search is underway.

Eligible girls are Buddhists from the Newar Shakya caste of silver and
goldsmiths. She must be in excellent health, never have shed blood or been
afflicted by any diseases, be without blemish and must not have yet lost any
teeth. Girls who pass these basic eligibility requirements are examined for the
battis lakshanas, or 'thirty-two perfections' of a goddess. Some of these are
poetically listed as such:

A neck like a conch shell

A body like a banyan tree

Eyelashes like a cow

Thighs like a deer

Chest like a lion

Voice soft and clear as a duck's

In addition to this, her hair and eyes should be very black, she should have
dainty hands and feet, small and well-recessed sexual organs and a set of twenty

The girl is also observed for signs of serenity and fearlessness (after all, she
is to be the vessel of the fierce goddess Durga) and her horoscope is examined
to ensure that it is complementary to the King's. It is important that there not
be any conflicts as she must confirm the King's legitimacy each year of her
divinity. Her family is also scrutinized to ensure its piety and devotion to the

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. On the kalratri, 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

There are claims contrary to the commonly-believed ritual and screening process,
however. The ex-Royal Kumari, in her autobiography "From Goddess to Mortal"
(2005), states that this has nothing to do with the selection process, but
rather is a ritual the Royal Kumari goes through each year, there are no men
dancing around in masks trying to scare her, there are many less heads than
claimed, perhaps a dozen or so. She also discusses in the book how the physical
examination (discussed in the preceding paragraph) is not very intimate or

The fearless candidate has proven that she has the serenity and the fearlessness
that typifies the goddess who is to inhabit her. Only a small test remains. She
must be able to pick out the personal effects of the previous Kumari from an
assortment of things laid out before. If she is able to do so, there is no
remaining doubt that she is the chosen one.

Once the Kumari is chosen, she must be purified so that she can be an
unblemished vessel for Taleju. She is taken by the priests to undergo a number
of secret Tantric rituals to cleanse her body and spirit of her past
experiences. Once these rituals are completed, Taleju enters her and she is
presented as the new Kumari. She is dressed and made up as a Kumari and then
leaves the Taleju temple and walks across the square on a white cloth to the
Kumari Ghar that will be her home for the duration of her divinity.

Life of the Royal Kumari

Once the chosen girl completes the Tantric purification rites and crosses from
the temple on a white cloth to the Kumari Ghar to assume her throne, her life
takes on an entirely new character. She will leave her palace only on ceremonial
occasions. Her family will visit her rarely, and then only in a formal capacity.
Her playmates will be drawn from a narrow pool of Newari children from her
caste, usually the children of her caretakers. She will always be dressed in
red, wear her hair in a topknot and have the agni chakchuu or ‘fire eye’ painted
on her forehead as a symbol of her special powers of perception.

The Royal Kumari's new life is vastly different from the one to which she has
been accustomed in her short life. Whilst her life is now free of material
troubles, she has ceremonial duties to carry out. Although she is not ordered
about, she is expected to behave as befits a goddess. She has shown the correct
qualities during the selection process and her continued serenity is of
paramount importance; an ill-tempered goddess is believed to portend bad tidings
for those petitioning her.

The Kumari's walk across the Durbar Square is the last time her feet will touch
the ground until such time as the goddess departs from her body. From now on,
when she ventures outside of her palace, she will be carried or transported in
her golden palanquin. Her feet, like all of her, are now sacred. Petitioners
will touch them, hoping to receive respite from troubles and illnesses. The King
himself will kiss them each year when he comes to seek her blessing. She will
never wear shoes; if her feet are covered at all, they will be covered with red

The power of the Kumari is perceived to be so strong that even a glimpse of her
is believed to bring good fortune. Crowds of people wait below the Kumari's
window in the Kumari Chowk, or courtyard, of her palace, hoping that she will
pass by the latticed windows on the third floor and glance down at them. Even
though her irregular appearances last only a few seconds, the atmosphere in the
courtyard is charged with devotion and awe when they do occur.

The more fortunate, or better connected, petitioners visit the Kumari in her
chambers where she sits upon a gilded lion throne. Many of those visiting her
are people suffering from blood or menstrual disorders since the Kumari is
believed to have special power over such illnesses. She is also visited by
bureaucrats and other government officials. Petitioners customarily bring gifts
and food offerings to the Kumari, who receives them in silence. Upon arrival,
she offers them her feet to touch or kiss as an act of devotion. During these
audiences, the Kumari is closely watched. Here is how some of her actions are

Crying or loud laughter: Serious illness or death

Weeping or rubbing eyes: Imminent death

Trembling: Imprisonment

Hand clapping: Reason to fear the King

Picking at food offerings: Financial losses

If the Kumari remains silent and impassive throughout the audience, her devotees
leave elated. This is the sign that their wishes have been granted.

Many people attend to the Kumari's needs. These people are known as the Kumarimi
and are headed by the Chitaidar (patron). Their job is very difficult. They must
attend to the Kumari's every need and desire whilst giving her instruction in
her ceremonial duties. Whilst they cannot directly order her to do anything,
they must guide her through her life. They are responsible for bathing her,
dressing her and attending to her makeup as well as preparing her for her
visitors and for ceremonial occasions.

Traditionally, the Kumari received no education as she was widely considered to
be omniscient. However, modernization has made it necessary for her to have an
education once she re-enters mortal life. Kumaris are now allowed to attend
public schools, and have a life inside the classroom that is no different from
that of other students. While many kumaris, such as the Kumari of Bhaktapur,
attend school, others, such as the main kumari in Kathmandu, receive their
education through private tutors.

Similarly, her limited playmates must learn to respect her. Since her every wish
must be granted, they must learn to surrender to her whatever they have that she
may want and to defer to her wishes in what games to play or activities to
engage in.

Former Kumaris

The end of a Kumari's divinity is abrupt and totally unplanned. As soon as she
menstruates, Durga 'vacates her body' and she reverts to being a mere mortal.
Once a new Kumari has been selected, the former Kumari undergoes a number of
rituals that formally divest her of her status. Over four days, the symbols of
her divinity are taken away from her. Once this 'unfolding of the plait' is
complete, she is left with but a gold coin and a piece of the regal red fabric
in which she has been clothed during her years as Kumari.

Former Kumaris receive a pension from the state of 6000 rupees per month ($80).
This is around twice the official minimum wage and around four times the average
income in this poverty-stricken country. They often continue to be called Kumari
rather than by the names given to them at birth. Although they are once again
part of the ordinary world, they are often unable to fully shake off the
mystique associated with having been a Kumari and often have trouble adjusting
to 'normal' life.

Popular superstition says that a man who marries a Kumari is doomed to die
within six months by coughing up blood. In reality, however, it seems that most
Kumaris do not have trouble eventually finding husbands. All of the living
former Kumaris with exception of the youngest ones have married.

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