Trekking Nepal
The Living Goddess
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This statue of six-armed Kala Bhairab—a manifestation of the god Shiva—stands near the entrance to Kathmandu’s Durbar Square.
Photograph by Howard Ege III
Chunuman Palace

As we toured the temples in Durbar Square, we were introduced to several of Nepal’s deities—Hanuman, Kala Bhairab, Krishna—but we never expected to encounter a real living goddess.

Tradition holds that Durga (goddess of destruction and blood sacrifices) is incarnate in a young girl from a caste of silver and goldsmiths.

High priests choose the girl based on several physical characteristics, such as “neck like a conch shell” and “eyes like a cow.” Then, to prove she is the Kumari Devi—the incarnation of Durga—the girl must pass a series of horrifying tests.

In one test she is placed in a darkened room with severed animal heads while hideously masked men dance around the room and attempt to frighten her. In another the girl must correctly identify items worn by her predecessor—a similar test is used in Tibet to choose a new Dalai Lama.

Once selected, the girl moves into the Kumari Bahal, the residence of the Kumari Devi, with her family. She leaves only for ceremonial occasions a few times each year and remains the Kumari until she experiences a serious loss of blood or her first period.

Standing in front of the Kumari Bahal, we wondered if we would be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the sacred incarnation of Durga.

A face appeared in the elaborately carved top-floor window, but it was that of an older man. Yes, he assured us, the goddess was present, but certain “conditions” had to be met before she would appear. He also told us that no photographs were allowed. We put away our cameras and continued to wait.

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Elaborately carved wooden windows grace the courtyard of the Kumari Bahal, residence of Kathmandu’s living goddess.

The man retreated into darkness. When he finally returned, a long and spirited discussion ensued with our guide. At last assured of our good intentions (and with the help of a small donation), the virgin goddess appeared.

About eight years old, with eyes elaborately decorated, the Kumari gazed down on us from her top-floor window. Her expression conveyed an emotion we were not expecting from a goddess—complete boredom.

With neither a blessing nor a curse the Kumari surveyed the group and was gone as quickly as she had appeared.

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