This story appears in the June 2015 issue of National Geographic magazine.
EDITOR’S NOTE This story went to press before the earthquake struck Nepal on April 25. The kumaris in the Kathmandu Valley survived the disaster and the severe aftershock on May 12, as did their residences in Kathmandu and Patan. But buildings and temples came down all around them. The former kumaris featured in the story also survived.
Unika Vajracharya could be standing on the brink of divinity, about to become one of Nepal’s most celebrated figures. She is six years old, at present a simple schoolgirl. Despite her shyness, her eyes sparkle with curiosity. She isn’t used to receiving strangers. A smile dimples her cheeks when I ask her what she’ll do if, later today, she’s chosen to be a kumari, or living goddess, a role that will bring people to their knees before her.
“I’ll keep quiet,” she says. “I won’t be allowed to go to school. I’ll study at home and receive worship every day.”
Unika is a Nepali from the Newar ethnic group. She lives in Patan, officially known as Lalitpur, a city of 230,000 people of mainly Buddhist influence in the fertile Kathmandu Valley, in the foothills of the Himalaya. The Newars pride themselves on being the custodians of culture in the valley, and an agelong cornerstone of their culture is the worship of little girls as living goddesses.
The selection process involves a secret ritual from which even Unika’s parents will be barred. Is she nervous? I ask. “No,” she says, brightly. “Just excited.”
As we leave her house—an old, low-ceilinged, brick-and-timber building in a neighborhood called Thabu—Unika skips along through the narrow streets, pulling her mother, Sabita, and elder sister, Biphasa, by the hand. It’s a short walk to Hakha Bahal, the courtyard where for centuries members of her extended family have lived and gathered for religious rituals and festivals and where the first part of the selection will take place. Unika’s wearing her favorite yellow fleece hoodie with “Snoopy” on the back. If she’s chosen, this will be one of the last times she’ll be able to wear it. A living goddess can wear only red—the color of creative energy, usually reserved for married women. A woman, a neighbor, touches Unika’s cheek as she passes. “Are you going for kumari, little one?” she asks.
Kumaris are revered in the Newar community. They’re believed to have powers of prescience and the ability to cure the sick (particularly those suffering from blood disorders), fulfill specific wishes, and bestow blessings of protection and prosperity. Above all, they’re said to provide an immediate connection between this world and the divine and to generate in their devotees maitri bhavana—a spirit of loving-kindness toward all.
The tradition dates back to at least the tenth century, when young girls and boys across South Asia performed in Hindu and Buddhist rituals as agents for divination. Their presumed connection to the divine and ability to predict the future were of particular interest to Asia’s rulers. Centuries later the tradition was taken up by people who lived on the periphery of the Indian subcontinent—in Kashmir, Assam, Bengal, Tamil Nadu, and Nepal—and who followed subversive religions that emphasized female power, or shakti, and tantric possession, a state brought about by magical invocations and rituals in which humans supposedly can be transformed into divine beings with supernatural powers.
Only in the remote mountain fastness of Nepal did the practice of glorifying prepubescent girls (in Nepali the word “kumari” means “virgin girl”) as living goddesses for years at a time become a deeply rooted cult, and only in Nepal is the tradition nurtured with vigor today. To Newar Buddhists, the kumari is regarded as the embodiment of the supreme female deity Vajradevi, a Buddha. To Hindus, she incarnates the great goddess Taleju, a version of Durga.
Today there are just ten kumaris in Nepal, nine of them in the Kathmandu Valley. They’re still selected only from families attached to certain bahals, or traditional courtyard communities, and all their ancestors must have come from a high caste. Being chosen for the position is regarded as the highest honor, one that can bestow innumerable blessings on a kumari’s family. So despite the financial burden and personal sacrifices involved in maintaining a young girl as a living goddess in the modern world, and the challenges of her rehabilitation once she reaches puberty and has to live a normal life again, certain families are still prepared to put their daughters forward for selection.
This is Unika’s second time as a candidate for kumari. She was two years old the first time, too young to remember the esoteric rituals of the selection process. It’s partly Unika’s own eagerness that has persuaded the family to put her forward again. She longs to dress up like a kumari, her hair bound into a topknot on her head, thick kohl lines drawn around her eyes right up to the temples, and on festival days, a red tika painted on her forehead with a silver agni chakchuu—the third eye, known as the fire eye—staring out from the center. This desire to wear the kumari ornaments is in itself considered something special, a sign perhaps that fate, or karma, is pulling her.
Unika’s grandmother Masinu worries that the little girl will be disappointed if she’s not chosen this time. “My hopes are with her. I don’t want her to feel sad.”
Unika’s father, Ramesh, who runs a small shoe shop, has other concerns. “I’m worried about the costs,” he tells me. “And the purity restrictions that would be imposed on the family.”
A kumari is an onerous responsibility for all, one that would weigh heaviest on Ramesh as the family’s breadwinner. She must wear special clothes and makeup every day and have new festival dresses made of expensive cloth at least twice a year. A room in the house—a precious commodity in the overcrowded city—must be set aside as a puja, or worship, room with a throne where the goddess can receive devotees. The family must perform nitya puja—daily worship rituals—before her every morning. She cannot go outside, except on festival occasions, and then she has to be carried, either in someone’s arms or in a palanquin, so that her feet don’t touch the ground. She can eat only certain foods and no taboo items, such as hen’s eggs or chicken. Everything in the house has to be kept ritually pure. No one in contact with her can wear leather. Above all, the kumari must not bleed. It’s believed that the spirit of the goddess, the shakti, that enters the girl’s body when she becomes a kumari, will leave her if she loses any blood. Even an accidental graze could end her reign. A living goddess is always dismissed when she gets her first period.
Ramesh also is worried about his daughter’s future should she be chosen. She’s expected to return to normal life, but after years of pampering and seclusion, the transition from goddess back to mortal can be difficult. Then there are the dark rumors about the marriage prospects of former living goddesses. “Men are superstitious about marrying ex-kumaris,” Ramesh says. “They believe terrible accidents will happen to them if they try.” The spirit of the goddess may still be strong in a former kumari, it is said, even after the diffusing rituals she undergoes upon her dismissal. Some believe that snakes issue from the vaginas of former kumaris and devour the hapless men having intercourse with them.
In Patan only girls from the Buddhist lineage of Hakha Bahal are eligible to become kumaris, and in the end it was the persuasive powers of the bahal elders, and the desire to continue tradition, that won the day.
“We need to uphold the ways of our ancestors,” Sabita tells me. “It is our duty to provide a living goddess from our community.” In the Kathmandu Valley people have a strong reverence for the past, a sense that in times gone by there was a deeper connection with the gods and that for this reason ancient customs must be followed—even if, in the 21st century, they’re no longer fully understood.
In medieval times almost every town in the Kathmandu Valley had its own kumari. In the cities of Kathmandu, Bhaktapur, and Patan there was one for almost every locality, as well as a special “royal” kumari, worshipped by the former Hindu kings. Many traditions have since disappeared, some only in the past few decades. In Mu Bahal, a courtyard community five minutes’ walk north of Kathmandu’s Durbar Square, devotees have been worshipping an empty throne since their last kumari retired, in 1972. The Patan Kumari is a royal kumari, representing one of the living-goddess traditions in the valley. In recent years the tradition has come under criticism from human rights activists who say it’s a form of child abuse that hinders the girls’ freedom and education and is especially detrimental to the royal Kathmandu and Patan kumaris, who must observe strict rules of purity and segregation.
But in 2008 Nepal’s supreme court essentially rejected a Newari woman’s petition against the tradition, citing its cultural and religious significance. Four kumaris—in Kathmandu, Patan, Bhaktapur, and Nuwakot, a fortress on the trade route into the valley from Tibet—receive government support in the form of a monthly stipend while in office and a pension for life when they retire. In real terms, though, the value of this grant barely covers the cost of clothes and worshipping materials.
The courtyard of Hakha Bahal, with its towering pagoda roofs, wooden resting platforms, and repoussé bronze shrine to the Buddha Akshobhya—now encased in an ugly antitheft metal cage—is crowded by the time Unika, Sabita, Biphasa, and I step inside. Amid the throng of local spectators and well-wishers is three-year-old Anjila Vajracharya. She’s the only other kumari candidate, and she’s dressed for the occasion, perhaps optimistically, in red, like a kumari.
Ananta Jwalananda Rajopadhyaya, the head priest of the Taleju Temple—which adjoins the old royal palace where Patan’s kings used to worship the royal kumari as their lineage goddess, Taleju—is waiting in the courtyard. This is the first time, the 77-year-old priest tells me ruefully, that there have been only two candidates for the final selection. It would be auspicious to have three. He blames family planning for the dwindling pool of eligible girls to select from and says parents are also becoming more reluctant. “People are not used to following the religious disciplines these days. They are becoming distracted by other things.”
Rajopadhyaya regrets that few people today know how to identify the 32 lakshina, or signs of perfection. Traditionally priests examined the candidates to identify these signs—thighs like a deer, chest like a lion, neck like a conch shell, body like a banyan tree, a gold complexion, the soft voice of a duck, and so on—which are indicative of a bodhisattva, or enlightened being. “Nowadays,” he says, “we simply ask the parents to make sure their daughters are healthy and have no blemishes or birthmarks. Then we check their horoscopes.”
Every Newar has a horoscope, drawn up at birth by an astrologer. A hand-painted scroll of complex tables and diagrams kept in a strongbox in the family worship room, the horoscope bears a person’s private birth name and the astrological signs believed to influence his or her life. A candidate’s horoscope must have no inauspicious indications. The most favorable sign for a kumari is the peacock—symbol of the goddess.
Rajopadhyaya takes the two girls behind a closed door in a corner of the courtyard for the secret first step in the selection. This is intended to whittle down the number of candidates to three. But since there are only two girls, it’s just a formality, over in minutes.
The final selection is made by his wife, Maiya, at their house, a concrete building under construction in the neighborhood of Pim Bahal, to the north of Hakha Bahal. It takes us—a procession of 40 or so onlookers and well-wishers following the priest, kumari candidates, and their families—ten minutes to get there, dodging the traffic along Patan’s main thoroughfare.
Having prepared herself through meditation, Maiya is waiting in an empty room upstairs, lamp, waterpot, garlands of flowers, puja trays, bowls of curd, leaf plates of beaten rice, known as baji, and other ritual paraphernalia laid out on a part of the concrete floor that’s been smeared with a purifying mixture of red clay and cow dung. The girls, separated from their mothers, are seated on red cushions facing her. Little Anjila is excited and leaps from her cushion to Unika’s and back again. Unika sits rock still, but her eyes dart about the room. All the onlookers, including the two candidates’ mothers, are directed to leave. Only Maiya and an assistant, a daughter-in-law, remain inside with the candidates.
Crammed in the dim stairwell outside, with daylight fading, we’re alert to the hum of mantras, the tinkling of a handbell, and the aroma of incense wafting from the room. Moments later we hear Anjila begin to wail. By the time the door is opened again, she’s hysterical and rushes to her mother. Unika remains perfectly composed on her cushion. There’s an air of release after the agonizing suspense.
With growing aplomb, the kumari-elect begins to receive offerings from her well-wishers as, one by one, they kneel and bow their foreheads to her feet. From now on, she’ll no longer be known as Unika but Dya Maiju—Little Girl Goddess. It’s not only her steady demeanor that confirms for the supplicants the presence of the goddess within her. Much to the priest’s gratification, her horoscope, scrutinized moments before the ritual began, bears the portentous sign of the peacock.
Samita Vajracharya, the outgoing kumari, had been conspicuous by her absence at the gathering in Hakha Bahal. Though her house overlooks the courtyard, she had been too shocked by her dismissal five weeks earlier, following the start of her first period, to make an appearance.
Months later I met with 12-year-old Samita in her friend Chanira Vajracharya’s house on the busy main road, just yards from Hakha Bahal. Chanira had been the Patan Kumari before Samita. Their families had always been close, and their shared experience as living goddesses had brought Chanira and Samita closer still.
We sat together on flat cushions on the floor, photographs of previous kumaris staring down at us from the walls. In black leggings and an orange top featuring a furry koala, Samita, a talented player of the sarod, a type of lute, had just come from a music lesson. She was accompanied—as always—by her mother, because crowds, traffic, public transport, noise, uneven pavements were all too daunting for her on her own. Strangers also were unnerving. Although she smiled as I asked questions, her lips remained firmly sealed.
“As a kumari, you never speak to outsiders,” Chanira explained, while Samita stared resolutely into her lap. “It was a year or so before I could manage a conversation with someone I didn’t know. Even now, at college, I find it hard to stand up in front of the class to present my work.”
Chanira, 19, is studying for a bachelor’s degree in business administration at Kathmandu University School of Management. Tutored at home by teachers who gave their time for free while she was the kumari, Chanira had been given her “school leaving certificate,” graduating with distinction. Bright, expressive, impressively fluent in English, it was hard to imagine she’d ever been at a loss for words.
“I was 15 when I got my period, so I was waiting for it to happen,” Chanira said, “but Samita was only 12, so it was more of a shock. It’s a really emotional time. When you give the goddess’s ornaments and throne to someone else, it feels like someone has died. You’re in mourning.”
What was it like for Samita when she was dismissed? I asked. Chanira repeated the question softly in Newari for her friend, painstakingly translating her whispered responses.
For Samita, the weeks directly after the appointment of her successor had been exceptionally painful. Ideally a kumari should live next to her ancestral courtyard. Unika’s family had stayed with Samita’s for a month while accommodations were made ready for them next door. Every day Samita had watched devotees queuing in the family sitting room, while another little girl took up the throne in her old puja room.
Now Unika and her family—and the kumari throne—had moved to the house next door. Samita was at school and making headway. She had friends, some of whom had visited her throughout her three and a half years as the kumari. But she still dreamed sometimes that she was the kumari—dreams from which she would wake up with a pang of regret.
What does she want to be when she finishes school? I asked. Chanira translated Samita’s muted response. “She wants to be a musician.” And what about marriage—presumably that is out of the question? I asked, remembering what Ramesh had said about terrible accidents happening to the husbands of former kumaris.
“It’s not true, these rumors about husbands of ex-kumaris dying,” Chanira said. “It’s a myth that is always repeated in the media.” In fact nearly every former kumari of marriageable age, whether in Patan, Kathmandu, or anywhere else in the valley, is married.
Would you both be happy for a daughter of yours to become a living goddess? “We can’t marry within our lineage,” Chanira said, “so it’s unlikely either of us would have a daughter who would be eligible. I suppose if we married someone from our caste from Kathmandu, she could become Kathmandu Kumari.” The two of them conferred, giggling at the thought of a husband. “Then, yes, we would both be happy if the goddess chose our daughters.
“Being kumari is a gift. I feel blessed that I was chosen,” Chanira added. “But there are things that should be improved for the welfare of the kumaris. Like greater financial support from the government to cover the expenses of rituals and the goddess’s education. And counseling to explain how her life will change after she finishes as kumari. I’d like to see a support network of former kumaris helping those who’ve just been dismissed. I’m worried that if we don’t see these changes, we may lose the tradition altogether.”
Chanira later took me to encounter Patan’s new living goddess. The kumari’s eyes flashed as I entered the puja room. She was sitting on the golden throne, silver staffs of office on either side, a canopy of golden cobras spreading their hoods above her head, protecting her as they’d once protected Samita, Chanira, and generations of previous kumaris.
The face in front of me was familiar as Unika’s, but it was hard to believe this was the little girl I’d met on her way to the selection five months before. Her gaze bored into me with an aura of imperiousness that made me feel like a child myself. Around her neck hung a silver amulet. Her feet, adorned with silver bell anklets and stained with vermilion, rested amid rice and flower petals on a bronze offering tray. Kneeling on the rice mat before her, I offered a coloring book, crayons, and a modest donation of Nepali rupees. Deftly, she dipped her fingers into a dish of vermilion paste at her side, and I craned forward to present my forehead for her blessing.