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.