Photographing the “Living Goddesses” of Nepal
“It’s hard to start this story without acknowledging the two recent devastating earthquakes that have taken so many lives in Nepal,” deputy photography director Ken Geiger tells me as we sit down to talk about the Newar people of Kathmandu Valley, who have a fascinating cultural tradition—worshipping little girls whom they believe are the earthly embodiments of deities.
Geiger recently teamed up with writer Isabella Tree and photographer Stephanie Sinclair to tell the story of Nepal’s kumaris, or living goddesses, for the June issue of National Geographic June issue of National Geographic.
Fortunately, Tree was able to confirm that the kumaris they documented survived both quakes, as did their residences, even as buildings and temples came down around them.
“With that in the back of your mind … you realize that cultures and people are so very fragile,” Geiger says.
ALEXA KEEFE: Tell me about your visual approach to the story.
KEN GEIGER: [The kumaris] have a public face for ceremonies and when they are out on their thrones. That’s on the street. That’s not what we were looking for. We knew these were normal little girls [who] have been christened gods and [are said to] have goddesses inhabiting their body. But we wanted to know what was going on behind the scenes. What is their daily life like?
ALEXA: What did Stephanie bring to the table?
KEN: Stephanie was a natural choice. If you’re going to have a story that you’re going to consider a gender bias on the photographer, this is one of those. I don’t know if it’s her empathetic personality, but that sensibility she brought to the story made her entry into those families and her relationships with the young girls all the more special.
ALEXA: How did you gain access to the private lives of these very public figures?
KEN: The writer (Isabella Tree, who recently authored a book on the subject) had a long relationship with a lot of these families. We were welcome in people’s homes. Issy spent enough time researching her book that she knew who to contact vis-a-vis fixers and families, mothers and fathers of the kumaris. We were able to get access to get the photographs that the general public doesn’t get to see. It’s a fascinating life, not only visually but socially for the families of the kumaris as well.
ALEXA: Girls cease being kumaris once they start menstruating. What happens to them afterward?
KEN: They pretty much just stop and try to go back to normal life. Some of them have challenges reincorporating themselves because they’ve been out of school but they are still looked on as being a little bit different, revered in some ways. They have kumari gatherings, they get a small stipend from the government. A lot of them are married. They have families now.
ALEXA: From a Western standpoint, it would be easy to assume the special treatment kumaris receive creates a negative psychological impact. What is it about the Newar culture that would allow for this different outcome?
KEN: [Stephanie] had that Western sensibility too. She had her radar up [for anything that might be going on] and she didn’t find it, I think to her relief.
The family is still an important piece of the whole thing. The family has to support this young girl. They have to treat her like [the] goddess that she is [said to be]. She is part of the family, lives with the family. She still has an education—some of it’s tutoring, some of it’s public school. Some do more things outside of the house than others but it’s not like you’re totally isolated. You still have some semblance of a childhood, playing with your siblings. It’s just that all of a sudden you have to do public functions and be stoic as you sit on your throne and bless people as they come by.
ALEXA: What makes this an important story to tell?
KEN: Having the opportunity to have such a skilled photographer as Stephanie Sinclair peek behind the curtain of a cultural phenomenon that’s been going on for hundreds of years, that’s ingrained in a people and helps set the course of the country every year. They are an important part of daily ritual, and that can so easily be lost. It’s a pleasure to be able to document not just a story that is living in the present but something we can record so that everybody can look at it for the centuries to come. It’s a tradition that could easily go away with modernity creeping into society as it is.