Every September, girls aged up to 5 gather for the ceremony of Kumari Puja, or virgin worship, believed to bestow good luck on those who attend, and a long and healthy life to the girls who participate.
“This year is special because it’s only once in 12 years that they have a ceremony for 1 008 girls at one time,” said Sanjeev Maharjan, whose daughter was taking part in clothes and jewellery bought for the occasion.
One thousand and eight is seen as an auspicious number by Hindus in Nepal.
The event is held in Durbar Square, the seat of the Malla kings who ruled Kathmandu from the 12th to the 18th centuries, and is attended by Buddhists as well as the nation’s majority Hindus.
“All the girls in my family have attended these ceremonies,” said Purna Kesari Tamrakar, pointing at her 18-month-old twin granddaughters, dressed in the red that symbolises prosperity.
“We believe young girls are representatives of the virgin goddess and worshiping them brings us many graces, while it also brings them good health.”
Next to her a 7-month-old participant lay asleep in the lap of her mother Sabina Maharjan, the baby girl perspiring in her red brocade and the black kohl around her eyes starting to run under the Kathmandu heat.
The ceremony was led by a former Kumari, one of the girls chosen every few years as an incarnation of the virgin goddess Taleju, and worshipped as a protector of the former kingdom until puberty.
These girls seldom go on to marry, as they are thought to bring bad luck as a wife, but enjoy high status and carry out some public offices.
The teenage former goddess on Tuesday blessed the girls, applying a dot of vermillion to each forehead and offering buffalo meat, boiled eggs, sweets and some home-brewed alcohol.
Each gathering tends to bring together members of a particular community. Tuesday’s was mostly attended by the Newar ethnic group, who make up around 5% of the country’s population and are concentrated in the Kathmandu valley.
Like much of the population, Newaris are mostly Hindu, but include a Buddhist minority which tends to follow Hindu-based rituals.
Virgin worship is particularly strong among the Newars, whose girls are often symbolically married to a stone apple – a very hard-shelled local fruit – and the Sun God in ceremonies following the Kumari Puja.
The childhood marriages preserve the Newari girls from the stigma of widowhood if their human husbands should die in later adult life.
“To ask yourself if you want to bring your daughter to a ceremony like this is the same as asking why I say prayers to the gods,” Santu Maharjan, one of the organisers at the festival, said of Tuesday’s event.
“It is what we have been doing for centuries to pray for long life, good health and prosperity for our children.”
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