CHARLOTTE: Seeing the Royal Kumari of Kathmandu is one of those cultural experiences where Western travelers must temporarily suspend personal mores and accept the traditions of another country.Also known as “The Living Goddess,” the Royal Kumari is a pre-pubescent girl from the indigenous Shakya clan of the Newari sect of the Kathmandu Valley in Nepal. While there are approximately eleven Kumaris scattered across Nepal, the Royal Kumari is the most important and celebrated. Idolized and worshipped by many, but not all, Hindus and Nepalese Buddhists, the custom of reverence for the Kumari is a relatively recent tradition, dating only as recently as the 17th century.
Travelers to Kathmandu have the best opportunity for getting a glimpse of the Royal Kumari by visiting her palace courtyard late in the day. Tours usually schedule their programs to coincide with an appearance by the Living Goddess, but if they are not on the itinerary, just ask your guide. A good guide should be able to make the arrangements if they are given enough notice.In this land of temples and shrines, a Kumari is regarded as the incarnation of the demon-slaying Hindu goddess Taleju, and her reign ceases at the onset of menstruation or if she bleeds for any other reason. At that time, Taleju is believed to abandon the young girl’s body and she reverts to mortal status.
Despite the prestige of their early lives, some ex-Kumaris have difficulty finding a husband because tradition says that a man who marries a former goddess will cough up blood and die within six months.
Finding a successor for a departed Kumari is a frantic process resembling the procedures used to select nearby Tibetan lamas. Using a specific group of 32 signs of perfection, five senior Buddhist Vajracharya priests meet with hundreds of girls from the Newar Shakya clan; the same caste to which Buddha belonged.
A candidate must possess the following: a neck like a conch shell, a body like a banyan tree, eyelashes like a cow, thighs like a deer, a chest like a lion, a voice soft and clear as a duck’s. In addition, the girls must be in perfect health, have no blemishes, very black hair and eyes and dainty hands and feet. Horoscopes are also checked to be certain they are compatible with the current king.
Once chosen, the final group of selectees endures a series of severe and, by Western standards, unorthodox tests. This is where the process becomes even more difficult for an outsider to comprehend. Former Royal Kumari Rashmila Shakya refutes the selection rituals in her autobiography, From Goddess to Mortal, but she does state that a Royal Kumari must undergo a rigid annual test of her qualifications.
According to tradition, would-be goddesses are taken one-by-one to the courtyard of the Taleju temple where masked men wearing demon masks dance around freshly severed buffalo and goat heads illuminated by candlelight. If the girl shows fear, she is removed and another candidate undergoes the same procedure.
As a final challenge, the girl must pick out the clothing of her predecessor from a collection of items that have been laid out in front of her. If she succeeds, she becomes the chosen one and her life changes until her divinity departs.
After the Kumari is selected, she participates in several other ceremonies to cleanse both body and spirit. She is then robed in traditional red garments and made up with a “fire eye” painted on her forehead. Finally, the new Kamari walks across Patan Durbar Square upon a white cloth to the Kumari Ghar, the palace built in 1757, which becomes her home. She is now the “Living Goddess.”
In essence, the Royal Kumari becomes a prisoner, sequestered within the Kumari Ghar until she again becomes mortal. Throughout the year, she only occasionally leaves her temple to appear at important festivals. Her family is rarely allowed a visit, and even then, it must be within a formal context.
During her tenure as Royal Kumari, the feet of the “Living Goddess” never touch the ground. Like the rest of her body, Kumari’s feet are now sacred. When she does venture outside, she is transported in a golden palanquin carried by several men.
Since getting a glimpse of the Royal Kumari is considered a sign of good fortune, it’s not uncommon for crowds to gather in the courtyard of her palace. While the occasion of a Kumari’s appearance is usually brief and irregular in nature, she will most likely to emerge on her third floor balcony in early morning or late afternoon. Though pictures are strictly forbidden, such opportunities are always marked by excitement, devotion and awe.
Though her life is forever changed, a Kumari is allowed to have a few playmates who must respect her and grant her every wish.
Because a Kumari is regarded as omniscient, it was once a tradition that she required no education. Today, during her tenure as Royal Kumari, such customs are no longer followed and private tutors are provided. With recent advances in technology, a formal education for modern ex-Kumaris is a necessity. As a result, after returning to mortality, Kumaris are now allowed to attend public schools where they may interact within the classroom as if she is no different than any other pupil.
To view a Royal Kumari is a rare and mysterious experience. And yet, there is a note of sadness for it is a story of a childhood lost. It all becomes a part of the bittersweet emotion of traveling to another culture.
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