In 2017, when Spanish photographer Maria Contreras Coll went to Kathmandu, Nepal, she was struck by the stories of the living goddess of the country—young girls, aged between three and six, chosen by the high priests as the manifestation of the divine female force, or devi. Everybody, from the kings and queens to political leaders and commoners throng the temples of Kathmandu and Patan to catch a glimpse of one, said to bring good fortune.
Clad in a brocade sari and gold jewellery, the Kumari, as she’s widely known, lives a life of complete isolation and is only allowed to speak with her family and the priest besides making occasional public appearances in palanquins during festivals. Her feet can never touch the ground in the entirety of her brief tenure, one that ends when the girl reaches puberty.
“The story caught me by surprise,” Coll tells VICE, “I was working on a story on the Chhaupadi practice of Nepal, and the Kumaris struck me because their story is also connected to menstruation—once the little girls get their period, they stop being the goddesses they once were. They have to be a mortal all over again. I felt like I had to document this connection to tradition and women’s rights.”
The 27-year-old, who belongs to Barcelona, has always been drawn to stories around women. At home, she documented stories of refugee women. In the subcontinent for the first time, though, Coll was intrigued by the ancient traditions that revolve around women. The Chhaupadi practice brought her to the rural pockets of Nepal, where she met women resigned to “period huts” because menstruation is considered impure. When she came across the Kumari and former Kumaris, Coll decided to extend her visit to two years.
A tradition that is more than 300 years old, the Kumari tradition is viewed with intrigue but is also widely criticised by activists for being regressive and stealing childhood from young girls. Through her photo series, ‘Mortal Again’, Coll gives VICE a lowdown of the complex issue of the Kumaris, and why this religious tradition should be seen as more than just that. Excerpts:
VICE: What was your experience like on the ground in Nepal?
Maria Contreras Coll: I always felt very welcomed in Nepal. I thought that people were very kind and eager to tell their stories to the world. I also felt that women are the real force behind the changes when it comes to tradition. I could see how their activism is transforming the villages, and I was interested to see how this activism is making a difference within the Nepalese culture.
How did you view this activism when it comes to the Kumaris?
When I was documenting the Kumaris in Kathmandu Valley, the former Kumaris helped me make sense of not just the experience of being a Kumari but also how the transition to the normal life was once they had their first period. This practice is widely criticised by the activists of human rights for not allowing the child to lead a life of normal capacity. The Kumaris know that it could take more than one year to feel normal in the mortal society.
What was your experience with the former Kumaris?
It was Chanira, a 23-year-old former goddess from Patan (who is not there in the series), who helped me understand the tradition. She wants to start a counseling group for former Kumaris, where she will help the transition to normal lives easier. I somehow found it interesting because it was a solution to all the criticism that the practice has come across. Chanira also told me how well connected the former Kumaris are with each other, and with the current Kumari as well. To me, the way the former goddesses were helping the new goddess to learn how to be a goddess, because it's something they also had to learn, was incredibly interesting.
How did you go about documenting them?
Of all the Kumaris across Nepal (reportedly between 10 and 11), the ones in Kathmandu and Patan are the most important ones—and also the ones facing more restrictions. Between 2017-18, I felt it was important to photograph not only this tradition but what happened once these girls had their periods and had to re-start a “mortal” life again. They have to get used to being treated as normal girls, going to school and navigating the streets.
In Patan, I met Unika, whom I photographed while she was a Kumari in 2017, and then when she stopped being one in 2018. One crucial observation is that the Kumaris are not isolated at all, because they belong to this community, and the former Kumaris are always around to help the current Kumari.
The Kumaris tradition has been viewed with a lot of criticism, especially in the eyes of the West. But you decided not to use that lens while documenting them.
Yes, I was deeply fascinated by this practice and wanted to get closer. However, the first time I saw a Kumari, I actually felt a strong power, and that is something that still haunts me. Apart from that, when I work, I try not to have a preconceived idea or prejudices about the situation I’m photographing. I always try to be open towards what the story is going to tell me, and what I am going to feel towards it after intensive research, interviews, spending time with the people. It was the same with the Kumaris. I wasn't there to try to change the Nepalese culture. I was there to understand the story and its different layers.
How easy was access to the current Kumari?
All my Nepalese friends were very surprised when I entered the Kumari's house and took her photos. This is not normal for them because they see the Kumaris as a symbol of power. Of course, I do too but I pursued the Kumari's family for many months, to report the story from the inside. I would go to the temple, where they live, sometimes at 6 in the morning, just to go inside. In the end, I got this access that not everyone has, and I see that as a blessing.
The Kumaris are not supposed to interact with outsiders at all, though. How did you make use of that access?
I didn't speak to her. I was not allowed to. But I could photograph her daily life. This is why I moved to Nepal in 2017 and lived there for two years. I wanted to make this place a home itself, be a part of the city, the country. That's the reason I like longer-term stories, where you have the time and space to get closer, where you can see a global problem or a situation through an intimate and personal perspective. Thanks to the help of the Click Grant, organised by the Generalitat de Catalunya and Diomira, I had the chance to report this story.
What is the process of the Kumaris adapting to the normal, ‘mortal’ life?
The experience is different from one Kumari to another. With both recent former Kumaris (both, in Kathmandu and Patan, were replaced at the end of 2017 and the beginning of 2018), I went with them to school, and stayed with them in their houses. In their neighbourhoods, I could still feel the respect people have for them. Although they are not goddesses anymore, you could still feel a special halo around them. For the community, these girls are still someone special.
But of course, at the end of the day, they are normal kids, doing homework and walking to school. In the case of Matina, a former Kumari of Kathmandu, and Unika, a former Kumari of Patan, they're both playing in school and interacting with other kids. They haven't interacted with other kids for a very long time before so they’re shyer than the rest and still learning to be kids.
So, in a way, they’re still considered divine even though they’re not seen as one.
That's what I felt. Interestingly, in the Newari community, when someone reaches 77 years of age, they're considered gods or goddesses too. The entire family has to worship the grandfather or grandmother. At Unika's house, though, since she was a former Kumari, she didn't have to worship the grandmother. It was fascinating to observe these little details. Another example is, when you're a goddess, you cannot eat or drink with your parents because they can pollute you. So you must eat alone, with separate bowls and plates. When Unika stopped being a goddess and went to school, she still ate separately because that's what's she's used to.
They're not strange or rejected in any way. Inside the Nepalese culture, it is commonly believed that a former Kumari can’t marry. If she does so, she will bring misfortune to the husband. However, most of the former goddesses are married now and have kids. Nevertheless, some of them confessed to me that it wasn’t as easy as for a normal woman and that they were somehow feared by men.
Are they aware of the effect they have on people?
Yes, they are because of the way they're recognised on the streets or treated by people. Most of the former Kumaris confessed to me how the one thing they liked the most when they were goddesses was to give people blessings. They are not goddesses anymore, but they know that they have an important and special role inside the society.
You can check out more of Maria Contreras Coll's works here.
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This article originally appeared on VICE IN.