Living goddess Samita Bajracharya playing the sarod (All photos by the author)
Twelve-year-old living goddess Samita Bajracharya doesn’t reply to questions. So her mother does instead. "I do think she's missing part of her childhood,” says Shoba Bajracharya as she collects offerings brought by visitors. “She misses playing with friends and the stuff normal children can do. But I like that my daughter is a Kumari because it makes me feel proud.”
Rooted in both Buddhist and Hindu tradition, pre-pubescent girls in Nepal’s Kathmandu region are selected to become “living goddesses” – or “Kumari” – until being replaced before their first menstruation. Chosen by officials from each religion, the criteria to become a Kumari include having a “neck in the shape of a conch shell”, a “body like a banyan tree” or being “daring like a lion”.
There are about a dozen Kumaris throughout Kathmandu, and while many attend school and live relatively normal lives, the most important are isolated from society, only venturing outside for religious celebrations. Samita is the Kumari of Patan, Nepal’s second most revered living goddess.
"I'm finishing my Kumari period,” she whispers. “I’m happy because I’ll get to go to school and live a normal life after this.”
In the meantime, however, she has to keep up her role as a goddess, reluctantly obeying her mother’s requests to approach the main window so tourists can take photos of this unique religious attraction.
The most important living goddess is the Royal Kumari of Kathmandu, eight-year-old Matina Shakya, who lives in a palace in the middle of the city. From there, she regularly blesses royals, government officials and anyone else with the connections to visit her on her gilded throne.
"She is the state's source of power,” explains Prathap Man Shakya, Matina’s father. “The Kumari tradition is a unique practice, so it's an honour that Nepali people venerate my daughter. In many places people worship representations of God, but here we worship a living god.”
Current Royal Kumari Matina Shakya at the Indra Jatra parade.
The Royal Kumari is paraded through the city every year during the religious celebration of Indra Jatra, one of the only times she is allowed to leave her temple. Matina has been performing the same ritual since she was three years old.
"People criticise the fact that my daughter is trapped inside the house, but they don't know that Kumari tradition has changed. She's now provided with facilities, including an education," Prathap insists, referring to changes made in the 90s after former Royal Kumari Rushmila Shakya published her memoirs, From Goddess to Mortal.
The book, which described the lack of education during a Kumari’s seclusion – as well as the further hurdles they have to overcome to return to a normal life – led to widespread criticism of the custom.
"In my time, there was only one hour-long tuition class, but I had to be seated in the throne if any visitor came to see me,” explains Rushmila. “I had a lot of problems afterwards; at the age of 12, I could only join second grade, along with my six-year-old sister.”
Rushmila is the only former Kumari with higher education qualifications, having recently completed a master’s degree. The 31-year-old now works as an IT technician, but stresses how difficult it was to return to a normal life – partly, she says, because of the urban legends surrounding what happens to Nepal’s living goddesses when they become mortals. One, for example, is that any man who marries a former Kumari will die soon after the wedding. “That’s why I decided to write a book, because there are so many misconceptions about the Kumari tradition,” says Rushmila.
After From Goddess to Mortal was published, the Nepalese government introduced three mandatory hours of formal education a week for all current Kumaris, as well as a monthly stipend of 3,000Rs (about £18) towards education for any former Royal Kumaris and a total of 50,000Rs (about £300) for their marriage expenses.
Former Kumari Rushmila Shakya, who wrote the book From Goddess to Mortal
However, critics still argue that the Kumari custom – regardless of the educational updates – forces girls to give up their childhoods. In 2005, human rights lawyer Pundevi Maharjan filed a case in the Supreme Court stating that Kumari girls were victims of exploitation. The case was formulated on the grounds that the religious tradition violates national laws and international treaties, such as the UN Convention on the Rights of a Child and the Convention of the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), to which Nepal is a state signatory. In fact, the 30th session of the CEDAW’s committee, held in 2004, recommended eradicating these kind of discriminatory customs.
Pundevi tells me: "I didn't file the case to abolish the tradition, but to reform it. It's a conflict between cultural and individual rights, and my objective is to balance these two."
For all Pundevi’s efforts, however, the court concluded in 2008 that the Kumari practice cannot be qualified as child labour, and that no restrictions seem to have been placed on the Kumaris' freedom of movement. The report summarised that it is the responsibility of both their parents and the local community to ensure the wellbeing of the young living goddesses.
Of course, that hasn’t stopped the debate. On the one side you have those opting to maintain the status quo – "Our religious traditions should remain as they are, because they preach peace and harmony among all living beings," says Hem Bahadur Karki, president of the Nepalese World Hindu Federation – and, on the other, human rights organisations. "Some may say that a goddess doesn't need human rights,” says Rekha Shrestha Sharma, a member of the Nepalese Women Rehabilitation Centre (WOREC). “But after she stops serving, she becomes human again – hence preservation of her rights is a matter of concern.”
Kumari Samita Bajracharya
Interestingly, while arguing for their rights, Rekha also questions whether the issue needs to be quite as pronounced as it’s become. “The Kumaris all feel empowered and special, even if only for a few years,” she says. “If the Kumaris don’t feel that they’ve been exploited, is this really such a significant social problem that it requires intervention from the courts?”
Representatives of other human rights organisations go as far as to suggest that the tradition actually encourages respect for women in a largely male-dominated society. "Kumaris have a totally different childhood. But I also think that no other girl gets the kind of respect and dignity that she gets,” says president of Himalayan Human Rights Monitor, Anjana Shakya. “Parents and society in general could learn how to treat a girl through this tradition”
Activist Anjana was born into the Newari community – the indigenous people of Nepal’s Kathmandu Valley – and has been studying the Kumari tradition for many years. “There are certain hours when Kumari can study, but the school comes to her, not the other way around,” she says. “However, there are children from the area who come to [spend time] with the Kumari. It’s definitely a different learning process, but I don’t think they’re isolated.”
When I mention the fear that Kumari could be cheated of a proper childhood, Anjana blames Western values. "I'm tired of foreign media coming and telling us what's right and wrong,” she says. “They also have to listen to us and understand that we can decide for ourselves."
Despite writing a book calling out certain aspects of the tradition, former Kumari Rushmila is still torn on the custom as a whole, perfectly representing how complex the debate has become. "I didn't have a normal childhood,” she begins, “but I don't think Kumaris should be allowed to go outside, because if they were, what would be the difference between a normal child and a Kumari?"
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