The Kumari or the ‘Living Goddess’ is one of Nepal’s most intriguing cultural and ancestral traditions. If you visit the country, it’s fascinating to witness the unique custom of worshipping a young prepubescent girl.
The literal translation of Kumari is ‘virgin,’ but Kumari also derives from the Sanskrit word ‘Kaumarya,’ meaning ‘princess.’
Both Hindus and Buddhists worship the Kumari. Buddhists consider her as the personification of the supreme female deity Vajradevi. Hindus worship her as the incarnation of the Goddess ‘Durga’ and even a manifestation of Taleju Bhawani.
There’s not just one Living Goddess in Nepal. There are around 10 Living Goddesses in Kathmandu Valley. All are considered goddesses and live in their own homes following some rituals. However, only the one living in Durbar Square in Kathmandu (the Kumari Chhen – the House of the Living Goddess) is the Royal Kumari, and considered to be the most important one.
Kumari – the legend
The Kumari is worshipped by Nepal’s Newari people in a tradition stretching back in the Kathmandu Valley to the 17th century. It is said that the last king of the Malla Dynasty used to meet with the Goddess Taleju. The Goddess’s request was that nobody knew about it. The queen secretly found out about her husband’s meetings with Taleju, so the Goddess vowed never to meet the king again. Nepal’s people needed the Goddess’s protection, so she told the king to find a virgin girl from the Shakya family. It has been believed that the Goddess has since manifested as the Living Goddess in the little girl’s body.
Kumari – the selection process
The selection process of a Kumari is intense and involves a lot of intricate details.
The caretakers of the Kumari usually start looking for a new four-five-year little girl a few years before the current Kumari they take care of is expected to have her first menstruation. The caretaker of the Kumari house, the head astrologer, and priests conduct the selection process. They are required to check on various qualities of potential Kumari candidates before declaring one of them as a new Living Goddess.
Here are some of the numerous aspects and essential requirements that a little Nepalese girl must check to become a Kumari:
- Her Jaata (horoscope, zodiac birth chart) matches the one of the national leader
- She must come from a Shakya family, the an upper echelon Newar caste in the Kathmandu Valley; however, other Kumaris in the valley – except for the royal Kumari, may also be a girl from the Bajracharya family
- Three generations of her family members must be within the same caste
- She shouldn’t have shed a single drop of blood prior (no cuts, no injuries, no illness)
- She shouldn’t have lost any of her teeth
- She must match the 32 qualities of perfection of the goddesses in the Hindu religion, e.g., as physical appearances, she must have a chest like a lion, the thighs like a deer, and the eyelashes like a cow
- Some other qualities must include: her eyes color must be black, she should have twenty-two teeth, a body like a banyan tree, and her voice should be clear
- Furthermore, she has to pass more rigorous tests to ensure that she indeed possesses the qualities needed to be a living vessel of the Durga Goddess: the future Kumari has to walk without fear through a courtyard filled with sacrificed buffaloes and dancing mask men; additionally, after that, she must spend a night alone in a room with the ritually slaughtered goats and buffaloes without showing fear or crying
- If she passes the requirements mentioned above, the last test is to pick up the belongings of the previous Kumari
Kumari – her duties and rights as a Living Goddess
For the period of being a Kumari, she is not allowed to step on the floor, and she can go outside of her residence only on special occasions, like the Indra Jatra festival. On these occasions, her caretakers (a different family than her birth family) carry her everywhere as she shouldn’t touch the ground.
As a Living Goddess, she must follow specific rules and traditions. For example, she must always wear a red dress with full make-up, red being the color of the Goddess. She sits on her throne, and people visit her to receive blessings and good fortune. It is believed that Kumari’s blessing sustains the peace and prosperity of the country, and she protects the nation from evil with her goddess power.
In the past, the Living Goddess was not allowed to get an education as it was believed that she knew everything. Nowadays though, she’s allowed to have a private tutor to ease her integration back into society after being replaced by another Kumari. She can also access Internet facilities, books, and papers and attend national exams under special supervision.
Also, her family members were not allowed to visit her very often, and she could only play with the children of her caretakers from the same caste. However, according to human rights, it is considered that she was deprived of various child rights. Nowadays, these beliefs are reconsidered, and she can meet and play with other family members and friends.
Kumari – life after being a goddess
The Kumari is considered divine until her first bleed; this usually means her first menstruation. Or she may also immediately lose the title if she gets ill or suffers a cut, minor scratches, or other blood loss.
Another belief that impacted Kumari’s life after rebecoming a normal girl was that she shouldn’t get married after she’s dethroned, with myths that claimed that her husband might die soon. This belief is not available anymore, so she’s even encouraged to get married after their ‘goddess mandate’ is over.