“Living Goddesses” – Kathmandu, 2019

I would have expected my secular Western sensibilities to be offended at the very idea of secluding a prepubescent girl as an object of worship. Yet reflecting on an experience of darshan – a Sanskrit term for beholding a deity – in Nepal, I’m left with more nuanced thoughts as we approach International Women’s Day later this month.

Kumari Ghar
Six years after exploring the diversity of temples, shrines and palaces in Kathmandu’s Durbar Square I’d returned to see the impact of the 2015 earthquake. It was heartbreaking. Some temples were still piles of rubble; others shored up with timber beams. From a rooftop café I could see only one ancient building on the far side of the square appearing relatively undamaged. It was the Kumari Ghar, residence of Kathmandu’s “living goddess”.

Durbar Square in 2013 and 2019

The Royal Kumari
Later that afternoon I found myself among a small crowd of locals making for the two stone lions guarding its entrance. A friendly policeman beckoned me to join them in the sombre little courtyard with its maroon brick walls and latticed windows elaborately framed in ebony-coloured wood. As spectators murmured in anticipation a child’s face appeared at a third-storey window; her forehead painted in rich crimson emphasizing a symbolic “third eye”; her own eyes dramatically highlighted in black. Five year-old Trishna Sakya looked down at me but didn’t smile. Which is just as well because some used to say that a kumari’s smile is an invitation to heaven, with the joyful departure from this life likely to come sooner rather than later.

Kumari Ghar 2013
Inside Kumari Ghar in 2013. Taking photos when the Kumari is in the window is forbidden

Although it’s usual to refer to a kumari as a “living goddess” she is, more precisely, a temporary embodiment of a goddess within. At her first menstruation, or if she bleeds accidentally, she becomes just another normal young woman. She is always from a Newari Buddhist clan although worshipped by Hindus as a manifestation of female energy (shakti) of the Supreme Goddess. It is the syncretic nature of this custom that is so valued by many in Nepal; a unique symbol of stability and tolerance in the wake of the strategic Kathmandu Valley’s stormy history.

There are kumaris in a dozen other communities in the valley, but only those of Kathmandu and nearby Patan are full-time and funded by the state. The Royal Kumari of Kathmandu performs an important constitutional function too, even though Nepal is now a republic. For the nation’s political leader to have legitimacy he (and so far it’s always been a “he”) is expected to worship the goddess and receive her blessing. Strangely enough, we follow a similar principle in Canada, albeit in very different form.

Constitutional Functions
Power is a seductive drug, so there is much to be said for ritual reminders that political leaders in democracies do not “rule”, but serve at our pleasure. The kumari custom is an extreme example of course, but that is precisely the function of our constitutional monarchy. Collectively we are represented by “the Crown”, as manifested in the Governor General and lieutenant-governors. That’s why, although we elect our political representatives to manage the country on our behalf, a newly-elected Prime Minister is “invited” to form a government, and all legislation requires “royal assent”. Our constitution is designed to remind us that partisan politicians govern in service, not “in power”.

Of course Governors-General are adults while kumaris are children, but I confess to taking perverse pleasure in the thought of my least favourite and most egotistical politicians having occasionally to bow their forehead to the feet of a child – and a female child at that.

From Child Goddess to Teenage Mortal
It is right and proper to be concerned about the welfare of these child-goddesses, yet from what I’ve seen, many of the more vocal advocates of abolition over reform seem to be men. Could this be another example of men, even well-meaning men, feeling impelled to tell women what’s best for them? Perhaps we should listen to ex-kumaris themselves.

None claim the system is perfect, and most are frank about the challenges of making the transition from child goddess to ordinary girl. Nonetheless, much has changed in the last few decades when all have gone on to successful secular lives, speaking of their service as being an honour. In that spirit I’ll defer to Rashmila Shakya, Royal Kumari between 1984 and 1991, now married and holding an MA in Information Technology. In 2007 she spoke on behalf of eight former kumaris. “Nowadays there is a lot of noise about the human rights of the Kumari” she said. “People say she is treated unjustly and harshly. I can tell you this is not my experience”. Or to Preeti Shakya who was Royal Kumari from 2001 to 2008. As a university student studying to be a banker, she assured an interviewer in 2019 that “I am a 100 per cent normal Nepali girl who is free to do anything!”

Preeti Shaka then and now

Food for Thought?
There is a greeting in South Asian culture – “namaste” – which has migrated into English through the practice of yoga. Literally it just means “I bow to you”, but for many it carries the sense of “the divine in me salutes the divine in you”. Well, if there’s a divine spark in all of us, would it be such a bad thing if, after millennia of patriarchy, we men marked International Women’s Day on March 8th as an occasion to honour the “living goddess” within every woman?  For the record, I understand that many kumaris appreciate offerings of chocolate.

Feature photo at the top  is of Trishna Sakya, the Royal Kumari when I visited, courtesy of CNN NEWS18
Photos of Preeti Shakya by Zoe Osborne, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 2019



To form your own opinion:

For a comprehensive and authoritative view from a woman’s perspective, see Isabella Tree’s The Living Goddess (Haryana: Penguin India, 2014). In a 15-minute video called Nepal and the Living Goddess with Isabella Tree she speaks to many of the points discussed here. Rashmila Shakya told her her own story in From Goddess to Mortal (Thamel, Kathmandu: Vajrya Publications, 2005). For an open-minded man’s thoughts from his perspective as a Muslim, see  Khalid Al Ameri’s 14-minute video I Met A Kumari Child Goddess In Nepal (if you can bear with the annoying commercials). His guide is a former Pathan Kumari, who now has an MBA. For Canadian constitutional arrangements see Eugene A. Forsey’s classic How Canadians Govern Themselves. (Ottawa: Minister of Public Works and Government Services Canada, 2016)