The Kumaris of Nepal: virgin girls that are living goddesses
This is my story in searching, understanding and uncovering the Kumari of Nepal. To understand it a little better I suggest one should know who or what the living goddess known as the Kumari is.
The Kumari is a premenstrual girl selected by a Newari council to be the vessel or incarnation of the Hindu goddess Taleju. She must undertake a controversial selection process and an equally questioned life until menstruation ends her time as a living deity.
That is a mere summary. I do encourage you to read my full fact article on the Kumari of Nepal (available next month) to get a much better understanding of this living goddess, the misconceptions involved, the controversies and the history.
Meanwhile this is my personal account in search of the Kumari.
First attempt at visiting a Kumari in Nepal
It’s no secret that the Kumari lives in a house located in Durbar square in Kathmandu. The guidebooks state this with ease adding that catching a glimpse of her was possible through an upper window yet very rare.
I did try during my first visit to Nepal arriving in 2007. I went to her residence during several mornings, afternoons and evenings. All I ever saw were a few signs saying “no photo”, touts claiming no one could see her and a few tourists impressed only with the ornate wooden carvings surrounding her outer courtyard.
Trying in vain to meet the Kumari
Back then I asked questions about the possibility of seeing her. They were denounced as not possible. I wondered why. Quite simply I had taken both the wrong approach and was caught between ongoing internal Kumari problems.
The Kumari caretakers had become very protective due to the Bhaktapur Kumari scandal when she left the country. And due to the former King and current prime ministers controversial battle as to who should be blessed by the Kumari. The Prime minister won.
So it wasn’t to be. I left Nepal for Tibet in 2008 with only the sense of lingering legend being pushed to the back of my mind.
A return visit to Nepal and uncovering the Kumari legend
In my recent return to Nepal I thought again of capturing a photograph of the Kumari. I knew her caretakers would not let this happen for the sake of a humble tourists photograph. So I asked the right people and to cut everything short it was indeed possible. But … at a price.
Disappointed I felt that even the legends of travel had been corrupted by money. Had I missed my chance or was I simply being naive to think one could see a goddess without paying a financial price.
I set out to speak with local Nepalese people to find out more and if it was possible to photograph a former Kumari. Surely that would be possible? And it was. But again at a price. However this time it seemed more acceptable due to former Kumari’s lifestyles.
It is said the sudden journey from being a child to becoming a deity to being a child again can take its toll.
The Nepalese peoples thoughts on the Kumaris in Nepal
During my research I asked many Nepalese people for their views on the Kumaris in Nepal. Surprisingly many cast off the idea of having a Kumari as being ridiculous, stupid and from the past. I was shocked by the strong feelings and words I was hearing.
Of course my research on the Kumaris in Nepal had only just begun. I began to piece together the elements that made the Kumari possible and spent a day with several Newari caste Nepalese (read more about Nepal’s caste system here). The reaction was a polar opposite even among professionals.
Indeed I was even questioned as to why I should dare doubt the Kumari legend before I could ask anything of it.Clearly there were some who had strong ideals about who many believe the Kumari is.
Among the ancient Newari people beliefs are as strong today as they were hundreds of years ago.
It took a while but after listening for many hours to many people I seemed to finally wear several of them down into accepting I simply wanted to know about “The Kumari”. I was not there to judge their girl child rituals, beliefs nor her standing in society.
As in most cases the real answer was as sedately simple as one should expect:
“She is a representative of a (our) deity”
Visiting the Kumari in Nepal
So with defenses lowered I asked the inevitable question on visiting the Kumari. It was of course possible. But what of photographs or more? Only at a ceremony. And even then it was rare to get the privilege of photographing her alone.
We spoke more. We spoke of the Kumari history. And so it came to pass I would ask of the other Kumari and learn about the Bhaktapur Kumari and Patan Kumari. Each one under the Kathmandu Royal Kumari. Whom is the most revered Kumari in all Nepal.
But what use to me would it be to visit the Royal Kumari and not take a photograph, speak a word nor find out what isn’t already known? Yes, within the Newari caste I was not making any sense. Why should I be?
They revered the Royal Kumari above all else. The mere idea of finding out more, photographing or questioning anything about her seemed taboo. I was an outsider looking in through a keyhole. So I kept questioning to the point of understanding more of the Newari traditions.
What if something were to happen to the Royal Kumari? Yes, the answer was that the Bhaktapur Kumari was the next highest Kumari in Nepal.
In search of the Kumari in Bhaktapur
Bhaktapur is one of the oldest and most beautiful of ancient cities in Nepal if not the world. It is unfortunately a UNESCO world heritage site and thus much of it is becoming spoiled by the greed of frequented tourists now paying a hefty entrance fee into the central city.
One can stay in the city and pay the fee only once. Or one can circumvent the whole entrance fee by taking a different route into the city. I stayed in Bhaktapur and enjoyed the city quite well. The people are still friendly though beginning to show the strains of tourism.
I visited Bhaktapur durbar square on many occasions. Meeting with several people who told me the Kumari of Bhaktapur’s story. I will admit here that I seemed to have missed the boat. I sensed tourism visitations and something not sitting too right. It might have been me but when in search of legends I tend to rely on gut instinct. So I left pursuing the matter no more. (Do check out my free Bhaktapur travel guide)
A chance encounter with a past Kumari
Nepal is full of surprises when you least expect them. I was now on a search for a former Kumari with the serious intent of simply taking a photograph and possibly interviewing her. If you have ever seen a Kumari in full royal robes with the striking makeup featuring the agni chakchuu or “fire eye” painted on her forehead then you might know why.
I made my search public and outright. In doing so one day I heard from a lady who claimed to have visited the very real Kumari in residence several years ago. Was it possible? Was I chasing a legend in daft circles and yet the answer lay under the breath of a lady who had by accident stumbled upon the goddess with ease?
My relegated search for a past Kumari was leading me to the all too real living goddess of today.
There were no formalities. A local taxi would provide the means to locate a building that was there no more. Again in search of Nepal’s legends the country did not disappoint at its most basic. Simply asking people were the Kumari’s house was gave simple shrugs and a pointed fingers.
Standing outside a gate guarded by stone lions I peered into an open empty courtyard.
It seemed I was indeed about to meet a living goddess. The Kumari. And on these very moments of completing a quest in search of a legend I can only tell you that it is indeed worth it.
I was about to not only meet with the living goddess that is a Kumari of Nepal. But I was to get to know the goddess by her former name, meet her family, be invited back, offer and receive a quest, and yes photograph her in all her child goddess like glory.
I would also have to call into question if any child should be put through this and whether I had indeed any right to say otherwise.
Read the full series here:
Part 1 (current): In Search of the Kumari
Information: Facts on The Kumari of Nepal
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