The Kumaris of Nepal: virgin girls that are living goddesses
This is my story in searching, understanding and uncovering the Kumari of Nepal. I’ve been writing about the Kumari for over 10 years now. To understand it all a little better I suggest one should know who or what the living goddess known as the Kumari is first.
The Kumari is a premenstrual girl selected by a Newari (ethnic group of the Kathmandu Valley) 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 to get a much better understanding of the living goddess, the misconceptions involved, the controversies and the history.
Sadly, today many tour companies and guides are taking advantage of both tourists, these girls and their families. Taking a tour to a Kumari is not needed. Visit independently as a respectful visitor to another cultures religious beliefs. Leave the selfies and payments at home folks.
Meanwhile this is my personal account in search of the Kumari in Nepal.
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 known as Kumari Ghar. The guidebooks stated 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 photographs”, touts claiming no one could see her and a few tourists impressed only with the ornate wooden Taleju carvings surrounding her outer courtyard.
Then, the girl appears on a balcony. It’s over.
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. Something antagonized by money hungry travel agents and tours. The second controversy was due to the former King and current prime ministers 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 a lingering legend being pushed to the back of my mind.
A return visit to Nepal and uncovering the Kumari legend
In my subsequent return to Nepal I thought again of capturing a photograph of the Kumari. I had begun writing travel guides to Nepal and this became part of my research. 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 Nepali 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 Nepali peoples thoughts on the Kumari in Nepal
During my research I asked many Nepali people for their views on the Kumari 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 Nepali (read more about Nepal’s caste system here). The reaction was a polar opposite even among professionals. Clarity had arrived.
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 nor did I want to make her into some sort of “attraction”.
The Kumari custom was now under yet another controversy. Since Nepal opened up, human rights activists were adamant that Kumari girls were being mistreated by not being allow a normal life.
The Shakya and Bajracharya families who are largely the ones within the Kumari belief structure couldn’t have been nicer nor more caring over their children.
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.
The tour guides I’d met previous often babbled on about there being one Kumari. Then another would say there are for. Another would say there were eleven Kumari in Nepal. Ask a random guide and you’d get a random answer. The truth is that many Newari villages who believe in the Kumari incarnation will have a Kumari – just not an elaborate one like this.
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 was becoming spoiled by the greed of frequented tourists. This all changed post 2015 earthquake when the communities of Bhaktapur took a stance on reconstruction. In 2018, Bhaktapur Durbar Square has become better than the other Durbar Squares.
It’s the only former royal capital that now does not accept foreign donations for heritage reconstruction “under condition”. Meaning, Bhaktapur uses local workers and techniques to rebuild it’s monuments only by way of the entrance fees and “non-conditional” donations.
One can stay in the city and pay the fee only once. I stayed quiet often in Bhaktapur and enjoyed the city. The people are still friendly though beginning to show the strains of mass tourism.
I’ve visited Bhaktapur Durbar Square on many occasions. Meeting with several people I was told me the Kumari of Bhaktapur’s story in full. I will admit here that I seemed to have missed the boat. I sensed tourism visitations and something not sitting too right.
Everything was very stages and somewhat circus like. The guides were all over the place. It was not so pleasant. If I didn’t know better, I’d say they would have no issue dressing any girl up like a Kumari and just say “give us money”.
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. The Gai Jatra Festival is one such occasion where you can see the Kumari like this.
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. Indeed, we’ve all remain friends every since.
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.
Since this story was first published many from the media have tried to copy it. Sadly, as they try to rewrite it, they leave out many essential parts about the Kumari. Further, several Nepali travel agents and guides try to sell tours to see the Kumari. Please do not partake in these tours no matter how “community” focused these companies say the are. They are simply cheating the Kumari families by only offering token payments. As a tourist, you do not need a tour to visit a Kumari. Read on to find out how to visit a Kumari yourself – or download my guidebook to Nepal for full details.
Read the full series here:
Part 1 (current): In Search of the Kumari
Information: Facts on The Kumari of Nepal
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