Samita Bajracharya the little girl who became a Kumari living goddess

Samita Bajracharya, Kumari in Nepal
Portrait of the Patan Kumari
Samita Bajracharya as the Patan Kumari living goddess of Nepal

When a girl becomes a Kumari goddess …

My first quest in search of the Kumari was filled with my hope and desire to simply find a legendary person that had alluded me for years. My second hope was to meet and photograph the Kumari. I accomplished this yet at the same time failed when I realized that I was in front of a small child that could become a “tourist attraction” much like the unfortunate fate of the Bhaktapur Kumari several years ago. However in turn I received something else that was perhaps far more valuable which stood by all of us.

When confronted with meeting the world’s only living goddess I saw something that touched my heart. I saw a little girl called Samita shouldering the weight of a cultures legacy, history and responsibility.

While getting to know the family, I returned to Samita and their residence at the Kumari palace thereafter many times over the years.

The Kumari is not allowed to speak to anyone other than her advisers or family. Throughout all my visits I spoke to her only through her family.

This is that story.

Samita’s life as a Kumari according to legend and fact

The Kumari giving a blessing to a Newari lady
The Kumari giving a blessing to a friend of mine who is a Newari lady

The goddess Taleju lived within the body of Samita. When Samita becomes a woman and has her first menstruation the goddess will move on and Samita will once again be a regular person. Albeit with a historical past.

The Kumari is not allowed to leave her residence unless for official ceremonies and her feet must not touch the ground.

The Kumari’s current schooling is different from many other Kumari’s from the past. Today she is taught via a private tutor so keeps up-to-date with her former classmates curriculum.

Someone even donated a computer to her residence. It was not connected to the internet more from a lack of funds and knowledge than access. When there is electricity Samita watches an animated series, an occasional movie and of course there is some educational software installed. Later the computer would be substituted by a smartphone.

A Kumari is never to leave her house

Living inside the Kumari household she can only leave on ceremonial occasions. Even then, when the Kumari leaves the house, her feet may never touch the ground.

Luck was with me on my first visit as when I asked when would the next official ceremony be taking place. Her parents told me there would be one in a few days time.

I asked if I could return and visit once more. I made it clear that I’d like to document the Kumari’s life and get to know them all better. I was invited back to join the family prior to a ceremony in Patan. (Do read my travel guide to Patan)

How strange it is to tell the parents of a young girl you just met that you really only want to know their daughter better to learn more about the Kumari. Alas, I bear western cynicism. There were no issues of course. This was after all the Living Goddess. Who would not want to spend more time with such a presence.

In Kathmandu there were doubters though. How could I have been granted such a role. Such doubt was silenced when I was permitted to bring them as invited guests.

Photographing the Kumari

Photograph of Kumari's face
Photograph of the Kumari

Being able to photograph the Kumari as her ritual make-up was being applied was a privilege. I will note here for the record that following this several national and international press would follow this story and try the same. Although I would find out later that these commercial professionals failed as I nearly did before in something much more important.

Perhaps this is the difference: I made a promise to a child. Someone that you will learn more about a little later.

Meanwhile I was to photograph the Kumari and publish the photographs here to show the rest of the world beyond Nepal what and who the Kumari really is. Behind the scenes however something much better was happening. First though, there was the ceremony to prepare for.

Photograph of Samita Bajracharya
Photograph of Samita Bajracharya

Applying the traditional make-up and dress of the Kumari

Samita was already seated on a large wooden chair when I entered with my Nepali friend who had come for a blessing. Expertly her mother tended to a make-up case that would be used to create the iconic agni chakchuu or “fire eye” painted on the Kumari’s forehead.

Kumari make up being applied
Samita’s mother applying Kumari make up

Using only the daylight from an open high window the process began in earnest. Samita sat patiently as if this was nothing new. Yet unlike many other children her age she showed neither frustration nor boredom. She was already showing maturity beyond her years.

I sat opposite them and made a few lighthearted jokes. While her mother laughed Samita remained rigid and unsmiling.

It would not be proper for a Kumari to laugh.

With dark pure eyes like that of a fawn it was hard not to imagine them filled with the laughter of child. While there was an occasional sparkle, perhaps it was more in my minds eye, as the Kumari remained in full focus with the rights and rituals at hand.

The ceremonial dress of the Kumari

Make-up applied it was now time to don the Kumari robes. Heavy red garments weighed down with intricate gold embroidery. Then solid silver bracelets that clanked heavily were placed around Samita’s wrists.

Following this weighty necklace after weighty necklace, each adorned with different symmetrical shapes, were draped around her neck like rested armor.

Kumari being dressed in ceremonial attire
Samita the Kumari being dressed in ceremonial attire

I joked to Samita that she must be very strong to lift all that jewelry and if it were me I would fall over. With that I pretended to fall off my chair with the fictitious weight of heavy necklaces.

Finally there was …

A child called Samita

Vast crowds were filling the ancient streets of Patan for the ceremony. I no longer wanted to photograph the Kumari there. I know Nepali ceremonies well and I know how crowded and rowdy they get.

Instead I watched from afar with my friend over lunch as the boisterous crowds gathered in the streets below. All the while this girl who is a goddess and the center of attention remained ever dutiful.

On their return to her residence I showed Samita’s mother the photographs I’d taken from the screen at the back of my camera. They were all seen by others in the room with much jubilation.

By now there was a causal repartee so I asked her mother if there was anything Samita would like on my next visit. Words were exchanged between them. I remained on the outer circle and waited with intent as my ulterior motive came to task.

Had I proven my worth as a friend yet.

Samita’s mother explained that of all the press, magazines and photographers that had visited her few, if any, had returned with the photographs they’d taken.

Something not to uncommon to hear from the life of travel I live. From my visits to this bare house there was indeed a lack of memorabilia save for a small school notebook with two clippings.

There was no questioning this. I promised to return with printed photographs.

Yet still there was a brief look of doubt in the room. Perhaps I was still thinking as a guest and not a friend.

I extended my promise by returning to the girl who is a goddess with a second promise which started with a question asking if there was a “girl” who could have another gift other than said photographs what would it be?

It took a while of family talk but the answer came from her mother.

A Barbie.”

Again there was no second guessing. I left with a third promise to return by a certain date.

Printing and presenting the photographs to Samita

In an old school photographers studio in Kathmandu a man clutched at a brown envelope.

Photograph of the Kumari living goddess
Photograph of the Kumari living goddess in Nepal

It’s the best I’ve ever seen, you did well.

“Dhanyabaad” I replied.

There was an awkward silence for a while as the man looked around.

“May I display a copy?”

I paused for a while at this hushed tone before remembering the watermark. “Yes, you may.”

The man shook my hand with no smile but with an air of respect. He was not Newari but he did hold respect for the custom of the Kumari. Something I found unusual among non-Newari Nepali. Yet among the Newari people themselves my growing knowledge and first hand experience lent towards deeper conversation at long last.

Later, on another side of Kathmandu, I moved further into the streets in search of what a girl would like in a country that does not produce nor at the time import children’s toys. In one small corner store I found dusty shelves filled with random action men, plastic flowers, vases and toy dinner sets. Choices were indeed limited.

Decorating the feet of the Kumari
Samita’s mother decorates the feet of the Kumari

A girl’s best friend

I returned to Haka Baha (monastery) that is a home where I had made new friends. I held the large brown envelope that contained the printed photographs large enough to take pride of place on a wall. A gift wrapped box containing a doll. And a small bag containing soaps, make-up remover and shampoo.

I can, but will not, explain the feeling of watching someone unwrap the gift of a doll and holding it in their arms. Of opening boxes of fragrant soap nor sniffing curiously with wide-eyed wonder at the scent of new shampoo.

What I can say is that at such a time in Nepal, seeing photographs of yourself being returned to you seems to bring about a sense of wonder and revelry.

It is when witnessing such a simple act as presenting a photograph that depicts such an unusual time in one’s life that you get the feeling of helping to create a legacy. Not just for a family, but for a girl who may one day look back trying to recall their childhood years.

Later, I received my blessing from the goddess. It seems the man who traveled to many cultures preferred to show his worth before accepting such a privilege.

Samita’s future

On my visits to Samita’s home I asked of things like the internet, Facebook and school friends. One is aware of them naturally. And no doubt one will perhaps one day be able to participate in them as well. My website stickers placed on the back of the photographs will also, maybe, one day direct a girl I once knew as the Kumari to this place you read now. A place that is my home from home and my legacy.

I hope Samita approves.

Computer of the Kumari for education
Samita’s computer – donated to her for educational purposes

Whilst here, the faint whispers of childhood memories might be rekindled for a young girl and her family. For surrounding Samita are a loving family that are there for her. To say her mother dotes over her protectively is an understatement. Once her time as a Kumari is over Samita will return to school under the guidance of parents who know their daughter well.

Nepal is changing, as is the life of a Kumari. Old tales are being replaced by modern dictates. I hope Samita’s future will be that of the new generation of Nepali who will have access to and embrace knowledge. With this comes understanding and yet more questions. I am sure she will do well based on this her upbringing.

I do however fear in the near future the three main Kumari’s will become permanent tourist attractions in Nepal. Seeing today’s Nepal I have little doubt that this will indeed become fact. I wish it not to be the case.

And yes, I am aware that I too may have contributed to this. However, much like my first desire to never write about Nepal and keep it a secret from mass tourism. It is a foolish notion. Sooner or later this matter is bound to happen.

So my take on easing my conscious is to perform an additional role in trying to respectfully preserve some of this golden past.

My hope is that by publishing these articles people will learn the facts about the Kumari. Understand them and perhaps see beyond the goddess without being too critical of another culture. More personally I hope Samita and her family will have a keepsake they will remember when looking back on their years living in a Kumari household.

In retrospect, it tells a lot that many people from around the world have copied the information here or studied it for their own purpose without credit nor mention. Yet, I have remained friends with this family ever since. The value and honesty of some people is very lucid.

The future of the Kumari and Samita

Samita the Kumari of Patan
Samita the little girl who is the Kumari of Patan

Many years ago I wanted to find a legend. I returned to Nepal and did just that. I met a goddess and saw my own truth. I took effort and endeavored to favor not the goddess but the little girl who will one day re-emerge.

My hope is that she retains a child like genuine smile that will emblazon her angelic face once such a cultural duty has been removed.

As for the man who was humbled by this meeting. I finally received my formal blessing from the Kumari. I also have with me the blessing of meeting a little girl with a loving family in a home away from home.

(the story, did not stop here though. Read on to discover more)

Throughout this article I revealed to you snippets of my many visits to the Kumari. In doing so certain people might try to read between some lines. Let me confirm one thing for certain. The Kumari and her family upheld all the divine rights that the Kumari are obligated to uphold. In doing so I, as well as others, now have more respect for the Kumari, the Newari people, the Nepalese people and the country of Nepal. 

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 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 – or download my guidebook to Nepal for full details.

Read the full series here:

Part 1: In Search of the Kumari

Part 2: Meeting a Living Goddess: the Kumari

Part 3 (current): Samita Bajracharya the little girl who became a Kumari living goddess

Part 4: From Living Goddess to former Kumari & schoolgirl

Information: Facts on The Kumari of Nepal

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30 Replies to “Samita Bajracharya the little girl who became a Kumari living goddess”

  1. Pingback: @sydyvicious
  2. Such a heartwarming story. Amazing photos! Well done for getting a true behind the scenes look at this part of the world.

  3. A beautiful article and equally beautiful photos. I hope that when Samita is older, she can smile and maybe the photos can be a reason for her to smile. Nepal sounds like a divine place and I feel both drawn to visit because of the wonderful stories that I have heard and hesitant to visit because of the way that tourism will change the country. These pictures need never be lost however and I am grateful to you for sharing them.

    1. Thanks Jamie. The idea that Samita will one day stumble across this page is one of the reason for creating it. If for anything she can always have a place to just ask for the photos (memories) to be sent to her again.

  4. Amazing photos and this is beautifully written. Definitely one of the best stories I’ve ever read. Good job Dave!

  5. Congratulations on a great series. I learned so much about things that I had never even heard of before!

  6. What a well written piece on an unusual cultural story. The photographs are truly beautiful.Credit to you Dave for bringing this tradition to light.

  7. Hi Dave, I sincerely love the whole series and thanks for doing it and shared with us. I can’t stop looking at those beautiful photos of the Kumari, especially the two where her expression kind of relax and soften. She captures my heart :)
    Maybe you could visit her & the family again after she has turned to a regular person and document it again. Of course it will be years to come but do you think I have turned into a heartless tourist myself?

    1. Hi Mandy, I’m very glad you enjoyed this – even with the little wait at the end ;)

      Yes, I’d like to visit Samita and her Family again one day. Though I do think some of the magic fades on those occasions. Maybe this will be the exception that proves the rule.

      No, I don’t think you are a heartless tourist! I think there’s a difference between learning, educating and taking advantage of a situation. At the moment, the Kumari are safe. I hope it stays that way.

  8. Excellent reportage Dave with a real human touch, very moving and informative. Superb pics, too.

    I wonder why supporters or the Govt or whoever can’t provide adequate funds for her to have decent internet access / a better education … since she’s so house-bound for her role.

    1. Hi Michael,

      I think many within the Nepalese Gov would like to see the end of the Kumari tradition. They are after all “modernizing”.

      I also believe the Newari Kumari council are a separate entity to the government. And want it that way.

      Whenever there is a new political leader they go first to the Kumari for a blessing.

      A few years ago the former King raced through Kathmandu to get try and get a blessing from the Kumari before the newly democratically elected Prime Minister. He didn’t make it. So there’s that side of politics too. Unfortunately.

      There’s also the battle to keep the Kumari tradition going. Human rights organisations wouldn’t be crying if the whole thing stopped. If you open the flood gates for a internet access via donation or HR appeals then the next thing will be something akin to being allowed outside, to speak, no initiation etc. All of which sort of define the Kumari tradition.

      But yes, a higher pension post Kumari should considered. The problem no doubt is what sector will the funding come from? Government, Newari donations, or perhaps most unnerving – tourism.

  9. Pingback: @mayamendoza
  10. I love this article.
    I could write lines and lines about why, but saying I love it sums it up pretty good:)
    It’s the tone, the sincerity, the beautiful pictures AND the fact that my attention didn’t slip away for one second (while having about ten other website open at the samen time plus my email).
    Looking forward to your future stories!

  11. Quite a read. Interesting subject the Kumari on many levels. Not sure how many have got as far as you have on this. Well done for that alone!

  12. A very touching story, it’s such a big responsibility for a little girl to be Kumari. She’s more pretty with a smile on her face.

  13. Beautiful! I was actually there when they had chosen a new goddess (maybe the one before Samita) … and missed her appearance. I think work got in the way :( I should have just gone.

  14. I didn’t meet Samita but your blog post made me feel like I did. You were very lucky to have this kind of discovery about the living goddess.

    As I read through your article, I felt the message you apparently want to convey: that Samita, like any other girl, is a girl. Despite the huge responsibility on her shoulders, she is a girl.

    I was particularly struck when you said that Kumari’s aren’t allowed to laugh. I wonder how difficult that is.

    I am very glad that you shared this to us. I also wish that someday, when Samita had served her responsibilities, she’ll get to experience what typical young girls do. :)

  15. excellent article, thank you for sharing the story of the kumari, I thoroughly enjoy learning facts about cultures other than my own I am so happy you were able to bring the photos back to the goddess nice job!

  16. Fascinating.

    And my congratulations on recognizing that there’s a little girl with feelings beneath all the makeup and ceremony.

  17. Hi,
    This was a wonderful article with amazing photos. I am going to Nepal in a few months and have wanted to see Kumari for many years, but I am slightly uncomfortable with the thought of her being a tourist attraction. Do you think it is a good idea for foreigners to try to meet her? I wouldn’t be there to gawk, I really want her blessing, but still….
    Can I ask when your initial meeting took place and was it really just as simple as turning up and ringing the doorbell?
    If I do visit Patan, and am lucky enough to see the Kumari, I would also like to take her a gift. Offerings of course for the goddess, but a gift for the girl – do you have any ideas of what she’d like? I fear she may be inudated with Barbies after the publication of this article! :)

    1. Hi Siobhan,

      So far I do not see a huge issue with tourists visiting the Kumari in Patan. I do know the Bhaktapur Kumari had previous problems when they took her to the USA. That was slightly different.

      I visited Samita & family a few weeks ago and can tell you little has changed. There’s a few more photos on the wall and yes a couple of extra Barbie dolls. But they still live very simply. I brought her a handbag.

      Do keep in mind that by the time you get to Nepal Samita may not be the Kumari anymore, there might be a new one. For now though, she is. As for a gift — well just think about what any girl her age would like and I’m sure she’ll be happy. Red is a good color for her!

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