Who are the Kumari, Living Goddesses of Nepal?

The earthly embodiments of the Living Goddess the Kumari of Nepal lead fascinatingly different lives than anything most Westerners would find familiar.

Many people in the South Asian country of Nepal believe in the worship of young girls called Kumari, meaning virgin in Sanskrit. The Kumari are young girls who are said to be the Living Goddess, an incarnation of the demon slaying, six-armed Hindu goddess Taleju.  

Potential candidates of 2-4 years of age are subject to various tests and finally elevated to the height of a Kumari and is continually worshipped until the girl hits puberty or bleeds.

Kumari are chosen from the Newar Shakya caste in the Kathmandu valley. Lord Gautama Buddha is believed to belong to the same sect. There are 11 Kumari in all distributed all over Nepal. The selection process is initiated and finished by five senior Buddhist Vajracharya priests also known as the Panch Buddha (Panch meaning five in Sanskrit) and the King of Nepal and all other religious leaders are kept informed about the entire process.

Young girls who have an excellent health, never been infected by any diseases, have never bled and not lost even a single tooth until then are shortlisted. These girls are then examined for battis lakshanas (32 features in Sanskrit) with some of the prominent ones being:

  • Conch shell-like neck
  • Body like a banyan tree
  • Eyelashes resembling that of a cow
  • Deer like thighs
  • Chest like a lion
  • Clear and soft voice like that of a duck

If one possesses these qualities, a few tests that may seem strange to foreigners are conducted. The young girl is taken to the courtyard of a Taleju temple where men wearing demon like masks dance around recently decapitated buffalo and goat heads. At this stage, if the young girl expresses fear, she is rejected and another girl with all the above features is subject to the same test. Finally, the girl that remains unafraid throughout the entire process is made to select a clothing of the previous Kumari from various articles laid in front of her. After this is completed, her body and soul are cleansed through various tantric rituals and the Kumari is made to wear traditional red clothing. Once the rituals are completed, she is presented as a Kumari to the audience and is made to walk across a white cloth to arrive at the Kumari Ghar, or the Palace of the Kumari.

The Kumari attracts devotees from both Hindus and Buddhists, and they believe so much in her that, getting even a glimpse of the Kumari is considered to be a good sign of fortune. She occasionally sits in her courtyard to meet and bless people from all backgrounds where people visit her in large numbers with gifts and offerings. She is closely observed when having an audience with a devotee and her actions are interpreted. For example, many believe if she cries or rubs her eyes, it is an indication that the person will not live much longer. With such levels of devotion to the Kumari, those around her grant her every wish.

However, there are drawbacks too of being a Kumari, with restrictions sometimes so intense that even her family is not allowed to visit her frequently. She will be worshipped until she hits puberty or her menstrual cycle starts. Historically, Kumari did not receive a formal education, but with practices advancing with the times, modern Kumari are allowed to attend schools without any restrictions, and some are also allowed to stay in their own houses with their families.  These Kumari are made to return to play their part only on a few holy days. The most famous of the Living Goddesses, Royal Kumari of Kathmandu, is home schooled by a private tutor. But the major drawback of being a Kumari is that, there is a turnaround in her life when she hits puberty.  A new Kumari succeeds her and many hold the superstition that whoever marries a Kumari is doomed to die coughing up blood within the next 180 days. However, recent Kumari have been dispelling this legend as they lead successfully married lives with living husbands.

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