At first glance, it looks like just one of many centuries-old temples here in Durbar Square, Kathmandu. Its exterior is solid brick with wood-carved windows, and two beastly lions are standing guard on either side of the main entrance. There's also a new addition to the temple, and most others, in post-earthquake Nepal: a series of wooden posts angled into the side of the building for extra support.
But there’s something even more peculiar that catches my eye. Just below the roof are three consecutive windows. The two on the outside of the trio are painted maroon and the one in the middle is bright gold. It looks like a podium, framed out for someone to appear and speak to a crowd below. I approach the entrance and read a plaque that hangs beside the door. Indeed, this is no ordinary building. My local guide, Rajir Shrestha, walks up beside me as I read the words over and over.
The House of the Living Goddess.
I’m no stranger to religion, but this was the first time I was hearing about living Gods. I was not aware that Nepal, as a country, worships not one, but five Living Goddesses who are thought to be the manifestation of the Hindu goddess Taleju. Known as a Kumari, a word meaning “princess,” each Living Goddess takes on a life of ceremonial duties, and is fully worshipped and revered by the Nepalese people. In Kathmandu, the Kumari lives in this temple, and leaves only to take part in religious festivals. As a man from the West, I’m used to Gods who don’t appear, and I grow excited at the possibility of seeing one. “Is she in there?” I ask. Raj smiles, and nods his head for us to go inside.
Unlike Gods in the Western religions, Kumaris are not born into deity. Quite the opposite, in fact—they actually compete for the honor, and are selected by a committee. A girl presented for selection as a Kumari can be of any pre-pubescent age, but of the ones who qualify, the youngest is always selected for reasons of purity, typically in the range of three to seven years of age. The girls are screened according to four criteria: family background, physical qualities, bravery, and natal sign. Though the girls all represent a Hindu Goddess, a potential Living Goddess must be from a Buddhist family. And in the past, her natal sign must have aligned with that of the current King (Nepal has not had a King since 2008, so this is now a little more ambivalent).
“The main role of the Kumari, as the girl is from a Buddhist family and the goddess that she represents is a Hindu goddess, is to integrate two communities—Buddhist and Hindu, and bring peace in the kingdom,” says Raj. “So this is seen as the symbol of unity.”
The physical evaluation includes a rigorous examination of 32 characteristics of perfection: The chest of a lion, thighs of a deer, and the body of a banyan tree, for example. These descriptions of folklore translate into a complete inspection of the body for blemishes and appropriate proportions, ensuring the girl is fit to embody and represent a godly being.
When it comes to testing bravery, the young girls are usually subjected to adult situations in order to see how they respond. “For example, they might take the girl to the temple to view an animal sacrifice ritual,” Raj explains. “They want to see whether or not she will cry.”
With the tests results from all the “contestants” compiled, a committee of a half dozen Buddhist elders selects one. Each Living Goddess serves until she hits puberty and goes through her first menstruation. At that point, she will be sent back to her family to be reintegrated into society, and the selection process will begin again.
Despite the exposing selection processes, families are more than willing to nominate their daughters for the honor. The life of a woman was very tough in the past (they carried almost all of the workload in society), and because the Goddesses don't have to work, families were very eager to put their daughter up for it.
“It is an honor to be the parents of a Living Goddess,” says Raj. “If she’s a Living Goddess, she doesn’t have to work as other girls. The family will be seen as having high status in the society.”
But that honor and high status did not translate well into marriage. Believe it or not, the Living Goddesses often had trouble finding someone to marry due to the fact that they are excluded from manual labor.
“There’s a joke about the guy who marries the Living Goddess, that he will die first, so it was not that easy for the Living Goddess to find a man to marry,” Raj said. “It was because, at the time, marriage was to have one more person in your family to work in the field, so the objective of marriage wouldn’t be fulfilled if you marry the Living Goddess.”
Nowadays it is totally different, Raj says, and the influx of Western principles into Nepalese society certainly has something to do with that. Gender equality is on the rise, and today women are able to have careers of their own independent of their family or husband.
“At present, [the Living Goddesses] will have everything as they had before—name, fame, and high status—but the significance of these things at present is not same as before,” he says. “Life as a woman is beginning to improve in Nepal, and there is less of a rescue factor in the idea of becoming a Goddess.”
The life of those that do become Kumaris is also changing. In the past, most of the former Kumaris have gone on to become housewives, field workers, or small store owners. But now, the Kumaris also have a chance to go on and have a professional career when they come back to society. “It was only a few years ago that they started educating the Kumaris during their reign, so most of the current-day Kumaris will continue their studies once they return to society, giving them a good chance of attending college and starting a career later in life,” Raj says.
We walk inside the temple to find a basic, brick-layered courtyard, formed in the shape of a square. There are many windows on all sides overlooking the courtyard, and each sill is overrun by pigeons. At the far end, there is a series of painted windows, similar to the ones found outside. Here, signs warn against taking photos of the Kumari when she appears. I look up at the windows. A Kumari can wear only red, so she’s sure to catch my eye. There’s another sign that warns against foreigners entering the temple. Any Nepalese can go inside and get a blessing from the Kumari, but as a foreigner, this courtyard is as far as I can go. Raj and I wait, but ultimately we move on.
On the way out of the Temple, Raj tells me he’s sorry I didn’t get to see the Kumari.
“That’s okay,” I tell him. “It’s not every day you even have the chance.”
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