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Nepal is known across the world for its living cultures and traditions. The Living Goddess, Kumari has held the fascination of the world as a long practiced tradition of Nepal. It is believed that Kumari is an incarnation of the Hindu goddess Taleju Bhawani in the body of a pure pre-pubescent girl. She is worth worshiping until she suffers some kind of injury, illness or until her first period. Pre-pubescent girls of Shakya and Bajracharya clan are selected as a Kumari. In this edition, WOW talks to three former Living Goddesses about what it means to be a Kumari.

Text by: Pabita Dahal
wow photo file © Ram Tandukar/Gokul Shrees

Chanira Bajracharya

Chanira Bajracharya was the living goddess of Patan for ten years from 2057 to 2067 B.S. Now a 24 year old, Chanira is a student of MBA at Kathmandu University School of Management and dreams of establishing her own business. She was chosen as Kumari at the age of five. She has no regrets being the living goddess. Kumari is taken as the incarnation of the fearsome Hindu goddess Durga. When Chanira was under the title of living Goddess, she used to feel supreme. “I get the divine vibes when I wear the red costume of Kumari and get ready for the processions. Being in the chariot for jatras or blessing devotees visiting Kumari Ghar made me feel different,” she says. She elaborates, “I cannot explain what it felt like. It was as though I was guided by some other energy. When people came to worship the Kumari with a special wish; sometimes my intuition would not allow me to accept their prayers and offerings, I would feel angry abruptly. And sometimes even normal worship would thrill me. I was functioning through a different energy source. Maybe that was the effect of the divine power.”

Though Ratnakar Manabihar is the residence of the Kumari now, the Kumari of Patan was allowed to live with her parents at home up to 2070 B.S. Chanira and her aunt Dhankumari Bajracharya who claims to be a lifetime Kumari had this privilege. Dhankumari is 70 now and has remained as the official Kumari for the longest time in the history of Patan from 2011 to 2042 B.S. She was 30 when she retired. She never had a menstruation cycle.

Chanira is the first Kumari of Patan to take formal education. Her mother struggled to get her enrolled into school. “After a long effort, my mother finally got me enrolled and hired a teacher to facilitate me at home. Even my exams were conducted at home but papers were sent to school to be examined and I was also ranked as a regular student,” she reminiscences. She passed the SLC with distinction in 2066 B.S.

After that it was not easy to adjust into the external environment, especially at in college after ten years living as a goddess. “There should be academic training for Kumaris. It is important for them to know about the outside world from the Kumari Ghar. They should be informed and allowed to participate in sports, art, music, and other life skills,” she opines.

As a former living goddess, Chanira wants to make a special contribution to the Kumari tradition. She wants to spread positive awareness about this ritual nationwide and give information about the external world to current Kumaris. She had already started a campaign in coordination with other former Kumaris. For her contribution, Chanira was listed under “BBC 100 Women 2016”.

Chanira says that people have misconceptions that the Kumari custom is a form of child abuse. She feels that the media is misrepresenting the tradition.

Unika Bajracharya

Unika’s parents never thought that their daughter would be the living goddess. Unika wanted to be the chosen one and her wish was fulfilled at the age of six. From a very young age, she was interested in wearing the red attire of the Kumari, kajal, play with flowers and put red Tika covering the entire forehead. After serving as the living goddess for four years, the 11-years-old retired a year ago. “I liked being worshiped and respected during my time as a Kumari,” she says.

Her parents are proud to have given birth to a Kumari. However, as there is no institutional management for the education to the Kumari of Patan, they take care of Unika’s education and personal development. They have arranged a teacher from a local school to tutor her.

Unika was given private education till grade four when she was serving as a living goddess. Her parents say that she found it tough to adjust to the external environment and rarely spoke during her initial days at school after.
Unika shares that as a Kumari she felt differently. “Sometimes I had no control over myself,” she says. “As a living goddess, I had to go to Taleju Temple on the ninth day of Dashain with the royal priest and be the part of the rituals where several animals were beheaded as sacrifice. Even then I felt no fear,” she reveals.

It is believed that Kumari should never marry as it brings misfortune on the groom. Unika’s parents assert that it is just a myth. “There is no barrier nowadays. In fact, the very old Kumaris have already tied the knot. We know of an 80 year old former Kumari who has grandchildren,” Unika’s mother Sabita shares.

Unika is fond of art and music; she likes singing, dancing, and drawing the most. She plays the violin and is learning Karate.

Matina Shakya

Matina Shakya spent nine years of her childhood as the Royal Kumari of Kathmandu in Kumari Ghar, Basantapur. At the age of three, she was selected as the Royal Kumari in 2065 B.S. She retired in 2074 B.S. and her place is taken by the current Kumari Trishna Shakya. Now, the 14-year-old is pursuing her education at Green Peace Co-ed School.

The Royal Kumari of Basantapur is the most respected and well-known Kumari of Nepal and whose education, health and other needs are taken care of by the government during her tenure as the living goddess.

“Since the Kumari is special and she cannot go to school, the school comes to her,” shares Pratap Man Shakya, father of Matina proudly. She studied from nursery to class seven in Kumari Ghar.

The Royal Kumari must be a pre-pubescent girl of the Shakya clan of Kathmandu from a specific community. Based on the young girl’s qualities according to her China (astrological chart), the royal astrologer selects the best as the Royal Kumari.

Many people have misunderstood the selection process that before declaring Kumari the girls are taken to a darkroom and many animals are beheaded in front of young girls and the girl who can watch all these rituals without any fear is the Kumari, asserts Matina’s father Pratap.

Pratap is worried that the Kumari culture is misunderstood in many ways. He believes that this national and cultural identity of Nepal doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world. It is also the matter of religious inclusion as a Hindu Newari priest Karmacharya worships Kumari as the Ista Devi Taleju Bhawani and a Buddhist priest Bajracharya worships her as Bajra Devi.

“When she wore the Kumari attire and crown, Matina would become still, more focused and hesitate to interact with us. The most amazing thing is that during Indra Jatra, the Kumari has to remain in the chariot for almost seven hours while it is taken on rounds of the city. She does not need to use the restroom and her energy does not wane. In there lies the power of the goddess,” states her father confidently.

We found Matina shy and quiet. She was not so comfortable talking with us. Her father answered for her most of the time. “Indra Jatra was the most fascinating time for me. The attention of so many people, decoration of the wagon, the chariots and the Lakhe dance were so beautiful,” she shares quietly.

Matina’s father clears another misconception about the Kumari not being allowed to marry as the groom would be cursed and die. “The real story is that once a Kumari was in love with a monster who is the symbol of destruction. If she had married him the existence of the world would have finished. To save the country and her people, she killed her beloved and decided not to marry in her lifetime”.

The teenaged Matina is clad in regular jeans, loves math and plays the piano. Though she has not yet made a career goal, her father simply wants her to be a good citizen. He feels that through his daughter, he was given the opportunity to promote Nepali culture across the world.