Kumari, or Kumari
Devi, is a living goddessin Nepal. Kumari literally means virgin in Nepali and was the name of the goddess Durgaas a child. [Karel R. “van” Kooij "Religion in Nepal" ISBN 9004058273] A Kumari is a prepubescent girl selected from the Shakya casteof the Nepalese Newari community. The Kumari is revered and worshipped by some of the country's Hindus as well as the Nepali Buddhists, though not the Tibetan Buddhists.
While there are several Kumaris throughout Nepal, with some cities having several, the best known is the Royal Kumari of
Kathmandu, and she lives in the Kumari Ghar, a palace in the center of the city. The selection process for her is especially rigorous. The current Royal Kumari, Matina Shakya, aged three, was installed in October 2008by the Maoist government that replaced the monarchy.
A Kumari is believed to be the bodily incarnation of the goddess
Talejuuntil she menstruates, after which it is believed that the goddess vacates her body. Serious illness or a major loss of bloodfrom an injury are also causes for her to revert to common status.
Whilst the veneration of a living Kumari in Nepal is relatively recent, dating only from the 17th century, the tradition of Kumari-
Puja, or virgin worship, has been around for much longer. There is evidence of virgin worshiptaking place in Indiafor more than 2,600 years. It appears to have taken hold in Nepal in the 6th century. There is written evidence describing the selection, ornamentation and worship of the Kumari dating from the 13th century.
There are several legends telling of how the current tradition of the Kumari began. Most of the legends, however, tell of King
Jayaprakash Malla, the last Nepalese king of the Malla Dynasty (12th-17th century CE). According to the most popular legend, a red serpent approached the king's chambers late one night as he played tripasa, a dicegame, with the goddess Taleju. The goddess came along every night to play the game, with the condition that the king refrain from telling anyone about their meetings.
But one night the king's wife followed him to his chamber in order to find out who the king was meeting so often. The king's wife saw Taleju and the goddess was angered. She told the king that should he want to see her again or have her protect his country, he'd have to search for her among the newari(shakya) community, as she would be incarnated as a little girl among them. Hoping to make amends with his patroness, King Jayaprakash Malla left the palace in search of the young girl who was possessed by Taleju's spirit.
Even today, a mother's dream of a red serpent is believed to be a portent of the elevation of her daughter to the position of Royal Kumari. And each year, the Nepalese King seeks the blessing of the Royal Kumari at the festival of
A variation of this and other legends names King
Gunkam Dev, a 12th century ancestor of King Jayaprakash Malla, as the main character rather than Jayaprakash Malla.
A third variation of the legend says that during the reign of King Jayaprakash Malla, a young girl was banished from the city because it was feared that she was possessed by the goddess
Durga. When the queen learned of the young girl's fate, she became enraged and insisted that the king fetch the girl and install her as the living incarnation of Durga.
Once Taleju has left the sitting Kumari, there is a frenzy of activity to find her successor. Some have compared the selection process to the process used in nearby
Tibetto find the reincarnations of Tulkus, such as the Dalai Lamaor the Panchen Lama. The selection process is conducted by five senior Buddhist Vajracharyapriests, the Panch Buddha, the Bada Guruju or Chief Royal Priest, Achajau the priest of Taleju and the royal astrologer. The King and other religious leaders that might know of eligible candidates are also informed that a search is underway. Eligible girls are Buddhists from the Newar Shakpoopya caste (the clan to which the Buddha belonged) of silver and goldsmiths. She must be in excellent health, never have shed blood or been afflicted by any diseases, be without blemish and must not have yet lost any teeth. Girls who pass these basic eligibility requirements are examined for the battis lakshanas, or 'thirty-two perfections' of a goddess. Some of these are poetically listed as such:
* A neck like a conch shell
* A body like a banyan tree
* Eyelashes like a cow
* Thighs like a deer
* Chest like a lion
* Voice soft and clear as a duck's
In addition to this, her hair and eyes should be very black, she should have dainty hands and feet, small and well-recessed sexual organs and a set of twenty teeth.
The girl is also observed for signs of serenity and fearlessness (after all, she is to be the vessel of the fierce goddess Durga) and her
horoscopeis examined to ensure that it is complementary to the King's. It is important that there not be any conflicts as she must confirm the King's legitimacy each year of her divinity. Her family is also scrutinized to ensure its piety and devotion to the King.
Once the priests have chosen a candidate, she must undergo yet more rigorous tests to ensure that she indeed possesses the qualities necessary to be the living vessel of Durga. Her greatest test comes during the Hindu festival of
Dashain. On the kalratri, or 'black night', 108 buffaloes and goats are sacrificed to the goddess Kali. The young candidate is taken into the Taleju temple and released into the courtyard, where the severed heads of the animals are illuminated by candlelight and masked men are dancing about. If the candidate truly possesses the qualities of Taleju, she shows no fear during this experience. If she does, another candidate is brought in to attempt the same thing.
As a final test, the living goddess must spend a night alone in a room among the heads of ritually slaughtered goats and buffaloes without showing fear. [...] Having passed all the tests, the child will stay in almost complete isolation at the temple, and will be allowed to return to her family only at the onset of menstruation when a new goddess will be named to replace her. [http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20081007/ap_on_re_as/as_nepal_living_goddess;_ylt=AgLvjlBKLa_K4bmUxqYEUZsazJV4 Nepal appoints 3-year-old as new living goddess]
There are claims contrary to the commonly-believed ritual and screening process, however. The ex-Royal Kumari, in her autobiography "From Goddess to Mortal" (2005), states that this has nothing to do with the selection process, but rather is a ritual the Royal Kumari goes through each year, there are no men dancing around in masks trying to scare her, there are many fewer heads than claimed, perhaps a dozen or so. She also discusses in the book how the physical examination (discussed in the preceding paragraph) is not very intimate or rigorous.
The fearless candidate has proven that she has the serenity and the fearlessness that typifies the goddess who is to inhabit her. Only a small test remains. She must be able to pick out the personal belongings of the previous Kumari from an assortment of things laid out before her. If she is able to do so, there is no remaining doubt that she is the chosen one.
Once the Kumari is chosen, she must be purified so that she can be an unblemished vessel for Taleju. She is taken by the priests to undergo a number of secret Tantric rituals to cleanse her body and spirit of her past experiences. Once these rituals are completed, Taleju enters her and she is presented as the new Kumari. She is dressed and made up as a Kumari and then leaves the Taleju temple and walks across the square on a white cloth to the Kumari Ghar that will be her home for the duration of her divinity.
Life of the Royal Kumari
Once the chosen girl completes the Tantric purification rites and crosses from the temple on a white cloth to the Kumari Ghar to assume her throne, her life takes on an entirely new character. She will leave her palace only on ceremonial occasions. Her family will visit her rarely, and then only in a formal capacity. Her playmates will be drawn from a narrow pool of Newari children from her caste, usually the children of her caretakers. She will always be dressed in red, wear her hair in a topknot and have the agni chakchuu or ‘fire eye’ painted on her forehead as a symbol of her special powers of perception.
The Royal Kumari's new life is vastly different from the one to which she has been accustomed in her short life. Whilst her life is now free of material troubles, she has ceremonial duties to carry out. Although she is not ordered about, she is expected to behave as befits a goddess. She has shown the correct qualities during the selection process and her continued serenity is of paramount importance; an ill-tempered goddess is believed to portend bad tidings for those petitioning her.
The Kumari's walk across the
Durbar Squareis the last time her feet will touch the ground until such time as the goddess departs from her body. From now on, when she ventures outside of her palace, she will be carried or transported in her golden palanquin. Her feet, like all of her, are now sacred. Petitioners will touch them, hoping to receive respite from troubles and illnesses. The King himself will kiss them each year when he comes to seek her blessing. She will never wear shoes; if her feet are covered at all, they will be covered with red stockings.
The power of the Kumari is perceived to be so strong that even a glimpse of her is believed to bring good fortune. Crowds of people wait below the Kumari's window in the Kumari Chowk, or courtyard, of her palace, hoping that she will pass by the latticed windows on the third floor and glance down at them. Even though her irregular appearances last only a few seconds, the atmosphere in the courtyard is charged with devotion and awe when they do occur.
The more fortunate, or better connected, petitioners visit the Kumari in her chambers where she sits upon a gilded lion throne. Many of those visiting her are people suffering from blood or menstrual disorders since the Kumari is believed to have special power over such illnesses. She is also visited by bureaucrats and other government officials. Petitioners customarily bring gifts and food offerings to the Kumari, who receives them in silence. Upon arrival, she offers them her feet to touch or kiss as an act of devotion. During these audiences, the Kumari is closely watched. Here is how some of her actions are interpreted:
* Crying or loud laughter: Serious illness or death
* Weeping or rubbing eyes: Imminent death
* Trembling: Imprisonment
* Hand clapping: Reason to fear the King
* Picking at food offerings: Financial losses
If the Kumari remains silent and impassive throughout the audience, her devotees leave elated. This is the sign that their wishes have been granted.
Many people attend to the Kumari's needs. These people are known as the Kumarimi and are headed by the Chitaidar (patron). Their job is very difficult. They must attend to the Kumari's every need and desire whilst giving her instruction in her ceremonial duties. Whilst they cannot directly order her to do anything, they must guide her through her life. They are responsible for bathing her, dressing her and attending to her makeup as well as preparing her for her visitors and for ceremonial occasions.
Traditionally, the Kumari received no education as she was widely considered to be omniscient. However, modernization has made it necessary for her to have an education once she re-enters mortal life. Kumaris are now allowed to attend public schools, and have a life inside the classroom that is no different from that of other students. While many kumaris, such as the Kumari of Bhaktapur, attend school, others, such as the main kumari in Kathmandu, receive their education through private tutors.
Similarly, her limited playmates must learn to respect her. Since her every wish must be granted, they must learn to surrender to her whatever they have that she may want and to defer to her wishes in what games to play or activities to engage in.
The end of a Kumari's divinity is abrupt and totally unplanned. As soon as she menstruates, Durga 'vacates her body' and she reverts to being a mere mortal. Once a new Kumari has been selected, the former Kumari undergoes a number of rituals that formally divest her of her status. Over four days, the symbols of her divinity are taken away from her. Once this 'unfolding of the plait' is complete, she is left with but a gold coin and a piece of the regal red fabric in which she has been clothed during her years as Kumari.
Former Kumaris receive a pension from the state of 6000 rupees per month ($80). This is around twice the official minimum wage and around four times the average income in this poverty-stricken country. They often continue to be called Kumari rather than by the names given to them at birth. Although they are once again part of the ordinary world, they are often unable to fully shake off the mystique associated with having been a Kumari and often have trouble adjusting to 'normal' life.
Popular superstition says that a man who marries a Kumari is doomed to die within six months by coughing up blood. In reality, however, it seems that most Kumaris do not have trouble eventually finding husbands. All of the living former Kumaris with exception of the youngest ones have married.
Former Kumaris of Kathmandu
(* = deceased)
The Kathmandu Post
On July 3, 2007, Sajani Shakya was removed from her position as Kumari of Bhaktapur after visiting the US to attend the release of the movie "Living Goddess" at
Silverdocsthe American Film Institute/Discovery Channel documentary festival in downtown Silver Spring, Maryland, USA. The visit, according to the elders, had tainted her purity. [ [http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/6264014.stm 'Goddess' sacked for visiting US] . "BBC News". 2007-07-03.] A couple of weeks later, temple authorities at Sajani Shakya's home town recanted their previous statement and said that she will not be stripped of her title because she is willing to undergo a "cleansing" ceremony to remove any sins she may have committed while traveling. [ [http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/6907007.stm Nepalese 'goddess' is reinstated] . "BBC News". 2008-07-19.]
* Ashford, Lindsay (2004). Kumari: The Living Goddess. Retrieved July 12, 2004 from [http://kumari.puellula.org]
* Shakya, Durga, Kumari House. Retrieved July 12, 2004 from [http://www.nepalnews.com.np/contents/englishweekly/sundaypost/2001/jul/jul29/head.htm]
* [http://www.visitnepal.com/nepal_information/kumari.htm Nepal Information: Details about Kumari Devi]
* [http://www.andycarvin.com/archives/2007/06/the_bhaktapur_kumari_a_living_goddess_of_1.html Bhaktapur Kumari visits US] - photos and video of Kumari visiting the US
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