Meeting Kumari – the living Goddess of Nepal

posted in: Asia, Culture, Heritage, Nepal | 66

As I stood staring at the Kumari Ghar in Kathmandu Durbar Square, I thought to myself – there has to be some connection that brought me back to this country so soon – in fact, within just 3 months of my first and previous visit. If you have followed my earlier trip, you would have known that I had missed the Kathmandu Durbar Square and the Kumari Ghar owing to the lack of time. I did want to return back to explore it but never in my dreams, did I imagine it to be so soon. I suppose, my role as Nepali Jones was not yet over and as fate had it – I was back on an invite by the Nepal tourism board to experience their annual festival – Indra Jatra. And more importantly, to complete what I had left the last time.

Kumari Ghar at the far end of the Kathmandu Durbar Square
Kumari Ghar at the far end of the Kathmandu Durbar Square

My first encounter with Kumari was her picture that adorned the backdrop of a stage where the famed Lakhey Dance was being performed. Her innocent eyes and that bright smile had me curious and I remember chatting with my host on the legend of the Living Goddess. What I discovered was a bit disturbing and yet there was no dousing my curiosity – for it is not every day that you come across a faith put into a child. With this visit to Nepal, I not just met the Kumari but visited her in her abode, all the while chatting with the locals to find out what it really meant to be a symbol of hope. Definitely not a bed or roses but quite unusual. Let’s embark on this journey together to know what it means to be a Kumari.

Legend of the Living Goddess – Kumari

Kumari essentially means Virgin. It is believed that the Goddess Taleju (an incarnation of Goddess Durga) resides within a special girl child and that girl child becomes the Kumari or the Living Goddess.  The Goddess is said to reside within the girl till she comes of age after which she vacates her body to occupy another.

Kumari during the Indra Jatra
Kumari during the Indra Jatra

There are several legends attached to how this tradition of worshipping Kumari came about. All of them revolve around the last King Jayaprakash Malla. It seems that that the Goddess Taleju used to visit the King and in one of those meetings, he got a little too carried away – enough to made unwarranted advances towards the Goddess. She got angry and left. The King deeply regretted this and begged her to return. The Goddess then agreed to return as a child and since, has been worshipped as a Kumari.

There have been several Kumaris till date and in fact, there are rumors of not just one but many at a given time. They say that the smaller villages and towns like Patan too, have their own Kumaris. However, the one who is supreme resides in the Kumari Ghar at Kathmandu Durbar Square. where I stood recounting my incomplete past visit to Nepal.

Kumari Ghar

If I were to describe what I was staring at in a few words it would be – “An intricate 3-storey wooden building that housed a legend“. No doubt that there are aspects of the Kumari Ghar that fascinated me, but it was the sheer knowledge of it being an abode of a Living Legend that overpowered everything. It took me a while to shake off that feeling and start appreciating the building for what it was.

Intricate circles or chakras on the windows of Kumari Ghar
Intricate circles or chakras on the windows of Kumari Ghar

The Kumari Ghar was under renovation but I urge you to go beyond the scaffolding that you see in the pictures. You will soon appreciate the stunning windows and doors that greet you. At one end you have the window with intricate circles or chakras and right next to it the 3D peacock windows. Both fine examples of the Newari art. Each carving within the window seemed to symbolize something. It was evident that the artisans had their story to tell.

Peacock windows and the door way with Goddess Taleju carved on it
Peacock windows and the door way with Goddess Taleju carved on it
Close up of the Goddess Taleju carved on the doorways of Kumari ghar
Close up of the Goddess Taleju carved on the doorways of Kumari ghar

Across all the doors and windows were these consistent doorway arches with the carving of the Taleju Goddess – the lady in the center with numerous hands. However, there was a slight difference in the one that greeted you at the main door. It was not just the color but the fact that it had a Garuda right above Goddess Taleju’s figurine. The door reminded me of the Golden Gate of the 55 Windows Palace in Bhaktapur Square.

Kumari Ghar
Kumari Ghar

From the roof, you will see a small headpiece kind of jewelry (maang tikka as called in Hindi) hanging. Quite akin to what Kumari wears on her head. Check out the golden windows on the third floor. For the moment, I thought that those would be the windows through which Kumari would bless the crowd. However, the locals corrected me and said that those windows were just within the Kumari Ghar, in its inner courtyard.

Inner Courtyard of the Kumari Ghar
Inner Courtyard of the Kumari Ghar

Pass through those white guardian lions and you will find that the Kumari Ghar is quite simple from within. A central courtyard greets you with a large plant adorning it. All around are the same stunning wooden pillars, doors and windows reflecting the Newari art. The windows that face the entrance is where the Living Goddess sometimes greets her devotees with her guardian priestess. It is then, you are not allowed to photograph the insides.

The windows of Kumari Ghar
The windows of Kumari Ghar
Windows where Kumari greets her devotees
Windows where Kumari greets her devotees

Meeting the Kumari

Entrance to the Kumari's chambers
Entrance to the Kumari’s chambers

Day One to three were not so lucky for me as one was not allowed to visit Kumari just then. However, my luck changed on Day 4, as the legend decided to give an audience to the Hindus. We were allowed up to her chambers and as we went in, we saw a little girl lying on a cot with a priestess around her. She seemed disinterested in us and just stared away from us. This was just as well for if we were to believe the omens, then her not being interested meant that all was well for us.  It is said that if she reacts by way of crying or clapping hands or laughter, there is a disaster in store for you. Thankfully, this was told to us after we exited the premises.

Truth be told, when I first saw the Kumari, I felt a little disturbed. In my mind’s eye, I saw my own little girl lying there disinterested and upheld for something she was not even aware of.  It somehow did not feel right to me but then, to each their own tradition.

Selection of Kumari

Disturbed as I was, I wondered how the little girl actually became a Kumari. What went into making her the chosen one?

Selection of Kumari is a rigorous process
Selection of Kumari is a rigorous process

The selection of the Living Goddess included finding girls with a favorable horoscope from the Newari clan. The shortlisted girls are then checked for the certain criteria based on appearance. A few of those included them having eyelashes like the cow, a conch shell kind of a neck and thighs like the deer. Once the candidate is chosen, she is put through some rigorous tests where she has to witness the butchering of animals without flinching or fear and has to spend a night in a place with dead animals around. Once her fearlessness is established and she becomes the chosen one. There are numerous other rituals that she is put through but none of the locals that I spoke to were able to detail those out.

Life of a Kumari

Once the chosen Kumari enters her palace, that is the last time she walks on the ground. From then on, she either walks on a carpet or is carried around until she ceases to be a Kumari. She leaves all her materialistic things and stops going outside. Her feet are considered to be sacred – so much that the people kiss them. She is generally dressed in red and has a fire eye adorns her forehead.

Present day Kumari of Kathmandu
Present day Kumari of Kathmandu

Her desires and demands are considered important and people in her service, work hard to ensure that they are met. Her playmates are generally, children who stay within the premises. She is traditionally not educated. However, with modernization, I understand that there is some bit of private tutoring that takes care of her learning. This is quite required for the Kumari remains in this role till she comes of age or if she falls sick or bleeds from an injury. This is when they say that the Goddess has left her body. When this happens, the current Goddess returns to regular life and the quest for her successor begins.

There is plenty on the net on how life becomes tough for these girls for they have not really led a regular, normal life. Some of them do not even get married for there is a myth that whoever marries a former Kumari, will suffer death. Reading about it had me a little on the edge but at the same time, I felt helpless too. There is so much devotion to this tradition that there is little one can do. Maybe Kumari is a hope for those who are drowning of sorrows and one really cannot take away that hope.

Crowds thronging to see Kumari during the Indra Jatra
Crowds thronging to see Kumari during the Indra Jatra

The strength of this faith is so obvious when you witness the crowds at the Indra Jatra – the one festival that allows you to glimpse at Kumari. They say that you are in for a lot of luck if you do manage a sight of her.  People throng on the streets and across rooftops to just do that and if you want to know what I really mean – stay tuned for my next post on the Indra Jatra. For now, you ponder about what you have learned through my meeting of Kumari and leave back your thoughts below.

Kumari

Getting here:

  • There are plenty of flights that can get you to Kathmandu directly. Alternately if you are from India, you can also, opt to drive in from across the border.
  • Kumari Ghar is located in Kathmandu Durbar Square, which is quite central to the city. You can even opt for an accommodation here for an easy access to not just Kathmandu Durbar Square but the rest of the interesting places in Kathmandu.

Travel Tips:

  • Visiting Kumari Ghar is included as a part of the ticket that one needs to purchase for Kathmandu Durbar Square. The ticket price for a Non-SAARC citizen is Nepali Rupees 1000 and for a SAARC country resident is Nepali Rupees 150.
  • You are allowed in the inner courtyard of Kumari Ghar, irrespective of your religion. Photography is permitted here except for when Kumari is addressing the audience.
  • If you are a Hindu, you will be allowed to go to her chambers and visit her
  • Remember to dress modestly when visiting the Kumari
  • No matter what your opinions are, I urge you to pay respect to the Nepali traditions and sentiments.

 

P.S: I was invited to visit Nepal for the Indra Jatra festival by Nepal Tourism Board and Explore Himalaya

 

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66 Responses

  1. Srivalli Jetti

    This is such a lovely post!..I remember reading about this living legend many many years ago!..you brought back those memories with this lovely pictures!

  2. Harsh Wardhan Jog

    Interesting read & good photos. Somehow not agree to ‘ Living ‘ Kumaree.

  3. carmyy

    I didn’t know that about the feet! Interesting how she would have to walk in carpet or carried around (not that I wouldn’t mind being carried around…). This must have been such an interesting experience!

    • Ami

      It sure was an interesting experience and to learn about an unique culture, even more so. Hope you get to visit some time Carmyy.

  4. Paige Wunder

    This is very interesting! I’ve not heard of Kumari, but it looks like a very special thing to do. The building is a site in itself, then you add a living goddess and that’s just an incredibly unique experience!

  5. neha

    It’s true it is almost impossible to change this kind of tradition that instills so much faith in people. I had read about the story of these kumaris long back in a magazine. And it totally broke my heart. For a short duration, they are goddess. And thereafter, although it’s believed the Goddess left their body, they never return back to a normal life like me and you. I guess education can only change it, and over years – gradually. But I do hope it all changes one day.

    • Ami

      It will take some time for people to realize this. I am glad that at least education has been taken on for these girls. At least the first step! Thanks for stopping by Neha

  6. Tania Mukherjee

    It must be such a hair raising experience for you. I am wondering about the lives of those kumaris who are doomed forever once they stop being the kumari. First they lose their childhood, then the superstitions attached will not let them live a proper adult life. I wish people get over blind faith someday.

    • Ami

      It was quite a disturbing experience and yet I could not say it was not interesting. Hoping for a change in this belief so that things get better for these girls. Thanks for stopping by Tania.

  7. Ryan Biddulph

    Hi Ami,

    Very fascinating.

    I recall walking through the Square in Kathmandu when we visited in 2013. Colorful place. REALLY colorful place, with intriguing holy men and the like, looking for some scrilla.

    I loved KTM for its real nature. Ya know, gritty, warm, authentic. The people were so kind too.

    I met a few blogging buddies there for dinner as well, back when I ran a very different blog in a Universe far, far away.

    Thanks for sharing Ami.

    Ryan

    • Ami

      Thanks Ryan. I can see you got a little nostalgic with the post. Glad to get you through those happy memories

  8. asoulwindow

    This was one event I will not forget in a long time. I had never seen anything like this. The Kumari had an aura of her own. There was lot of enigma to her personality. The Durban Square of Kathmandu where all the action was happening is also one of my favourite hangout.

    • Ami

      It sure was an experience – one that I will not forget for a long long time. Glad we could make it for this one

  9. Ozzy

    That is an experience in itself. Although a little disheartening to think about the life after being a kumari. Personally I have always enjoyed the vivacity of the city of Kathmandu. The history and tradition can still be seen here in perfect harmony.
    Glad to see the country bounce back after the devastating earthquake.
    Great pictures!

    • Ami

      Yes, it is heartening to see how they have bounced back after that earthquake. I agree with your views on the Kumari story. Sad but an interesting experience.

  10. Candy

    I was wondering how these girls were selected and am glad you wrote about it. So interesting the specific body features they look for and that they also choose fearless girls. I wonder what the other rituals are!

    • Ami

      Yes, it is interesting but a little despairing to note that they pick girls who do not even understand why they are being picked. It will take some time for it to change but well. Thanks for stopping by Candy

  11. Thelittlelai: Beyond limits

    Wow, another trip with filled of so much culture to know and to experience. I love how you were able to elucidate all details and how you were able to express your experience during this trip. There will always be something amazing whenever we get to dig deeper on the culture of places that we visited. I know how satisfying this trip for you. Thank yous so much for sharing this with us.

    • Ami

      This trip sure was epic and fun. Totally enjoyed discovering these little cultural details about the place.

  12. Sandy N Vyjay

    The Kumari enigma is really fascinating. Very interesting post that candidly provides a lot of information about the Kumari festival. The stringent tests that the young girls have to go through to qualify as a Kumari are indeed really tough and test their endurance.

    • Ami

      Sad, tough but interesting is how I would term the experience. It sure was an illuminating find. Thanks for stopping by .

  13. Julz

    I saw a program about these goddesses not long ago on French TV – I thought it was super interesting. I really enjoyed your post.

  14. Andra

    Very interesting article. I first found out about the Kumari from a National Geographic article. But their lives surely sound strange to us. It’s inevitable to have mixed feelings about this tradition but in the end it is their culture and we have to respect it. I am curious how many cases were to supoort the theory that whoever marries to a Kumari will soon die.

    • Ami

      Good to see you mirror my emotions on this one Andra. It was a novel experience that left me with a lot of mixed feelings.

  15. Marieve

    What a great post! You have an incredible chance to have been invited & to have taken part of that celebration. Such a great inside look at another country’s culture! That to me is what I love about traveling. ♡

    • Ami

      Totally, getting deeper into a nation’s culture and better still experience it…the best abt travel. Thanks for stopping by Marieve.

  16. Blair Villanueva

    Here’s what made me think.. What if the chosen Kumari, doesn’t want to be a Kumari. Can she decline? What wiuld happen to her after being a Kumari? Is there an expiration date for the job, or its a lifetime Kumari?

    • Ami

      It is considered to be an honor to be chose and I doubt that the girls parents decline it. Also, the girl herself is too young. And as for what happens to her, have shared that. Thanks for stopping by Blair

  17. Joy Generoso

    Interesting! I didn’t know that there’s something like this in Nepal. One thing I love about reading blogs is you’ll learn a lot about places, people, culture, history and many more. Now I got curious.. I think I need to do some research.

    • Ami

      I am sure you will find plenty on Kumari but to experience it yourself is something else. Hope you get to it some time Joy

  18. My Travelogue by Bhushavali

    I’ve heard so much about the Kumari living goddess of Nepal. I remember the royal event of probably anointing a new Kumari or an Indra Jatra that happened in the 90s, when I watched it on TV… Vague memories… My mom was explaining it all to me. You’re indeed lucky to have actually seen them yourself! The Kumari Ghar is just stunning!!!

    • Ami

      Thanks Bhushavali. I was lucky alright and considering that this Kumari just retired. I suppose I was just in time to see her.

  19. SindhuMurthy

    While I’m enthralled about the beautiful architecture and carvings of the Kumari Ghar, I really am upset about many aspects on how Kumari is selected and what follows after the girl ceases to be a Kumari. Expecting a little girl to stand unperturbed while an animal is butchered and letting her to spend 24 hrs amidst dead animals is really disgusting. Is it not taking away the innocence off the child? Following traditions is fine but I wonder what message the government wants to convey with such an act. I cant help but pray for this custom to change so that the girls are not victimized in the name of traditions. It is good to know that the girls are provided some education but it is a long wait till the society understands the implications of the practise and make changes. Sorry for the long rant but I’m quite disturbed after reading the post. Again, as you say, to each their own tradition. Btw, I really love the way you have communicated the details and your thoughts about the tradition without glorifying it.

    • Ami

      I am glad you have spoken your mind on this one Sindhu. It is indeed a little sad and very very disturbing. While we dwell on this, the Kumari that I saw just retired and we have a new 3 year old who has taken her place. The good news is that this time a lot of families backed out from sending their daughters. I think maybe awareness has crept in and well, looks like change is on its way.

  20. anindya0909

    Loved reading this. I have been to Nepal before the earthquake hence have some blogposts in my blogs also. Appreciate this effort by you and explaining the history. More power to you

  21. MikeNatalie

    I really enjoyed my time in Nepal. It must be so difficult to be put in that role. You really did a great job explaining everything, it was a great and informative read. Thank you!

    • Ami

      Thank you Mike and Natalie. It sure was not an all out pleasant feeling to see Kumari for those thoughts were disturbing. Hoping that with awareness, there will be a change.

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