Meeting Kumari – the living Goddess of Nepal

posted in: Asia, Culture, Heritage, Nepal | 68

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

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

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

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
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

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

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
Windows where Kumari greets her devotees

Meeting the Kumari

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

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

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

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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