The Kumari or Kumari Devi comes from the Hindu faith however most of the “traditional” Kumari in Kathmandu are Newari (original settlers of the Kathmandu Valley). In Nepal the Kumari is a prepubescent girl selected by a council from the Newari people that acts as a manifestation of divine female energy.
A Nepali Kumari is believed to be the living incarnation of the goddess Taleju also known as Durga. This continues until after menstruation when the goddess Taleju vacates her body. Illness and loss of blood due to injury can also mean the goddess leaves the girls body.
The idea behind this leads to writings stating that the goddess resides in all female living beings in this universe of which the cosmos was made from her womb. As the goddess believes in chastity and impurity a young child is therefore the ideal choice to house the goddess on earth.
Today the word Kumari means “virgin” which is important to remember as we delve deeper into this fascinating living legend.
I will not delve too deeply into this one as both the Hindu and Nepali histories of the Kumari are vast and intricate dating back 2,300 years to virgin worship in India
Kumari’s in Nepal only became evident in the 17th century. That said there is also evidence of virgin worship in Nepal dating back to the 6th century.
There are several legends that tell of how the Kumari came to be in Nepal. From the goddess visiting King Jayaprakash Malla in his dreams. To the same King angering the goddess for making sexual advances towards him. To the King’s wife learning of the banishment of a young girl possessed by the goddess telling the King to bring her back as the living embodiment of the goddess.
Today there are many Kumari in Nepal. Indeed, unknown to many, most Newari villages have a “Kumari”. However it is the royal Kumari of Kathmandu that is the most senior and well known.
Once the current Kumari is no longer eligible to be a vessel for the goddess a national or regional search begins to find an appropriate successor. There are many criteria that a council of Newari have to make sure are met. These include the thirty-two perfections of a goddess. Some of which are:
- A body like a banyan tree
- Thighs like a deer
- Eyelashes like a cow
- Twenty unbroken teeth should be present
- Hair and eyes should be very black
Keep in mind these are just some of the necessities in being a Kumari. For example the selection process itself for the Kathmandu Kumari involves even more:
During the Kalratri, or ‘black night’ ritual 108 buffaloes and goats are sacrificed.The young girl is taken into the Taleju temple’s courtyard where the severed heads of the animals are illuminated by candles and masked men dance about. The child must show no fear during any of this.
Finally the girl must spend a night with slaughtered heads of the animals and again show no fear.
If she passes these tests the girl is taken for ritual cleansing of her past life. Adorned with the Kumari clothes and taken to her new house where she shall remain without seeing her past family until such time as the goddess leaves her (usually her first menstruation).
The above are the strict and official rules. Today many of the Kumari do get to see their families and indeed the families live with them.
Once living in her residence the Kumari will only leave on official ceremonial duties. Today, due to social change, the Kathmandu Kumari’s family may visit on formal occasions (other Kumari’s live with their families). Her friends will be chosen from those of her caste. She will be educated by her caregivers. He feet will never touch the outside ground again though on ceremonial occasions worshipers will want to touch them.
Today many politicians and royalty still visit the Royal Kumari seeking a blessing for their duties.
One may petition to visit the Kumari but never talk with her. It is believed that a look from the Kumari will tell one’s future wealth, health and status. These include:
- Picking at food offerings will be associated with financial losses
- Crying is associated with illness or death
- Trembling means an impending imprisonment
- Silence is perhaps the greatest thing for a visitor as it means their wishes are likely to be upheld
Many visit the Kumari with blood or menstruation problems due to her association with the subject.
The girl is immediately regarded as a normal child and given back to her parents. A small token pension is awarded to her. In the past such abrupt changes were said to psychologically damage a child. Going from goddess with everything provided for you to simply being an everyday child.
There is also a legend about of how a Kumari’s spouse will die early leading to the now normal girl never getting married. Several modern day Kumari’s have come out and disregarded many harsh aspects the life of a Kumari.
In 2007, Sajani Shakya, the Kumari of Bhaktapur after visiting the US to attend the release of a documentary about the Kumari, was removed from her position by an elder council. This was for breaking the Kumari tradition of letting her feet touch the ground and leaving her residence. After much debate she was reinstated after a re-cleansing ceremony.
The Kumari gets a token pension after leaving the position. Depending on their status the nominal amount can be as little as 50 rupees a month.
In recent times several former Kumari have written about their time as a Kumari. Most simply continue on their lives as best they can and settle back into a normal life in Nepal.