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Nepal, a small mountainous country surrounded by two large countries is rich in culture. Nepal is surrounded by India in the east, south, and the west, and by China on the north. Nepal is the common garden of people of four castes and 36 sub-castes. The country has its own unique identity, and cultures along with the mixed flavor of Indian and Tibetan cultures. Have you ever seen those breathtaking mountain ranges? Nepal is the home to fourteen peaks higher than 22,970 feet including Mount Everest, which is the world’s highest mountain (Jae, eight best mountains in Nepal). Nepal, a country that is almost sixty-seven times smaller than the United States is rich in cultures, social diversity, and natural beauties (Horniman, Cultures of Nepal). Among all those cultures, Nepal has one of the unique cultures of worshipping young girls as “Kumari,” which means “Virgin goddess.” The Newars pride themselves on being the custodians of culture in the valley, and one of the age-long cornerstones of their culture is worshipping young girls as a goddess. Are there any criteria that can specify some girls as goddesses, and not others? What happens to the girl if she is chosen to be the Kumari, or living goddess, a role that will bring people to their knees before her?
Newars, the distinctive group of the ethnic category of Nepal have their own cultures, language, and beliefs. The Newar homeland is the Kathmandu valley, a circular bowl surrounded by foothills, which houses the capital city, Kathmandu (Nepali, The Newars of Nepal). They comprise about more than half the population of Kathmandu valley, including two other major cities: Lalitpur and Bhaktapur. Their population was estimated to be about 1,250,000 in the early 21st century. Newars are mostly supposed to be from Tibetan origin, because they have similar facial structures and similar languages. Most of the Newars are Hindus, which is the highly practiced religion of the country. However, few of them also follow Buddhism. Newars are further divided into several other castes depending on their religious values and virtues. Not all the Newari girls are eligible to be the living goddess, i.e. “Kumari.” However, almost all the Newari girls aged from seven to nine gather every year at the Basantapur Dabali in Kathmandu, waiting to get married to Lord Vishnu with an apple from the wooden apple tree in her hand. In some of the succeeding ceremonies, the girl is married to the Sun God, which is supposed to be one of the incarnations of Lord Vishnu. When the girl is married to the Sun God, she must keep herself inside a dark room for approximately 10-12 days. The girls receive lots of gifts, grains, and money after the ceremony, and because of that they really enjoy that culture, which may appear weird to almost every other person. “Seven-years-old Smarika Shrestha from Bansbari said that she felt like a real bride that she had seen in other marriage ceremonies” ( Infotrac newsstand). Those girls married to Lord Vishnu will never be a widow, even after the death of their husband, because Lord Vishnu who is supposed to be their first husband is always immortal.
Almost in every tradition around the world, we hear about the spiritual existence of goddesses, but in Nepal, they live and breathe. Interestingly enough, there are probably more films and books about Kumaris than any other Nepali cultures. An article in Marie Claire in April 2002 began: “They start life as an ordinary girl, yet by the times they are four, thousands, including the King, flock to worship them” (Gellner, Review of the Living Goddess). Some activists describe this tradition of worshipping young girls as a god to be a form of child labor. However, Rashmila Shakya and Scott’s Berry’s book From Goddess to Mortal: The True Life Story of a former royal Kumari, was published in 2008 to make it clear that girls could survive, indeed thrive by the experience of being treated as a goddess (Gellner, Review of the living goddess). As Rashmila Shakya outlines in her book that the Hindu tradition of worshiping virgin girls is approximately 2000 years old. The tradition is supposed to have started by the King of Malla dynasty. The King was worried about his success, and one day he dreamt about Goddess Taleju asking him to worship young virgin girls, whose blessings are supposed to protect his regime. So, he built the palace for kumaris in Kathmandu, Lalitpur, and Bhaktapur. Although the girls are only selected from the Shakya caste of Buddhist Newari people, the institution is mainly a Hindu one, and thus serves as a most significant symbol of unity in a country of such diverse cultures. Not only the Newars, but every people from the nation worship Kumari as a sacred goddess, and she attends almost every important ceremonial events in a golden palanquin, because her feet must never touch the ground during the tenure. The Royal Kumaris are selected through different procedures which are complex, but not bad as supposed by many other people. As presented in the movie Between Matina, every girl wishes to be Kumari. The movie shows the story of a girl named Matina who becomes obsessed to become kumari. She was unable to understand her weakness, and she wants to take revenge with Guwaju; the priest because she thinks he was the reason behind her failure. Not every girl wishing to be the goddess can be one. There are certain criteria that determine the eligibility of the girls. The girl must be between two to five years old and from the Newari Shakya caste, and there must not be any history of inter-caste marriages in the family. The qualified girls are then examined for the thirty two bodily perfections i.e. 32 lakshen, which includes the complete absence of scars, or bodily marks, the body like that of a banyan tree, which symbolizes immortality, the heart of a lion, which symbolizes boldness and pride, and so on, on the basis of her horoscope (Shakya, From Goddess to Mortal). The girl thus selected as Kumari should live in the Royal Palace, which she is not supposed to leave until she has reached puberty. She is always dressed in red, and has a symbolic fire-eye painted on her forehead. She could meet her family members once a week, but most of the time of her days are filled with ritual ceremonies. She could only leave the palace during the ceremonial events where her attendance is required. She is supposed to act like a powerful goddess, and should not cry or smile. Rashmila in her book explains how much she believed in her own power as a Royal Kumari. “Whatever my failings as daughter and sister, I never once doubted my power. The boy who could not speak was treated after three weeks of pujas, the blood vomiting journalist recovered from his forgiveness puja. Judging from numbers of offerings I got from other grateful mothers, I must have assisted with any number of problems that I never even really knew about” (Shakya, From Goddess to Mortal). She is either carried or moved in golden chariots or else walks only on white sheets. And, thus her feet would literally never touch the ground.
Many questions have been raised about the world of Kumaris. Many activists tried to explain this system as a form of child labor. “It hinders the freedom and education of the girls, as they are confined to the palace or temple and are bound to rituals” (South China Morning Post). However, Ex-Kumari Chanira Bajracharya spoke to the SCMP about the tutoring provided to Kumari during her tenures. Also, she explained the challenges she faced from the transition from goddess to mortal. Furthermore, Rashmila Shakya writes in her book about the emotional difficulties she faced while adjusting to a new life, the guilt at crying, the guilt at getting angry over some stupid things, missing her former home. She further points out that this emotional break down lasts only for a short period of time, and social media is responsible for exaggerating the myths about difficulties Kumaris have during the adjustment to their new life. Many human rights groups raised questions about child-abuse, and filed a case to the court appealing to end the tradition. However, Nepal’s supreme court overruled the petition in 2008 against the practice, because of its religious and cultural significance. Court further clarified the changes the system has undergone in recent years, by providing her with the best home education, enabling a much smoother transition to the school life afterward.
In conclusion, there are many aspects of the Kumari tradition that can and must be criticized, but the criticism must be valid. Every tradition has its own pros and cons based on the origin and beliefs of people following that tradition. If the separation of Kumari from her family bothers people, they must also consider the facts that every year thousands of young students join boarding school far from their home towns. People of every religion worship Kumari with due respect, and so it can be said that this tradition is the symbol of national unity. And, those girls selected to be Kumaris are not compelled to be so, but it is their dream to be the Royal Kumari. Furthermore, worshipping of young girls may appear weird to people following other cultures or traditions, but the differences are what makes us unique, and we must respect these differences.