The Living Goddess Kumari:
Hush! Gods Cannot Die in Nepal (Satis Shroff)
The Kumari, who is worshipped as the Living Goddess in Katmandu, is a small girl who lives in a beautiful palace with exquisitely carved wooden windows called the Palace of the Kumari. You can recognise her on her scarlet sari with golden edges, her pagoda-formed jet black hair, which are tied neatly on top. And she wears the third eye of wisdom on her forehead.
The beginnings of the Kumari Cult date back to the 13th century. A decisive event of the cult took place in 1323 when a king named Hari Singh Deva, who hailed from North India fled from the Islamic invaders and sought refuge in Nepal with his family. Among others things he’d also brought along his family goddess Taleju Bhavani. Hara Singh soon became the King of Bhaktapur, and as a consequence Taleju Bhavani became the ruling Goddess of the town of Katmandu. Even today, the Kumari remains the most important Goddess of the Nepalese King, and the protector of Katmandu Valley.
According to a legend delivered 200 years ago, when Nepal comprised many small independent kingdoms, the Goddess used to visit one of these kings once in a while. They used to talk with each other with respect and played Tripasa, an old dice game in those days. One day King Jaya Prakash Malla fell unfortunately in love the Goddess and tried to seduce her, who understandibly felt piqued and insulted, and henceforth didn’t pay them any more visits. She came once in his dream once though and ordered him to choose a small girl from the Sakya family, the caste of the Newar goldsmiths of Kathmandu Valley. The Goddess proclaimed that she would reside as a reincarnation in the innocent and virgin body of the Sakya girl. The Goddess Taleju told him, ‘Pray and worship her as Kumari, the Living Goddess, for when you worship her, you worship me.’
As time went on the other kings carried out the tradition of the Kumari cult, and when you go to Nepal you’ll see and experience this ancient cult even today. The Katmandu Kumari is the Royal Kumari, and is worshipped by the King of Nepal, even though the King has been stripped of his judiciary, legislative and executive powers, because according to Hindu tradition the King of Nepal is still regarded as the reincarnation of Vishnu by the Hindus, the second God of the Hindu triad (Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva). The worshippers of Vishnu (Bishnu) recognise in him the supreme being from whom all things emanate. In the epics Mahabharata and the Puranas, Vishnu is the creator (Prajapati) and supreme God.
It might be noted that last year King Gyanendra insisted on visiting the Kumari in her palace and worshipped the Living Goddess, despite the fact that he’d become unpopular as a monarch with the people of Kathmandu Valley, and Nepal in general., through his brutal use of force instead of peaceful democratic dialogue. While King Birendra, his dead brother, was a popular monarch, Gyanendra’s ascension to Nepal’s throne was jinxed from the beginning and stood under a bad planetary constellation, as the court astrologer (Raj jotisi) would put it. King Birendra lost his absolute power in 1990 after a bloody people’s revolution. Nepal became thereafter a parlamentary monarchy, but the mountainous country became politically unstable. Even though a Nepalese journalist has written a best-seller in the country with the title „Rakta Kunda“ which threw light into the working of the blue-blooded royal denizens of the Narayanhiti Palace, and the palace murders, it is, nevertheless, not clear who really shot and eliminated the entire Shah clan. Strangely enough, King Gyanendra and his family were conspicious through their absence during the massacre.
It was more a symbolical gesture to appease the people of Nepal, who were out in the streets along with the armed and militant Maoists, that King Gyanendra paid homage to the Living Goddess last year. It seems to have worked wonders. Some important politicians of the Congress Party have now expressed their second thoughts about having the disposed of the King. A pro-monarchy movement seems to have cropped up in the Nepalese capital.
Now back to the Kumari or Indra Jatra. A jatra is a religious procession in Nepal and India. ‘Who’s Indra?’ you might ask. Indra is the God of the firmament, the personified atmosphere. It is during the Indra Jatra’s third night of festivities that the Shah King of Nepal visits the the Kumari in her palace, which is located near Basantapur Plaza. This is thought to be not only a gesture of respect but also an evidence that the king holds no power over the manifestation of Taleju Bhavani. The Kumari legitimates through this act of granting the King of Nepal an audience, and applying tika on his forehead, his rule for a period of one year. And thereby hangs a tale.
‘How can one become a Living Goddess?’ you might ask. In order to be a Kumari, the female candidates have to be three or four years old and must fulfill a row of conditions that have been set down in the scriptures as ‘the list of 32 signs’:
The virgin has to have well proportioned hands, and feet like those of a duck. She must have beautifully formed heels and possess circular lines on the soles of her dainty feet. Her body has to have the form of saptaccha leaf. Her cheeks and busom must resemble that of a lion. The nape of her neck and throat like a conch from the ocean. She much have forty well-formed, white teeth. The tongue must be small, wet and sensitive. Her voice must resemble that of a sparrow. The eyes and eye-lashed like those of the holy cow. Her shadow has to be beautiful and golden hued. The hair has to be smooth, black and has to fall to the right side. Her hands, feet and long toes have to be soft and small. She must have round shoulders and long arms. The body of the Kumari has to be flawless, sans pockmarks, and a skim with well-formed pores. She must have a round head with a high forehead. A resistent body, well-formed like the nyagrodha tree.
The girls who possess the 32 outer perfections are obliged to wait till it becomes dark, so that they can qualify in the feats in scary full darkness, when normal three or four year old kids get the creeps and cry for ‘Mom’ or ‘Dad’ in the dark, full of fear. But these are ancient Hindu rituals, customs and traditions in a far-away land, performed by under the strict supervision of Buddhist and Hindu priests. The real Kumari is expected to show her courage by overcoming these terrible, shocking scenarios that unfurl one after the other throughout the night, and ferocious growls and noises made by the hidden priests, and are show terrible and frightening masks of demons, and the sight of 108 slaughtered buffalo heads dripping with blood. If, and only if, she doesn’t cry is this regarded as one of the signs of her godliness. Once she has been chosen, she becomes a Living Goddess, wears the regalia associated with the Goddess Taleju Bhavani, and presides at the many Hindu and Buddhist religious ceremonies as the Living Goddess, till she reaches puberty, when her hormones take over her phycical and psychic development into a woman, and she menstruates. A Goddess does not bleed. In case she does, naturally at puberty or earlier through a fall and subsequent injury, she becomes a mortal. A bleeding, crying, but perhaps happy mortal. Gone are the days and nights in the Kumari Palace, where she blessed all the Hindus, Buddhist and grey-eyed, blonde haired curious visitors with their mobilecams and camcorders. A reign without her parents, following strict rules and regulations comes to an end. She can find solace in th arms of her parents and brothers and sisters.
The Kumaris receive a small pension after their ‘ruling’ periods are over. If a Kumari bleeds when she looses a tooth, it means she has to leave her throne. The priest touches six parts of the Kumari’s body body with a bunch of grass: the vulva, Labia majoris, the navel, the breast and the throat. This ritual is meant to transform the body of the mortal girl to that of a godly one. In Nepal there are quire a few Kumaris, and three of them are worshipped with great ceremonies and fanfare in Katmandu, Bhaktapur (Bhadgaon) and Patan (Lalitpur). But not all Kumaris live such isolated lives like the Royal Kumari of Katmandu, who has to be carried by the priests lest her holy feet be polluted by the filth of the earth trodden by mortals. Normally, a Sakya Newari girl can be a Kumari and is respected and worshipped till seven or eight years. Nevertheless, the Kumari is a feature (Konstrukt) or institute based on fragile premises. If a Kumari dies during her tenure as a Living Goddess, she cannot be reincarnated, because according to Hinduism a Goddess cannot die. But weren’t King Birendra and Queen Aiyeshwarya and other members of the divine royal family shot and died like common mortals? Hush! Gods cannot die in Nepal.
When Sajani Sakya, a Kumari who went to the USA on a 39 day trip to attend the screening of a BBC documentary about her life, some priests headed by Jaiprasad Regmi, demanded that she be declared a mortal and thus no longer a Kumari, because a Goddess is not allowed to go abroad—across the kala pani (black water). A faux pas that the purity-pollution-thinking priests haven’t forgiven her. There is obviously a power play between the orthodox priests on the one hand, and the
democratic, neo-ethnic federalists, human rights activists, feminists and maoists on the other hand. Whereas the priests are trying to prevent the undermining of their ancient rights and privileges as mediators between the Gods and humans, there is an increasingcommercialisation of the revered but poor Living Goddess by the western media. Instead of centuries of silence as a Kumari, the Living Goddess of Katmandu might in future give public human-interest interviews, and exclusive photo shootings in her new role till the hormones play havoc in her godly body.
Nepal has to go with the times, for the the Hindu and Buddhist worshippers of the Kumari have left the country and the believers have settled down in foreign shores, and desire and demand their share of of the Heimat, religion and culture. If the worshippers can’t come to the Goddess Kumari, then the Living Goddess has to go on tournee across the Seven Seas, kala pani as we call it, and carry out the panipatya ceremony like generations of Hindu and Buddhist British Gurkhas have done, when they return home from their deadly missions abroad fighting for the Queen of England. I did it too.
Note: Hello Satis: