The Very Strange Life Of Nepal's Child Goddess

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Nepal's Living Goddess, the Kumari Devi, 9, observes a chariot festival in Kathmandu on March 29. The goddess is worshipped by both Hindus and Buddhists. She's selected as a young child and lives an isolated and secretive existence and is rarely seen in public. Her historic home survived last month's earthquake with only minor cracks. She's being held by her caretaker Gautam Shakya. (AFP/Getty Images)
Nepal's Living Goddess, the Kumari Devi, 9, observes a chariot festival in Kathmandu on March 29. The goddess is worshipped by both Hindus and Buddhists. She's selected as a young child and lives an isolated and secretive existence and is rarely seen in public. Her historic home survived last month's earthquake with only minor cracks. She's being held by her caretaker Gautam Shakya. (AFP/Getty Images)

Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled the first name of priest Udhav Karmacharya.

Last month's earthquake brought much of Kathmandu's historic Durbar Square, a World Heritage Site, tumbling to the ground. Nepal's showcase temples and palaces were reduced to ruins. But save for a few cracks, the home of the city's Living Goddess remained intact.

Largely unknown to the outside world, Nepal's centuries-old institution of the child deity, the Kumari Devi, is deeply embedded in the culture of Kathmandu Valley. Young, beautiful and decorous, even a glimpse of her is believed to bring good fortune.

The current Kumari of Kathmandu, age 9, is the best known of several girls who are worshipped in Nepal, and is revered by many though she lives an isolated and secretive existence inside the house and is rarely seen.

At her home, caretaker Gautam Shakya says the building's square shape stabilized it in the recent tremors. Yet nothing so mundane was involved, insists Udhav Man Karmacharya, one of the main priests attending the Kumari.

"It's the power of the goddess; it's about faith," the priest declares. "It's been the home of Kumaris for ages and we believe the force of that goddess made the house safe."

Chanira Bajracharya, now 19, was a Living Goddess. She held the position from age 5 to 15, then relinquished it in keeping with the centuries-old tradition. In this undated photo, she's shown in her regalia when she was still a Kumari.
Chanira Bajracharya, now 19, was a Living Goddess. She held the position from age 5 to 15, then relinquished it in keeping with the centuries-old tradition. In this undated photo, she's shown in her regalia when she was still a Kumari.

Kumaris are drawn from the Newar community, the original inhabitants of the Kathmandu Valley for whom planets, karma and an array of gods play a vital role in day-to-day life. Gautam Shakya, in the eleventh generation of Kumari caretakers, says they are Buddhists who adopted the Hindu caste system and embody harmony.

"One doesn't discriminate against the other. We Newars are Buddhist. The Kumari is from a Buddhist family — but she is a Hindu goddess," he says.

There's at least one major drawback to being a Kumari. You must relinquish the position when you reach puberty and return to the ranks of mere mortals.

The current Kumari was not available for an interview.

But Chanira Bajracharya, now 19, recalled when the title was conferred on her in the historic city of Patan when she was just 5 years old. It followed an elaborate search that included an elimination round in which seven girls were handed grains and studied for their reaction: "Some became fevered; some cried," she says. Barjracharya only turned a slight blush color.

In last month's devastating earthquake, the Kumari's home (left) remained intact, suffering only minor cracks, while surrounding buildings in Kathmandu's historic Durbar Square were badly damaged or destroyed.
In last month's devastating earthquake, the Kumari's home (left) remained intact, suffering only minor cracks, while surrounding buildings in Kathmandu's historic Durbar Square were badly damaged or destroyed.

She was whisked off to the Royal Court to be inspected for "32 characteristics" of physical perfection, among them "thighs like a deer, chest like a lion, and eyelashes like a cow."

Bajracharya says after the royal priest's wife examined her "teeth and nails" and "checked to see there were no blemishes on my body, she declared that I was to be the next goddess."

The secretive world of the Kumari generates its own lore, including tales about initiation rites filled with demons and the heads of dead animals. Bajracharya says there was nothing so terrifying, but recalls her own investiture was frightening enough.

"Actually the room was quite scary, only lit through oil lamps. But then when you get the power of the goddess you don't get scared at all. Even though I was 5 years old I was sitting there quite calm," she says.

The Kumari is believed to be the incarnation of the fearsome Hindu goddess Durga. One myth — and there are several — has Durga visiting the king of the Malla dynasty each night until the king makes sexual advances ... and the goddess vanishes in fury.

She then appears to the king in a dream telling him: "Find a child from the Shakya caste. I will enter her soul and you can worship her as you worshipped me." The king complies, and the belief in the world's only Living Goddess is born.

Kumari Priest Karmacharya says the child becomes "Taleju, the unseen force that only priests have the power to see," he says.

Chanira Bajracharya, whose aunt was also a Kumari, recalls that she felt a distinct physical sensation when the force was present in her. "I feel hot, my body gets warm," she says, but "it's a very pleasant feeling."

When the power of the goddess was with her she says she understood people's "wishes and granted them." She says there also were times when she would become angry and refuse people's prayers.

"My behavior is not in my control ... There is someone supreme over me that makes me listen to their prayers or just ignore them. You feel, you know, supreme." She mysteriously adds, "You're not you, actually."

Bajracharya's stint as a Living Goddess ended when she reached puberty at the age of 15, and her powers "were transferred to another girl."

Before Nepal's monarchy was abolished in 2008, kings would seek the Kumari's blessing. Later, the president bowed before her. Human rights activist and lawyer Sapana Pradhan Malla says "with everyone surrendering themselves to her" there's little wonder the Kumari feels "supreme."

"Yes, she inherited this power because of the culture, because of the religion and also the state itself is practicing this culture to make her powerful," Malla says. The government subsidizes Kumaris with a small stipend in recognition of their service.

But the rituals and way of life surrounding Nepal's Living Goddess are cloaked in secrecy, and raise questions: Why are they cloistered away? Why are they retired when they reach puberty? Priest Udhav Karmacharya says it wouldn't do to have a goddess susceptible to the distractions of young men. Besides, he says, as she's no longer a child, she will be tempted to tell the secrets of the temple.

"There is information we cannot divulge. When she's conversing in the temple with the priests — she's god-like," the priest says. "It's a mystery. It's sacred. And if we tell all of the secrets, she'll no longer be a goddess, but just a common woman."

It's no different from the Vatican's secrets, he adds.

But Malla, the human rights activist, notes: "Popes are adults. These are small girls."

The former Kumari, Bajracharya, says she enjoyed her time being "treated like a princess." The first Kumari to be taught to "surf the Web" was sequestered in the home of her parents, whom she says she enjoyed not obeying.

But the transition to ordinary life "was tough." And Bajracharya says she would like to smooth the journey for the next generation of living goddesses, who must one day return to the humdrum world of humans.

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Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Now, we're going to hear about a goddess. She's young, beautiful, dignified. Even a glimpse of her is believed to bring good fortune. She's one of Nepal's living goddesses, or kumari. Plucked from a select group of girls as young as age 2, she lives a life of isolation that's cloaked in secrecy. NPR's Julie McCarthy recently traveled to Kathmandu.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOVELING)

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: Just steps from the front door of the Kumari of Kathmandu, crews clean the debris of the city's historic Durbar Square, a World Heritage Site. Treasured palaces and temples lie in ruins from last month's earthquake. While the centuries-old home of the child goddess stands intact, the caretaker says its square shape stabilized the building. It was nothing so mundane, insists Udhav Karmacharya, one of the main priests attending the kumari.

UDHAV KARMACHARYA: (Foreign language spoken).

MCCARTHY: "It's the power of the goddess. It's about faith," the priest declares. "It's been the home of kumaris for ages, and we believe the force of that goddess made the house safe," he says. Step inside the enigmatic world of the living goddess. The fluttering of pigeons in the courtyard mixes with the early-morning stirrings of this storied household dating to the 1700s. Ubiquitous bird droppings seem incongruous with the home of no mere mortal. A sign posted beneath a black-latticed window warns no foreigners beyond this point. We gaze up for a sighting of the 9-year-old Kumari of Kathmandu. The caretaker's son, Gautam Shakya, appears, the 11th generation of kumari caretakers, who's inherited a suspicion of outsiders. But he drops his guard long enough to recount...

GAUTAM SHAKYA: (Foreign language spoken).

MCCARTHY: "The moment the earthquake struck..."

SHAKYA: (Foreign language spoken).

MCCARTHY: "The kumari and her caretakers were all upstairs on the upper floor," Shakya says. "The visitors - some 50 or 60 - were in the courtyard, terrified, as was I." But, he says, "their guide told them don't be afraid and don't move. The kumari will save you," he recalls. In wide-eyed amazement, he says "no one was hurt."

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

MCCARTHY: Kathmandu's child goddess is the best-known of several girls who are worshiped in Nepal. Selected usually around age 5, kumaris are drawn from the Newars, the original inhabitants of the Kathmandu Valley, who follow a bewildering array of gods. Caretaker Gautam Shakya, says they are Buddhists who adopted the Hindu caste system and embody harmony.

SHAKYA: (Foreign language spoken).

MCCARTHY: "One doesn't discriminate against the other. We Newars are Buddhist. The Kumari is from a Buddhist family, but she is a Hindu goddess," he says. Kumari is said to be the incarnation of the fearsome Hindu Goddess Durga. One myth - there are several - has Durga visiting the king of the Malla Dynasty each night until the king makes lustful advances, and she vanishes in rage. The goddess appears in his dreams and tells him find a child from the Shakya caste, and I will enter her soul, and you can worship her as you worshiped me. The king complies, and the centuries-old belief in the world's only living goddess is born. The kumari's priest says the prepubescent child must be rigorously tested for 32 perfections, including eyelashes like a cow.

KARMACHARYA: (Foreign language spoken).

MCCARTHY: "She should be charming and beautiful, not have a blemish on her body, have good teeth. And she should be innocent," he says. "She is Telaju," he explains, "the unseen force that only the priests have the power to see," he says, and adds "she is revered by the whole country." Heady stuff for a 5-year-old. Chanira Bajracharya, a former kumari, remembers her initiation rite at that age in a darkly-lit room.

CHANIRA BAJRACHARYA: Actually, the room was quite scary. It was dark, only lit through oil lamps. But then you get the power of the goddess. I think you don't get scared at all. Even though I was 5 years old, I was sitting there calm.

MCCARTHY: Canira served 10 years as the kumari of the historic city of Patan, retiring as goddess at the age of 15 when her power was transferred to the next girl goddess. Her power included granting people's prayers, such as good health and prosperity. At times, she says she would grow angry and refuse people's prayers.

BAJRACHARYA: My behavior is not in my control, so there's someone supreme over me that makes me, you know, listen to their prayers or just ignore them.

MCCARTHY: You're saying some other force was going through you that honored what someone said or ignored it.

BAJRACHARYA: Yeah, it's true. You feel, you know, supreme, and you're not you, actually.

MCCARTHY: Before Nepal's monarchy was abolished seven years ago, kings sought the kumari's blessing. Today, the president bows before her. Human rights activist and lawyer Sapana Pradhan Malla says with everyone surrendering themselves to her, there's little wonder the Kumari feels supreme.

SAPNA PRADHAN MALLA: Yes, she inherited this power because of the culture, because of the religion and also because of the state itself practicing this culture to make her powerful.

MCCARTHY: The secrecy surrounding the kumari begs questions. Why is she isolated? Why is she retired when she reaches puberty? Priest to the Kumari of Kathmandu, Udhav Karmacharya, says it wouldn't do to have a goddess susceptible to the distractions of young men. Besides, he says, as she's no longer a child, she will be tempted to tell the secrets of the temple.

KARMACHARYA: (Foreign language spoken).

MCCARTHY: "There is information we cannot divulge. When she's conversing in the temple with the priests, she's God-like," he says. "It's a mystery. It's sacred. And if we tell all of the secrets, she'll no longer be a goddess, but just a common woman," the priest says. "It's no different from the Vatican's secrets," he adds. But human rights activist Sapana Pradhan Malla notes popes are adults; these are small girls. Malla says venerating them as goddesses is disturbingly at odds with the treatment to which some children of Nepal are being exposed.

MALLA: Five years girls are being raped, 7 years girls are being raped, 9 years, girls are being raped. Are you really considering kumari as a goddess? There are all kumaris.

MCCARTHY: Former Kumari Chanira Bajracharya says she enjoyed her time being treated like a princess and that the transition to ordinary life was tough. She'd like to smooth the journey for the next generation of living goddesses who will one day return to the hum-drum world of humans. Julie McCarthy, NPR News, Kathmandu. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.