|Kumari Chandra Shila
is regal on her throne.
Ruth Lor Malloy discovers unique
cultural celebrations in Nepal
The living goddesses of Kathmandu are bloody awful. They first
appeared after the king raped and murdered a young girl over three
hundred years ago. A spirit came to the king in a dream. As punishment
for his crime, the spirit told him to choose a pre-pubescent girl,
make her a goddess, and once a year, worship her. The spirit forbade
him to sleep with his kumari devi because she was, after all, a
The institution of living goddesses continues today in Nepal. The
current king of Nepal still gives his kumari the use of one of his
palaces in Kathmandu's old city square. Once a year, at the festival
of the god Indra in September, the living goddess blesses the king
in exchange for a gold coin. The blessing is important. One former
king had a bad accident when the child was too sleepy to do the
But be that what it may, the poor girl is confined to this palace
except for the yearly parade during the festival. Then she gets
to ride a chariot around the city blessing everyone else. A guide
told us that a teacher is allowed to give the living goddess lessons,
but she may only see her family once a year. When we caught a glimpse
of the current, 10-year-old incumbent at her window for a fleeting
five seconds, it was obvious by the way she was dressed up that
she spends her days waiting for tourists and worshippers.
Only girls of a certain low caste can be candidates, said our guide.
Priests put them through tests and finally lock them in a dark room
for a night with the heads of dead buffaloes and horrible masks.
The child who shows the least fear is the winner - or loser - depending
on your point of view.
Kumaris are said to be incarnations of the Hindu goddess Kali and
since Kali loves buffalo blood, the real kumari should have no fear
of buffalo heads.
The living goddess is chosen at any age from infancy to pubescence.
As soon as she sheds blood, be it menstrual or even from a cut,
her divinity is supposedly finished. Bleeding is considered "unclean."
Child birth, too, is "unclean." Nepal is still a male-chauvinist
When her reign is over, the kumari has another problem. Her chance
of getting a husband is pretty slim. The story goes that any man
who marries her will die within a few months. While this doesn't
always happen and some husbands have outlived their wives, the stigma
is still there.
|Young girls dressed
as living goddesses.
The king's kumari is "number one" in town and cannot be photographed
nor visited by non-Hindus. The second of Kathmandu's living kumaris
is more accessible. We went to visit her in a far-from-palatial
home near Patan's Durbar Square. Patan is one of the three ancient
cities that make up today's Kathmandu.
The narrow, three-story walk-up made me think of an old tenement.
Outside on the front of the building, a four-inch sign said "Living
Goddess" in English.
"How should we behave?" I asked our guide, Prakash. I had never
met a goddess before. Should I curtsey?
"You can't talk to her," was all he said as we climbed two flights
of gloomy, grubby stairs to meet the kumari's adult brother. The
latter showed us into a tiny room with a small gold throne. A crown
of sorts was permanently attached to the back of the chair. Aside
from a few religious vessels and pictures, the room was empty.
Within minutes a chubby little 10-year old girl, dressed in a red-gold
gown walked slowly and deliberately into the room. Her forehead
was painted crimson. She was not as glamorous as the first kumari
and had no third eye painted on her forehead.
It was obvious that kumari Chandra Shila was also spending her
days waiting for people to visit, pay homage and pray to her for
help. Her brother said she had been a goddess since she was a year
and a half.
She appeared sad and did not smile. She looked like she was obediently
and reluctantly going through well-practiced motions. I felt uncomfortable
as I photographed her because I too was exploiting her. She should
have been laughing and playing with her friends instead of enduring
the scrutiny of foreigners. I wondered about the money as her brother
pointed to a donation box. At least she was living with her family.
The next day, I was destined to learn even more. As we were sightseeing
in Bhaktapur village, the third old city forming today's Kathmandu,
we kept seeing men in caps and jodhpurs carrying freshly cut goats'
heads on platters. The area looked positively medieval with cobblestone
paths, narrow streets and wonderful old houses. The young man there
who had pestered us to be our guide said today was the Festival
of Goats and he would take us to the slaughter.
Shankar led us to his own village where he introduced us to his
mother and sister. Most of the hundred or so people were just standing
around. A couple of men were decapitating goats and spraying the
inside of a temple and statue of the goddess Kali with blood. It
was already congealing red and thick, a horrible bloody mess.
"Kali likes buffalo blood," said Shankar. "Buffaloes are very expensive.
So we sacrifice goats to her."
Then we noticed dozen or so little girls dressed up like kumaris
in fancy red-gold dresses. They were kumaris just for one day, said
Shankar. They were worshipped also as goddesses, given sweets and
special foods. They liked being kumaris.
I looked at the children - some five years old, some 10 - all wide-eyed
and innocent and apparently oblivious to the killing around them.
I looked at the headless carcasses and the lifeless heads on the
altars of the shrines and tried to make sense of it all.
When I returned home, I consulted books. Kali's appetite for blood
was insatiable, they said. She wears a necklace of severed heads
and around her waist, a belt of human arms. She incites terror and
is dangerous, but at the same time, she protects, gives potency
and abundance. At one time, humans were sacrificed to her. Today,
goats are used. Now this is a step in the right direction.
Ruth Lor Malloy, who usually writes on China, visited Nepal
Visit her website: www.china-travel-guide.com