Apart from the world’s tallest mountain, the Mt. Everest and the birthplace of the Lord Gautama Buddha, Lumbini, Nepal boasts a rich cultural heritage and numerous customs and tradition. Among many such traditions, there exists one in which a young and living goddess is worshipped; Kumari. The word ‘Kumari’, originally, comes from the Sanskrit word ‘Kaumarya’, which means a princess. Kumari is a pre-pubescent girl chosen from the Shakya or Bajracharya caste of Newari community of Nepal.
History of Kumari Goddess
There are several legends and myth regarding the beginning of Goddess Kumari. Among the several legends, the most popular one is of King Jayaprakash Malla; a king and his friend, the goddess Taleju, approached King’s chamber one late night as he played tripasa, a dice game. Goddess Taleju came along every night upon the condition that king cannot speak of this secret meeting to anyone.
But one king’s got curious and followed him to his chamber to find out the truth. The king’s wife saw the Goddess Taleju and Taleju got angered by this. She told the king that if he wants to protect his country or want to see her again, he would have to search her among the Shakya’s of Newari community as she would be incarnated as a little girl among them. King Jayaprakash Malla left his palace to search a young girl possessed by Goddess Taleju’s spirit.
Requirements and selection of Kumari
Kumaris are selected from the Shakya caste of Newar community who are silver and goldsmiths. In order to be the rightful candidate, she must be in excellent health, never been afflicted by any diseases or have shed blood, should be without blemish and must not have lost any teeth yet. When she passes all these basic eligibility requirements, she gets further examined for battis lakshanas or thirty-two perfections of a goddess.
Also, her eyes and hair should be very black, have dainty hands and feet, small and well-recessed sexual organs and a set of twenty teeth. She is also gets observed for signs of serenity and fearlessness. Her horoscope also gets examined to make sure that it is complementary to the King’s. It is done so there cannot be any conflicts as she must confirm the legitimacy of King each year of her divinity. Not only the Kumaris but her family too gets scrutinized to ensure their piety and devotion to the King.
After the above tests, Kumari has to undergo rigorous tests to prove to herself that she really has the qualities to be living vessel of Goddess. During the test, 108 buffaloes and goats are sacrificed to the goddess Kali and the young candidate is taken from Taleju temple and released to walk the courtyard without fear. If she is the true vessel, then she will show no fear, but if she does, another candidate is bought to attempt the same.
During the final test, Kumari has to spend a night alone in a room among the heads of those ritually slaughtered buffaloes and goats. The fearless candidate to do so will be proven as the living vessel of the goddess.
Yet, the test of Kumari doesn’t end her, her ultimate test will be to pick out the personal belongings of previous Kumari from the assortments of things laid down before her. If she does it correctly, then there is no doubt that she is the one.
When Kumari passes all the test, she gets purified so that she can be an unblemished vessel for Taleju. She undergoes several secret tantric rituals to cleanse her spirit and body from her past experience. After all the rituals are done, Taleju enters her and she is presented as the new Kumari.
Power of Goddess Kumari
According to the traditional Hindu mythology, some unspecified form of divine power is supposed to reside in the Kumari goddess. Though much influence cannot be observed, the Kumari Goddess is worshipped as an omnipotent goddess. Even one of the main goddesses of Hinduism, goddess Durga, was called Kumari in her childhood. Hence, Kumari Goddess is believed to be the manifestation of goddess Durga as well. A girl, selected as the Kumari Goddess, is supposed to hold the position for as long as she does not reach her puberty and does not suffer any injury or illness.
When her menstruation begins, it is believed that she loses the divine power. Likewise, loss of her blood from injury or illness also results in her being dethroned. There are several Kumaris throughout the country who are worshipped as goddesses. Among them, the Royal Kumari of Kathmandu is most renowned.
She lives in the Kumari Ghar, a relatively small palace, in Basantapur. She is worshipped on occasions like Durga Puja, Shiva Ratri, etc. The most favorable time to observe the worship of the Kumari goddess might be during the Indra Jatra when she is paraded throughout the city. On the chariot of Lord Indra and Kumari, the living goddess sits in her golden palanquin. Devotees dance around as well as pull the chariot.
The Life of Royal Kumaris
If we make a close observation of the life of a Kumari, there seems to be some influence of Buddhist philosophy as well. It is because like the Lord Buddha himself, the Kumari is also free from the material troubles. Since she is worshipped as the embodiment of Goddess Taleju, she has to act accordingly. It is very much important for her, especially, to maintain calmness and treat all devotees equally.
Being the whole body sacred, she cannot even touch the ground during her tenure as the Kumari. She goes out only on special occasions, not exceeding fifteen times a year when she is actually carried in her golden palanquin. Hoping to gain respite from life’s troubles, her devotees touch her sacred feet. Her position is so dignified that during the monarchy, the king himself would come and kiss the feet of the Kumari and receive blessings from her.
Among many other restrictions, she is not allowed to wear shoes throughout her tenure. They are necessarily covered with red stockings. The radical followers of this tradition believe that a mere glimpse of her brings them good fortune. Hence, a large throng can be seen waiting outside the palace to witness the Kumari pass by the latticed windows inside her palace. She appears at no particular time and passes by swiftly unless she wishes to observe the outside world that is visible from the windows of Kumari Ghar.
The impact of her divine power manifests itself when people suffering from blood and menstrual disorders visit her, looking for a divine cure. Even the bureaucrats and government officials pay her special visits. The visiting devotees give her specially prepared food offerings and the Kumari silently receives them. She does not talk directly to her devotees. Rather she offers them her feet to touch or kiss as an act of devotion. She makes different signs predicting the future of her visitors. Followings are some of the examples of her signs and their implicit meanings.
– Crying or laughing loudly: Serious illness or death – Weeping or rubbing eyes: Imminent death – Trembling: Imprisonment – Hand clapping: Reason to fear the King or the current ruler In case the living goddess remains thoroughly silent, her devotees are in ruptures believing that they have been granted their secret wishes. Some people, known as Kumarini, are appointed to fulfill the Kumari’s needs and to instruct her in different ceremonial activities. Moreover, they have the responsibilities of bathing her, dressing her, putting make-up on her and preparing her for any kind of occasion.
At the beginning of this tradition, the Kumari received no formal education even after leaving the throne. In the present also she cannot attend to any formal education throughout her stay at the Kumari Ghar. This has drawn some criticisms from the child’s rights activists in recent years. However, she can begin her education once she is done with her tenure.
Alongside being the Goddess Kumari, she can also keep private tutors, though. Upon leaving the palace, her life in school becomes no different from that of ordinary students. Though she might earn reverence as the former Kumari, nobody believes that she possess divine power. When inside the palace, she can have some playmates from the Shakya caste or Bajracharya clan. Those mates must pay her the due respect and play according to her wish. By and large, a dethroned Kumari is carried on a sedan chair and taken back to her family. After that, she can begin a normal life like that of any other ordinary people.