Kathmandu and Patan, Nepal
February 24 – 25, 2013
Today I saw the highest point on earth and met a living goddess. Just your regular day in Nepal.
So went my Facebook status. Nepal occupied not only a sliver of land high above the rest of the earth, but also the earthbound dwellings of deities. Mysticism pervaded the rarefied air in this Himalayan kingdom, where ancient idols at street corners had been smoothed by centuries of veneration, enduring and unchanging through time that seemed to have stalled.
Bhuwan, our guide, had acquainted us with Hindu gods in frozen stances. For a change, he led us weaving through the Hanuman Dhoka Palace Complex in Kathmandu to behold a flesh-and-blood deity called the Kumari Devi, or simply the Kumari, Nepali for the Living Goddess. She was the incarnation of Taleju (aka Durga), the goddess wife of Shiva, who embodied the victory of good over evil, in a vessel of purity – a pre-menstrual virgin.
We entered an inner courtyard that was soon crowded with devotees and tourists. The curious and the worshipful stood below the balcony of the Kumari Ghar, their gaze fixed on its carved wooden window in hushed anticipation. It took a while for the window pane to slide open revealing, without introduction, a girl no more than 10 years of age, the Royal Kumari of Kathmandu, her divinity conveyed by the brightly painted patterns on her forehead.
A female devotee cried out, professing love for the Kumari in a kind of hysterical chant. The Living Goddess maintained a stoic expression, never once betraying any human acknowledgement of the exuberant display of devotion below her. Needing no spoken words, she conferred her blessings with a look made deeper by the severe cat’s eye make-up drawn to the sides of her head. The ritual ended as abruptly as it began; within minutes, the Goddess withdrew from view as the window was quickly shuttered by her assistants.
For a foreigner and non-believer, witnessing the worship of the Royal Kumari from a respectful distance without pictorial documentation was an experience only to be committed to memory. And so I was thrilled the next day when Bhuwan announced that we would visit the Kumari of Patan, an hour away from Kathmandu, and from whom we would personally receive a blessing. There was one Kumari for each of the three principal cities in Kathmandu Valley. That I would meet one such Living Goddess face to face intrigued me.
Before a girl could become the Living Goddess, she had to pass a stringent selection process, not so unlike child beauty pageants, focusing on 32 qualities, mostly physical, e.g. having curled lashes of a cow and graceful thighs of a deer, some psychological, e.g. bravery. After a religious committee made the selection, the girl, along with the rest of her childhood, was sequestered to the temple, fortunately with her family, where she would never leave except for significant religious festivals. Even then, she would be carried by her parents for she could be defiled by her feet touching the ground. Her blessings were coveted by kings and peasants. Although she was allowed a tutor and a few playmates, she could not fully engage her youthful energy and curiosity. The spirit of Durga would depart from her body through any form of blood loss. Thus, her goddesshood ended as her menstrual cycle commenced.
The temple residence of the Kumari of Patan was not tucked within a palace complex as in Kathmandu. A mere arched gateway, nothing out of the ordinary, separated it from the bustling street. The temple and courtyard looked abandoned until a man appeared at the door to receive us. Kicking our footwear off, we were ushered up a steep and creaky wooden staircase. The upstairs anteroom was dim and spartan, solely furnished with ragged cushions on which we sat. As we settled on the floor, Bhuwan briefed us on the customs in meeting the Living Goddess.
Leather objects were to be removed from the body, namely my wallet and belt. This we did despite these items being hidden within our clothing. They were faux, but I opted to err on the side of savoir faire. We were also told to avoid looking at the Kumari straight in the eye. As expected, taking photos of the Kumari was strictly prohibited. Bhuwan negotiated this last point with the Kumari‘s parents, who appeared to be on friendly terms with him. The man who met us at the door turned out to be the Kumari‘s father. He relented, allowing us one non-flash photograph. I took the instructions to heart, determined not to embarrass our gracious guide with my facetiousness.
Without warning, the parents whizzed back through the anteroom as we staggered to get up. I barely caught a glimpse of a small figure robed in red wedged between them; only the rustle of cloth and patter of footsteps remained distinct in my mind. I was summoned first. I slung my camera over my neck and took tentative steps through a red curtain.
And there she was. The Living Goddess looked tiny, dwarfed by an ornate headdress more than twice the size of her head. She was a little girl sitting motionless on a low wooden throne, her gaze held straight ahead as I slipped into the room through the side, yet the compact room, redolent of incense, disappeared in her presence. Under her feet was a clutter of colors and shapes: fruit offerings on metal plates, ceremonial rice strewn on the floor, and colorful powder in small shallow bowls.
I knelt as I caught her line of vision and laid my monetary gift before her with both hands. I pressed my palms together and bowed. She reached forward unseen to daub a mixture of paste and marigold petals on my forehead. The cold dab startled me, momentarily oblivious to the blessing bestowed upon me by the Living Goddess.
The Kumari had already straightened up when I raised my head. Only then was it permissible to take that precious photo. Unable to shoot blindly, I noticed her eyes averted – shy, perhaps awkward, even disapproving, I could not tell. As the red dot of light from my camera fell on her face, a pang of guilt ran through me. Here I was visiting her temple, not as a believer imploring her blessings or sharing her beliefs, but as a tourist taking her photo. Yet it was hardly the moment to grapple with my scruples. I hurriedly took the shot and shuffled out of the room. In a jiffy, I clicked my camera display; alas, my one photo of the Living Goddess was blurred.
Later as we strolled through Durbar Square of Patan, I inspected my forehead marked by a red tika, a sign of blessing and wisdom. I was certain that good fortune had smiled on me that day, but what of wisdom? I was party to the commodification of the Living Goddess. I practically paid money for a photo op with little regard for long-held traditions, ancient as the Himalayas.
And what of that little girl, cloistered at a tender age and carrying the weight of divinity in the voluminous ornaments on her still underdeveloped body? Bhuwan said that many former Living Goddesses had difficulty in integrating into society, even finding a husband, despite these girls possessing a perceived perfection of beauty. A popular superstition went that men who wed ex-goddesses died within six months of marriage, not an encouraging come-on.
As the pointed temple silhouettes slowly eclipsed the setting sun, I returned the blessing to the Kumari of Patan. I prayed she would have a blessed and normal life among mortals after her stint as the Living Goddess. Still, I felt a sting of sadness. I did not even know the little girl’s name.
Tour or trek Nepal with Bhuwan Shrestha. You may reach him through his cellphone (977) 98-5111-1907 or (977) 97-2155-3885 and email: firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.