National Geographic : 2015 Jun
86 national geographic • June 2015 Only in the remote mountain fastness of Ne- pal did the practice of glorifying prepubescent girls (in Nepali the word “kumari” means “vir- gin girl”) as living goddesses for years at a time become a deeply rooted cult, and only in Nepal is the tradition nurtured with vigor today. To Newar Buddhists, the kumari is regarded as the embodiment of the supreme female deity Vaj- radevi, a Buddha. To Hindus, she incarnates the great goddess Taleju, a version of Durga. Today there are just ten kumaris in Nepal, nine of them in the Kathmandu Valley. They’re still selected only from families attached to certain bahals, or traditional courtyard communities, and all their ancestors must have come from a high caste. Being chosen for the position is regarded as the highest honor, one that can bestow in- numerable blessings on a kumari’s family. So despite the financial burden and personal sac- rifices involved in maintaining a young girl as a living goddess in the modern world, and the challenges of her rehabilitation once she reach- es puberty and has to live a normal life again, certain families are still prepared to put their daughters forward for selection. This is Unika’s second time as a candidate for kumari. She was two years old the first time, too young to remember the esoteric rituals of the selection process. It’s partly Unika’s own eagerness that has persuaded the family to put her forward again. She longs to dress up like a kumari, her hair bound into a topknot on her head, thick kohl lines drawn around her eyes right up to the temples, and on festival days, a red tika painted on her forehead with a silver agni chakchuu—the third eye, known as the fire eye—staring out from the center. This desire to wear the kumari ornaments is in itself consid- ered something special, a sign perhaps that fate, or karma, is pulling her. Unika’s grandmother Masinu worries that the little girl will be disappointed if she’s not chosen this time. “My hopes are with her. I don’t want her to feel sad.” Unika’s father, Ramesh, who runs a small shoe shop, has other concerns. “I’m worried about the costs,” he tells me. “And the purity restrictions In the family living room Unika plays with her younger brother, as her parents debate whether to offer her for selection as a kumari. The incumbent girl has been dismissed because she got her first period. Isabella Tree first saw a kumari when she visited Kathmandu as a teenager in the 1980s. Her book The Living Goddess is the result of 13 years’ research. Stephanie Sinclair’s work centers on women and girls around the world.