National Geographic : 2015 Jun
88 national geographic • June 2015 Ramesh also is worried about his daughter’s future should she be chosen. She’s expect- ed to return to normal life, but after years of pampering and seclusion, the transition from goddess back to mortal can be difficult. Then there are the dark rumors about the marriage prospects of former living goddesses. “Men are superstitious about marrying ex-kumaris,” Ra- mesh says. “They believe terrible accidents will happen to them if they try.” The spirit of the goddess may still be strong in a former kumari, it is said, even after the diffusing rituals she undergoes upon her dismissal. Some believe that snakes issue from the vaginas of former kumaris and devour the hapless men having intercourse with them. In Patan only girls from the Buddhist lineage of Hakha Bahal are eligible to become kumaris, and in the end it was the persuasive powers of the bahal elders, and the desire to continue tra- dition, that won the day. “ We need to uphold the ways of our ances- tors,” Sabita tells me. “It is our duty to provide a living goddess from our community.” In the Kathmandu Valley people have a strong rever- ence for the past, a sense that in times gone by there was a deeper connection with the gods and that for this reason ancient customs must be followed—even if, in the 21st century, they’re no longer fully understood. kumari, representing one of the living-goddess traditions in the valley. In recent years the tra- dition has come under criticism from human rights activists who say it’s a form of child abuse that hinders the girls’ freedom and education and is especially detrimental to the royal Kath- mandu and Patan kumaris, who must observe strict rules of purity and segregation. But in 2008 Nepal’s supreme court essentially rejected a Newari woman’s petition against the tradition, citing its cultural and religious signif- icance. Four kumaris—in Kathmandu, Patan, Bhaktapur, and Nuwakot, a fortress on the trade route into the valley from Tibet—receive govern- ment support in the form of a monthly stipend while in office and a pension for life when they retire. In real terms, though, the value of this grant barely covers the cost of clothes and wor- shipping materials. The courtyard of Hakha Bahal, with its tow- ering pagoda roofs, wooden resting platforms, and repoussé bronze shrine to the Buddha Ak- shobhya—now encased in an ugly antitheft metal cage—is crowded by the time Unika, Sabita, Bi- phasa, and I step inside. Amid the throng of local spectators and well-wishers is three-year-old Anjila Vajracharya. She’s the only other kumari candidate, and she’s dressed for the occasion, perhaps optimistically, in red, like a kumari. Ananta Jwalananda Rajopadhyaya, the head The family must perform daily worship rituals before her every morning. In medieval times almost every town in the Kathmandu Valley had its own kumari. In the cities of Kathmandu, Bhaktapur, and Pa- tan there was one for almost every locality, as well as a special “royal” kumari, worshipped by the former Hindu kings. Many traditions have since disappeared, some only in the past few decades. In Mu Bahal, a courtyard communi- ty five minutes’ walk north of Kathmandu’s Durbar Square, devotees have been worship- ping an empty throne since their last kumari retired, in 1972. The Patan Kumari is a royal priest of the Taleju Temple—which adjoins the old royal palace where Patan’s kings used to worship the royal kumari as their lineage goddess, Taleju—is waiting in the courtyard. This is the first time, the 77-year-old priest tells me ruefully, that there have been only two candidates for the final selection. It would be auspicious to have three. He blames fami- ly planning for the dwindling pool of eligible girls to select from and says parents are also be- coming more reluctant. “People are not used to following the religious disciplines these days.