National Geographic : 2015 Jun
92 national geographic • June 2015 Crammed in the dim stairwell outside, with daylight fading, we’re alert to the hum of man- tras, the tinkling of a handbell, and the aroma of incense wafting from the room. Moments later we hear Anjila begin to wail. By the time the door is opened again, she’s hysterical and rushes to her mother. Unika remains perfectly composed on her cushion. There’s an air of re- lease after the agonizing suspense. With growing aplomb, the kumari-elect be- gins to receive offerings from her well-wishers as, one by one, they kneel and bow their fore- heads to her feet. From now on, she’ll no longer The most favorable sign for a kumari is the peacock—symbol of the goddess. waterpot, garlands of flowers, puja trays, bowls of curd, leaf plates of beaten rice, known as baji, and other ritual paraphernalia laid out on a part of the concrete floor that’s been smeared with a purifying mixture of red clay and cow dung. The girls, separated from their mothers, are seated on red cushions facing her. Little Anjila is ex- cited and leaps from her cushion to Unika’s and back again. Unika sits rock still, but her eyes dart about the room. All the onlookers, including the two candidates’ mothers, are directed to leave. Only Maiya and an assistant, a daughter-in-law, remain inside with the candidates.