National Geographic : 2015 Jun
84 about to become one of Nepal’s most celebrated figures. She is six years old, at present a simple schoolgirl. Despite her shyness, her eyes spar- kle with curiosity. She isn’t used to receiving strangers. A smile dimples her cheeks when I ask her what she’ll do if, later today, she’s chosen to be a kumari, or living goddess, a role that will bring people to their knees before her. “I’ll keep quiet,” she says. “I won’t be allowed to go to school. I’ll study at home and receive worship every day.” Unika is a Nepali from the Newar ethnic group. She lives in Patan, officially known as Lalitpur, a city of 230,000 people of mainly Bud- dhist influence in the fertile Kathmandu Valley, in the foothills of the Himalaya. The Newars pride themselves on being the custodians of cul- ture in the valley, and an agelong cornerstone of their culture is the worship of little girls as living goddesses. The selection process involves a secret ritual from which even Unika’s parents will be barred. Is she nervous? I ask. “No,” she says, brightly. “Just excited.” As we leave her house—an old, low-ceilinged, brick-and-timber building in a neighborhood called Thabu—Unika skips along through the narrow streets, pulling her mother, Sabita, and elder sister, Biphasa, by the hand. It’s a short walk to Hakha Bahal, the courtyard where for centuries members of her extended family have lived and gathered for religious rituals and festi- vals and where the first part of the selection will take place. Unika’s wearing her favorite yellow fleece hoodie with “Snoopy” on the back. If she’s chosen, this will be one of the last times she’ll be able to wear it. A living goddess can wear only red—the color of creative energy, usually reserved for married women. A woman, a neigh- bor, touches Unika’s cheek as she passes. “Are you going for kumari, little one?” she asks. Kumaris are revered in the Newar com- munity. They’re believed to have powers of prescience and the ability to cure the sick (par- ticularly those suffering from blood disorders), fulfill specific wishes, and bestow blessings of protection and prosperity. Above all, they’re said to provide an immediate connection be- tween this world and the divine and to generate in their devotees maitri bhavana—a spirit of loving-kindness toward all. The tradition dates back to at least the tenth century, when young girls and boys across South Asia performed in Hindu and Buddhist rituals as agents for divination. Their presumed con- nection to the divine and ability to predict the future were of particular interest to Asia’s rulers. Centuries later the tradition was taken up by people who lived on the periphery of the Indi- an subcontinent—in Kashmir, Assam, Bengal, Tamil Nadu, and Nepal—and who followed sub- versive religions that emphasized female power, or shakti, and tantric possession, a state brought about by magical invocations and rituals in which humans supposedly can be transformed into divine beings with supernatural powers. Unika Vajracharya could be standing on the brink of divinity, By Isabella Tree Photographs by Stephanie Sinclair Unika Vajracharya, six, takes to her throne on her first day as the Kumari of Patan, her feet resting on an offering tray and a snake god guarding her head.