The Life of a Living Goddess
by Jeff Hartman
Growing up, my parents told me I could be whatever I wanted to be. I sometimes imagined being rich and famous and treated like royalty or even a god of sorts. I envisioned servants catering to my every whim, a snap of my finger causing my favorite foods to be laid before me, etc.
But on this trip to Nepal I got to see what those daydreams look like in real life. Here people actually do worship a little kid: the living goddess, the Kumari Devi. After getting a couple of rare glimpses of this child-turned-goddess and reading more about her, I quickly realized that being a living incarnation of a god is not all that its cracked up to be.
First of all, the requirements are insanely difficult. To be a Kumari, the chosen girl must be a pre-pubescent female selected from a specific Nepali Caste. She must be without blemish, have black hair and all her teeth, and never have shed blood or been afflicted by any diseases.
These requirements alone would disqualify most girls, but they are trying to find the personification of the Goddess Taleju, so there’s more. Next are the battis lakshanas, or ‘thirty-two perfections’ of a goddess:
- A neck like a conch shell
- A body like a banyan tree
- Eyelashes like a cow
- Thighs like a deer
- Chest like a lion
- Voice soft and clear as a duck
If I were to be a god, perhaps I could pass with a chest of a lion or body like a banyan tree, but the duck voice or cow lashes? I don’t think I could pull those off.
If these physical characteristics have been met, her horoscope is examined to ensure it is complimentary to the King’s. Then she is tested for signs of serenity and fearlessness (after all, she is to be the vessel of a fierce goddess).
Serenity and fearlessness? A pre-pubescent child? How would you test for this?
Well, the tests occur during the Hindu festival of Dashain. On the Kalratri, or ‘black night’, 108 buffaloes and goats are sacrificed and the young candidate is taken into the Taleju temple and released into the courtyard, where the severed heads of the animals are illuminated by candlelight and masked men dance about. The living goddess then must spend a night alone in a room among the heads. All this must be performed with serenity and without showing fear.
If, and that’s a big if, the little girl is still in the running, she must then pick out the personal belongings of her predecessor laid out before her. If she is able to do so, there is no doubt that she is the chosen one.
Once the Kumari is chosen, priests take her to undergo secret rituals to cleanse her body and spirit of her past experiences. Once completed, the goddess Taleju enters her and she is presented as the new Kumari.
She is dressed and made up as a Kumari and then leaves the Taleju temple and walks across the square on a white cloth to the Kumari Ghar where she will live for the duration of her divinity. The Kumari’s walk is the last time her feet will touch the ground until the goddess departs from her body at menstruation. Her feet are now sacred and worshipers will touch them, hoping to receive good health and healing. Even the King will kiss them when he comes to seek her blessing. She only ventures outside once a year during the Indra Jatra festival, and when she does she is carried in her golden chariot.
The Kumari’s power is believed to be so strong that even a glimpse of her is enough to bring good fortune. Crowds of people every day wait in the courtyard below the Kumari’s third-story window hoping she will pass by and glance down on them.
Once the Kumari’s first menstruation occurs, she immediately reverts back to mere mortal status, moves back in with her family, and attempts to assume a normal life. A small token pension is awarded to her, but it isn’t much. To say she’s in for some major lifestyle changes would be an understatement.
Popular superstition says that a man who marries a Kumari is doomed to die within six months, making it very difficult for the girl to wed. Fortunately, that belief is beginning to fade and some of the more recent Kumaris have gone on to get married and lead relatively normal lives.
Long story short, the life of a Kumari is pretty rough. And quite a lot to ask of a pre-pubescent child. Perhaps it wouldn’t be so great to be a god after all.