Kumari, or Kumari Devi, is the tradition of worshipping young pre-pubescent girls as manifestations of the divine female energy or devi in South Asian countries especially in Nepal. Kumari which literally means a Virgin girl in many of the Asian languages like Sanskrit, is a prepubescent girl chosen from the Shakya clan of the Nepalese Newari community. In Nepal the Kumari is worshipped by the Hindus in that part of the world and also by the Nepali Buddhists. It is also a prevalent practice in the Indian state of Bengal but here the kumari is chosen for a day and worshipped accordingly during festivals like Navaratri or Durga puja. While there are several Kumaris throughout Nepal, the best known is the Royal Kumari of Kathmandu, and she lives in the special chamber called the Kumari Ghar, a palace in the heart of the city. The selection process for her is especially rigorous. The current Royal Kumari, Matina Shakya, aged four, was installed in October 2008 by the Maoist government that replaced the monarchy.
A Kumari is believed to be the incarnation of the goddess Taleju (the Nepalese name for Durga) until she menstruates, after which it is believed that the goddess vacates her body. Blood loss due to an injury or any kind of serious illness is also a major reason that changes the status of the kumari from a goddess to a normal girl once again.
In the Shakta text, Devi Mahatmyam or Chandi, the goddess is said to have declared that she resides in all female living beings in this universe. The entire ritual of Kumari is based on this verse. But while worshiping a goddess, only a young girl is chosen over a mature lady because of their inherent purity and chastity which are considered to be principle characteristics of Durga.
Eligible girls are Buddhists from the Newar Shakya caste (the clan to which the Buddha belonged) of silver and goldsmiths. She must be healthy and not afflicted by any disease. At the same time she must be without blemish and also must not have lost even a single tooth. Girls who pass these basic eligibility requirements are examined for the battis lakshanas, or ‘thirty-two perfections’ of a goddess.
Once the priests have chosen a candidate, she must undergo yet more rigorous tests to ensure that she possesses the qualities that are necessary to be the bodily incarnation of Durga. Her greatest test comes during the Hindu festival of Dashain. On the kalratri, or ‘black night’, when 108 buffaloes and goats are sacrificed to the goddess Kali. The young candidate is taken into the temple and released into the courtyard, where the severed heads of the animals are illuminated by candlelight and masked men are dancing about. If the candidate truly possesses the qualities of Taleju, she shows no fear during this experience. If she does, another candidate is brought in to attempt the same thing.
As a final test, the living goddess must spend a night alone in a room among the heads of ritually slaughtered goats and buffaloes without showing fear and along with that the candidate is supposed to search for the belongings of the earlier kumari from a lot of things kept in front of her and if she does that then she is considered the perfect girl to be the Godess.
LIFE OF THE ROYAL KUMARI:
The life of the girl completely changes after she has been chosen. Firstly she has to go through purification rites and crosses from the temple on a white cloth to the Kumari Ghar to assume her throne. Though free from material issues but her life now has many ceremonial roles to play, she has to behave in the way a goddess would. The power of the Kumari is perceived to be so strong that even a glimpse of her is believed to bring good fortune. Crowds of people wait below the Kumari’s window in the Kumari Chowk, or courtyard of her palace, hoping that she will pass by the latticed windows on the third floor and glance down at them. Even though her irregular appearances last only a few seconds, the atmosphere in the courtyard is charged with devotion and awe when they do occur. Traditionally, the Kumari received no education as she was widely considered to be omniscient. However, modernization has made it necessary for her to have an education once she re-enters mortal life. Kumaris are now allowed to attend public schools, and have a life inside the classroom that is no different from that of other students. In the later stage of her life once she attains marriageable age and is no more a goddess another superstition keeps her future under shadow. It is believed that the husband of an ex-Kumari does not live for more then 6 months after the marriage but most of the men have survived this not so true threat.
So this Devi pratha shows us another side of the religious belief that exists in this part of the world and the superstitions that change many a things for a girl completely for almost the whole of her life even after she is no more the goddess.
The writer is the Assistant Editor of Youth Ki Awaaz.