Nepal is a country of staggering natural beauty but it is also home to some of the most ancient and striking cultural practises. High in the Himalayas a young girl, believed to be possessed by a Goddess, is worshipped by all around.
I am sitting, cross-legged on the floor of the Living Goddess’s sitting room. I am in the town of Patan, just a few miles away from Kathmandu, high up in the Himalayan country – Nepal. Surrounded by soft toys and bars of now-melted toblarone – previous offerings – we wait for the tiny jingle of ankle bells, marking the entrance of Kumari. Unika, a 6-year-old girl from the Shakya community of Newars was chosen as the new Kumari earlier this year in April. Priests chose her according to her horoscope and a secret ritual that no one can witness.
Kumari is the word for virgin girl in Nepali. There are eight Kumaris in the Kathmandu Valley – the only place they exist. All eight Kumaris embody the goddess Taleju – a fearful and awe-inspiring Hindu Goddess with the powers of creation and destruction. This must be the last place in the world where the supreme deity is a little girl. Even though they embody a Hindu Goddess, these little girls are almost always Buddhist, and the people who worship them are both Hindu and Buddhist.
Unika enters the room dressed in a long red dress that touches the floor and skips over to her informal throne – a red cushion on top of the sofa. She sits and adjusts her silver pendant – the amulet of the goddess – hanging around her neck, and watches us. Her eyes are amplified by thick black eye liner that curves underneath her forehead, reaching across to her temples. A clot of red rice, known as a “tika” or a “vermillion blessing”, is stuck to the centre of her forehead.
Unika will continue to be a Kumari until her first period, when she will be dismissed. Blood is the medium of the goddess – it connects with the creativity of childbirth. The fact that the Kumari has not bled means she contains all the creativity of her future as a woman – making her extremely powerful. For this reason, great care is taken so she never cuts herself – even a graze could be enough to disqualify her.
Most Living Goddesses go to school and lead a pretty normal life but, like the Royal Kumari who lives in a palace in Kathmandu, Unika cannot go outside except on festival occasions and even then she must not put foot to ground and so is carried either in a palanquin or in her father’s arms.
Friends come to visit her and she can play with her brothers and sisters, and sometimes devotees drop in to pay respects, usually on a Saturday – the Nepali day of rest.
I’ve brought her a few presents from the UK – wrapped in a plastic bag, which I offered to her kneeling at her feet. We watch as she pulls out all the various different gifts – coloring pencils, drawing books and some finger puppets. She jumps down off her cushions excitedly to show off her gifts to her family. She is not allowed to talk directly to us, so she taps impatiently on her father’s shoulder in order for him to find out what type of animals the finger puppets were. We tell her: “caterpillar, dolphin, monkey and giraffe”. It is wonderful to see Kumari enjoying her presents as much as any other 6 year old.
It’s time for us to have “Darshan”. Kumari runs off behind a red curtain into the room next door. We wait for a few moments and then enter. “Darshan” literally means “seeing” – it is the moment when a person’s eyes connect with a deity. Nepalis believe that the spirit of the deity travels into your body through this visual connection. Kumari is at her most powerful when she is sitting on her official throne. To see her at this moment means to feel her spirit.
The room itself is dark and fairly bare except for Kumari’s throne at the back of the room. The floors are made of clay and are polished everyday by a mixture of clay and cow dung, which makes it a sacred space. The throne itself is made of golden snakes winding round
to make the base of the throne and continuing up, forming a canopy of cobra hoods arching over her head. Two silver staffs rest either side of the throne. Her painted red feet sit in a brass-offering bowl filled with hibiscus, marigold and other flowers. Kumari sits staring at us – her cheeky smile has vanished. Suddenly she looks serious and prepossessing; there is a sense of authority and gravitas about her. Before entering we removed our shoes and all leather items. I approach the throne, kneel down and lower my head to her feet as I drop 100 rupees (about 60p) into her offering bowl. With her right hand she presses the same vermillion tika that she has on her forehead to mine. I stand up bowing, my hands together in prayer and tread backwards – careful not to turn my back on her. I’m amazed at how nervous I am, and have to remind myself that she is only 6 years old.
This action of kneeling, humbling yourself in front of a child, is what it’s all about. Nepalis believe it changes you into a more open, generous and selfless person. It is also a reminder to people in society, particularly men, of the need to respect all women and young girls because they all contain the essence of the goddess. I think the Newars might be onto something. Imagine if every soldier, MP, banker, student, teacher – all of us – had to kneel at the feet of a little girl. Would it change the way we Western people think, make decisions and view the more vulnerable members of society? I don’t know if kneeling at Unika’s feet has changed me but it has certainly made me question the dynamics of power in the Western world.