Clambering up the rickety, unlit wooden staircase, I crouched to enter the room, even though I am not a tall person. Seated on a low throne in a bare room sat an even smaller figure, a seven-year-old girl dressed in dazzling red and gold robes, her black hair slicked back into a knot and her eyes heavily made up with extended wings. A middle-aged man knelt on the floor in front of her, prostrated himself a couple of times and crouched forward to be blessed with a daub of vermilion and rice to the forehead.
I had lived in the Patan neighbourhood of Kathmandu for almost a year, but had walked right past the unprepossessing Kumari Chen many times without realising who–or what–was secreted away inside. The house of the living goddess of Patan–one of three virgin incarnations of the Buddhist goddess Taleju–is less magnificent than many of the nearby temples dedicated to non-tangible deities. But inside lives this small girl with an unblemished body, pretty face and 30 other prerequisite attributes required to be recognised as the living goddess.
On seeing the throng of foreigners enter her chambers, she did not chirp ‘namaste’ the way seven-year-old Nepali children commonly do at the sight of a bideshi. But this was not a child; or at least, this was not just a child. The Kumari is possessed by the goddess Taleju until she first menstruates. Then, she becomes a normal human girl once again.
Traditionally, however, ex-Kumaris could not have lived a normal life. Having been isolated from their peers for their entire childhood, they often found it difficult to socialise or be educated alongside others of the same age. It was also considered bad luck to marry an ex-Kumari, as the remnants of the powers of the goddess linger. She was considered too powerful for an ordinary human man, and it was said that the fate of any man who married an ex-Kumari would not be good. But times have changed, says Jitendra, our young Nepali guide, with a twinkle in his eye. Nowadays, Nepali men like strong women.
(This article originally appeared in Sonderers Magazine, which has now gone out of print).
(Photo credit: Christophe Noel)