A glimpse into the life of Nepal’s living goddesses

Isabella Tree spoke about her book 'The Living Goddess: A Journey into the Heart of Kathmandu' at the Asia house Bagri Foundation Literature Festival

A glimpse into the life of Nepal’s living goddesses

26 May 2015

By Naomi Canton

Pre-pubescent girls in Nepal that meet certain strict criteria are chosen as incarnations of the Hindu goddess Durga and are taken away from their families and revered in temples.

These young girls known as Kumaris are believed to bring blessings and prosperity to Nepal and revered by Hindus and Buddhists.

At a talk during the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival author and travel writer Isabella Tree explained how she first stumbled across one of these Kumaris in Kathmandu in 1983 on a gap year at the end of the hippy era. On that trip she ended up in Freak Street where western hippies seeking enlightenment typically stayed and discovered that next door on Durbar Square was the Kumari Ghar (Kumari House) in which a living goddess, the Royal Kumari, resided.

“As a foreigner it was taboo to enter the building,” she recalled. “Only Hindus and New Buddhists could go inside and worship her on her throne.” However foreigners were allowed to enter the medieval courtyard.

“If you are lucky she would appear at the top window of the courtyard,” she said. “You are only allowed to take photos of the Royal Kumari if she is out for festivals, which is about 13 times a year. It’s taboo to take photos of her in her building,” she said.

So Tree went inside and luckily the living goddess appeared.

The Kumaris are always dressed in red, have eyeliner stretching from their eyes to their temples highlighting their divine communication (Darshan in Sanskrit), they have a third eye painted on their forehead and a crown of flowers on their head.

“Red is a feminine colour– usually preserved for married women. It is the symbol of blood, creativity and fertility so it’s interesting that this little child is dressed in this colour. It signified the fact she embodies creative energy,” Tree said.

“She must not smile at you, as if she does, it is in an invitation to Heaven – and you will die. Therefore she always has a inscrutable serious face and an adult demeanour,” Tree explained.

Kumaris are chosen when they are toddlers and taken from their families and put in a temple where hereditary caretakers and devotees, often of the same caste, look after them until they reach puberty. A Kumari is not allowed to bleed – as if she does it is believed that the goddess leaves her. So even a small scratch would mean she would have to be replaced and when she has her first period her time as a Kumari comes to an end and a new one is put in place. The Kumaris do not go to school and are taught by private tutors.

Young girls chosen to be Kumaris have to have 32 physical characteristics of an ‘enlightened being’ (bodhisattva in Sanskrit), which Tantric priests can recognise.

The Royal Kumari that Tree saw was a Newar from the goldsmith caste who hailed from the Kathmandu Valley. She spoke Nepal Bhasa, a Tibeto-Burman language, as well as Nepali.  She was a Buddhist, not a Hindu, even though the Kumaris are believed to be incarnations of the Hindu goddess, the Kumaris are worshipped by Buddhists in Nepal. Although there are many Kumaris in Nepal, the Royal Kumari is the most revered.

The Royal Kumari cannot leave her temple except at festivals. Her feet must not touch the ground outside the temple as that is considered polluting, so she is always carried in a palanquin or golden chariot. “They sit on these golden chariots impassively, quite unlike most three years olds,” Tree said.

Tree soon noticed the word ‘Kumari’ was used in Kathmandu everywhere – on banks, cinemas and beauty products etc as the Nepalis believed her very name brought prosperity and blessings. “It was like the word Laxmi in India (referring to the Hindu goddess of wealth, love, prosperity) which is used on lots of products,” she said.

Tree was utterly fascinated by the Kumari she saw, which she described as “one of Nepal’s most extraordinary characters”. So she returned to Nepal 14 years later to find out more about them. She got as close as she could to current Kumaris and interviewed some of the former ones. This makes up the content of her book The Living Goddess: A Journey into the Heart of Kathmandu, published in January 2015.

She discovered that it was a myth that Kumaris could not marry, “were thrown on the trash heap” or were trafficked as prostitutes to India and Thailand.

In her interviews with ex Kumaris, one Kumari aged 16 told her about her shock at first walking on the ground outside after being carried around on a palanquin for many years or just running on the smooth floors of the temple. “For the first time she would experience pot holes and crumbling pavements, traffic and walking through crowds and she would lose her way. She had never worn shoes before. As a child she had just run around on the smooth floors of the temple. But the most striking part of her conversation was that what she had done was not just good for herself and her family but for the good of all Nepalis and all sentient beings,” Tree said.

She met the same Kumari in her 30s and she had become an outspoken confident computer software programmer in her 30s. “I met her at an event to honour ex Kumaris. The rumours are untrue. Every single woman there except the young ones was married – some had grandchildren, some had great grandchildren and many worked. They were feisty amazing women. A couple were nurses and one owned a pharmacy,” shes said. At that event one of the former Kumaris gave speech saying how important it was to continue the Kumari  tradition and to honour the energy of women. he even met a Kumari aged 56 who never got her first period so is still a Kumari.

She said they did not feel they had had lost their childhoods.

“Whenever I asked them how they felt about being a Kumari they all said they felt honoured and it was as though by the age of 13 they had had a lifetime of experience. None of them felt they had missed out on their childhood. They all said they would be honoured if their children did it too,” she added.

She said some did not want to leave and return to the real world. Some remained close to their Kumari families even afterwards.

The Royal Kumari cannot leave her temple except at festivals. It was believed she blessed the King’s rule and so her horoscope had to match his. She was regarded as the protector of the Royal Family until the Nepalese monarchy was abolished and Nepal became a federal democratic republic in 2007.

LivingGoddessCoverImage without textBefore Nepal became a republic,  the King, the most powerful man in the country, would come and bow to her feet and touch his forehead on her feet. “It was acknowledgement that within her lies divine power and he can’t rule without her and if he does not get her blessing then he can’t rule the country,” Tree said. This tradition goes back to the 14th century. “The Kings believed that worshipping the Royal Kumari was a way of empowering themselves and they could charge energy into their kingdom to make it invincible. They believed she could see all things with the third eye and had psychic powers so they could detect the enemy and so on,” she said.

Tree said that before the 2001 Nepal royal family massacre when the Crown Prince Dipendra shot dead 11 members of his family, the reigning Royal Kumari had come out in a skin rash. Kumaris have to be blemish free, otherwise they are dismissed and replaced. “These things indicate the goddess is not happy inside her body. In this case the Kumari got her period at 12 which means the goddess had left her,” Tree said, who had interviewed the royal astrologer.  “However this was the year of 9/11, many typhoons and earthquakes had happened and there were very few auspicious days left in which a new Kumari could be installed on the throne. So there was no protective living goddess during the period of the massacre,” Tree said. “They always have a Kumari in the wings, who is the right age and whose horoscope been checked but in 2001 it came upon them completely unexpectedly,” Tree added.

“Nowadays the President comes to kneel at her feet and it’s a very important reminder to the man or woman in power that the will of the people resides somewhere other than himself,” she added.

A magnitude 7.8 earthquake in Nepal in April 2015 killed more than 8,000 people and has been followed by many powerful aftershocks.The earthquake shook the capital with many temples and buildings in Durbar Square reduced to rubble, but astonishingly the Kumari Ghar remained intact. “I was told the nine-year-old Royal Kumari showed no fear when the earthquake happened – she just sat there completely impassive and unflustered. There was not even a single tile that came off the Kumari House,” Tree told the audience.

“Nepalis believe this earthquake was the mother earth voicing her anger at the pollution of the earth, the water table being polluted, people losing compassion for each other and for the earth and people not worshipping the gods correctly. They believe the earthquake was a wake-up call for humanity,” she said.

To listen to the full audio of this event click here:


To read other stories about the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival 2015 click here.

Come and listen to award-winning street artist Mohammed Ali in conversation with Pamela Kember talk about his art which fuses grafitti and Islamic decroative arts on 2 June. For more information click here.

On June 6 we will be at Leeds Big Bookend. Find out more here.