Falling from grace... and walking on your own
September 17, 2014 2:07 PM   Subscribe

Kumari in Kathmandu, Nepal: Living pre-pubescent girls are believed to be the earthly manifestations of divine female energy, incarnations of the goddess known as Taleju. There can be as many as 13 Kumari at any one time, and the practice can be dated as far back as the 17th century. At the onset of menses, the Kumari are retired and begin life as mere mortals, experiencing the world for the very first time.

The Kumari are hand-picked at a young age by a council of high priests similar to the selection of the Dalai Lama. She must be healthy, with dark hair and dark eyes and possess the "32 perfections" such as thighs like a deer, eyelashes like a cow and a voice as clear as a duck. She must also pass rigorous tests such as being placed in a dark room with dead animals, in order to show her brave spirit. Once chosen, they live at the temple and are worshipped regularly and famously their feet never touch the ground... until puberty, when they walk for the very first time.

Life after retirement is not easy, but one Kumari has found a successful life post-godhood. Rashmila Shakya learned to read, graduated with a degree in software development and penned a book about her experience. Bravely, Rashmila has also worked to change the system so that her successors received a proper education. Previously Kumari were not educated since "a goddess knows everything." In 2008 after a human rights filing by advocate Pundevi Maharja, the Supreme Court of Nepal ordered the government to provide healthcare and education for the Kumari.

You can watch more here on this ABC Australia documentary about the practice.

And although there's no rule against a former goddess marrying, superstition is that the husband of an ex-Kumari will die early:"It's considered bad luck," says Manjushree Thapa, author of "Forget Kathmandu." "And it's emasculating to be married to a goddess."
posted by St. Peepsburg (7 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
"And it's emasculating to be married to a goddess." - so gals, if a handsome man asks you if you are a goddess - say no. (You can always zap him with a lightning bolt later if he gets out of hand)
posted by King Sky Prawn at 2:46 PM on September 17, 2014 [5 favorites]

Something something Menudo something
posted by unknowncommand at 3:11 PM on September 17, 2014

I was fortunate (?? blessed?? not finding the right word...) enough to see the Royal Kumari of Kathmandu (the most revered of the 13 in the country), about 1 year ago when I was in Kathmandu for work. The one we saw is the girl in the 2nd and 3rd pictures in the first link.

My wife and I first visited her temple where we waited for her to present herself from a high window that was opened by two ornate shutters. Her caretakers sat on either side of her, and you could only really see her heavily decorated face as she looked down with just the tiniest look of what I at first assumed was disdain on her face. I remember finding it oddly fascinating and so I spent a long time studying her face while most of the tourists spent a minute at the most before moving on (and most of the locals performed various acts of worship). I don't know from the distance and the height if she actually noticed me but it *felt* at a couple moments like we were making eye contact, and I kind of wondered if she could sense the "what is your deal?" in my questioning gaze.

And then the 10 minute (or however long it was) session ended and the temple closed up until the next viewing. It was weird, and I remember leaving with the distinct impression that I couldn't figure out what that look in her eyes were.

A couple days later in the week, towards the end of our trip, I was stepping out of a shop in one of the tourist back-neighborhood stretches in Kathmandu when I saw what we understood to be an exceptionally rare event. The divine Kumari was out for an evening ride in her litter. It had been raining pretty heavily, but the rain had just abated as I stepped out. In any case, the street was nearly empty, but you could hear the kind of din coming down the block as people ran out to get a glimpse. I was already standing there so I just waited as the wave of onlookers, worshipers, and her collection of litter-carriers and police and such approached where I was standing, with the requisite wave of tambourine banging and general murmur of worship in route.

This time we made sustained eye contact, and for a brief moment we were within 10 feet of each other and I could tell it wasn't disdain, so much as a years-long sense of boredom and disillusionment that could only come from the kind of treatment described in the post and links above. If I could somehow paraphrase the look I saw in her eyes and what it spoke to me that time, it would have been "I know exactly what is going on here, I have no choice in the matter, and I don't fucking like it."

Granted, that's speaking for someone I've never even spoken with, but that look on that rainy evening on Amrit Marg street in far away tiny Nepal probably stuck with me more than anything about that beautiful country.
posted by allkindsoftime at 4:23 PM on September 17, 2014 [29 favorites]

(Came in here to offer the exact same short story by Ian McDonald that daHIFI linked to above. It's a gorgeous, atmospheric story, and if you like it, you'll enjoy River of Gods too.)
posted by RedOrGreen at 7:24 PM on September 17, 2014

Thanks for the memories, allkindsoftime: I spent a week or so in Kathmandu a couple of years ago at the beginning of a climbing expedition, and we were ushered around the city for a day, including a viewing of "the" Kumari goddess. The look you describe so well is pretty much akin to what I experienced: a vague mixture of bemusement, boredom, and disdain, tinged perhaps by a hint of annoyance at being hauled out in front of the polite-yet-largely-irrelevant hordes of tourists.
posted by pjm at 7:31 PM on September 17, 2014

"a vague mixture of bemusement, boredom, and disdain, tinged perhaps by a hint of annoyance at being hauled out"

Bershon is so universal.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 10:12 PM on September 17, 2014 [3 favorites]

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