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Nepal’s “Living Goddess”: Kumari

Many nations have their beauty queens. In Nepal, the Kumari — or “Living Goddess” — takes female perfection to the highest level: worship.

Several Kumaris in Nepal are worshiped by Hindu and Buddhist followers. These young women, chosen at ages ranging from four to seven, spend their youth adored as the reincarnation of the supreme goddess Durga. The best-known of the select few is the Royal Kumari of Kathmandu.

I had the good fortune to see the Kumari peek from her palace window.

Nepal's Kumari

The Kumari Legend

The worship of women goddesses is practically as old as time. Durga, the female deity personified by Kumari, is recognized as “invincible,” the “mother of the universe,” and the “incarnation or manifestation of all other goddesses.” She is said to occupy as holy a place in Hindu Vishnuism as Lord Krishna. Likewise, she is as revered as Shiva to the Shaiva.

There are many legends about the “Living Goddess”. The story that I heard from our tour guide, Shuresh, was similar to this account:

The goddess visited Trailokya Malla, King of Bhaktapur, Nepal (1560 to 1613), every night in the human form. The King and the goddess played tripasa (dice) while discussing the country’s welfare. One night, the King made sexual advances towards the goddess. Enraged, the goddess stopped visiting the palace. The King, in regret, pleaded for her return. Finally, the goddess agreed to appear in the body of a virgin girl from the Shaka (Newar family from the Katmandu valley.) Wikipedia

Choosing the Kumari

In Nepal, the veneration of a living Kumari is as recent as the 17th century.

Because the “Living Goddess” (Kumari) must be a “virgin girl from the Shaka family,” she is selected before puberty — as young as four years old. Experience has shown the Nepalese that a six or seven-year-old girl is a better choice — as long as she has neither suffered a disease nor lost a tooth.

The reign of a Kumari lasts until the chosen one has her first menstrual cycle. At that time, the selection of a new Kumari begins again. To qualify for Kumari, a Shaka girl child must be without a blemish. That means she can have no birthmarks or scars. Even a scratch can disqualify a young hopeful.

Other traditional requirements for Kumari are described poetically:

A neck like a conch shell
A body like a banyan tree
Eyelashes like a cow
Thighs like a deer
Chest like a lion
Voice soft and clear as a duck’s

Additionally, her hair and eyes should be very black; she should have dainty hands and feet; small and well-recessed sexual organs; a set of twenty teeth; and a horoscope complementary to the King’s.

The last tests

When a suitable candidate is selected for Kumari, she must demonstrate fearlessness and serenity. She must spend a night — alone — in a room strewn with the bloody heads of buffaloes and goats, explicitly slaughtered for the ritual. If the young girl passes the “night of horrors” test, her next challenge is to identify the personal belongings of the last Kumari, which are spread out before her.

Kumari life

The last time the new Kumari is seen in public, other than on display for ceremonial events, is the day she is paraded through Kathmandu’s Durbar Square. From that time, hence, her feet never touched the ground, and she is hidden away in her own palace, the Kumari Ghar, where she rarely sees even her parents.

Dunbar Square Katmandu
Durbar Square Katmandu

Kumari sighting

The day I visited the Kumari Ghar, which is close to Durbar Square, the Kumari appeared in her window — a rare occasion and a sign of good fortune for any who see her.

House near Dunbar Square where the Kumari Princess lives
House near Durbar Square, where the Kumari Princess lives

Lucky for us, Shuresh produced a documentary about Kumari, and obviously, he made a good impression on her guardians. When he stood beneath the window in the Kumari Chowk (courtyard) and called out to the elderly woman peeking out from the edge of the sill, the Kumari arrived to look outside, then disappeared in an instant — much too quickly for my camera. Nevertheless,  it was thrilling.


Durbar Square

Today, as I saw it in 2014, Durbar Square has changed much due to a devastating earthquake. These photos are precious reminders of the place and the people of Katmandu.



Day trip from Uzes to the Cevennes

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