Throughout history, children have played a significant role in religion. They are often symbolic of purity and innocence. Often times, however, the relationship between children and religion is far more complex. The Christ child is the most famous example. A deity who came to earth in the form of a child to suffer the wrath of a just God on our behalf.
The Kumari Devi is also an example of the complex relationship between children and religion. In Nepal, Hindus and Buddhists have the tradition of worshiping a pre-pubescent girl. Much like the Christ child, the girl who is chosen to be the Kumari becomes the earthly manifestation of Taleju, a goddess who represents feminine energy. While several Kumaris exist throughout Nepal, the most well-known is the Royal Kumari, who spends most of her days in a temple known as the Kumari Ghar. She is often taken to represent Nepal on state visits as well as religious outings.
There are several myths surrounding how the tradition of the Kumari began. One of these myths is that Taleju and Trailokya, King of Nepal in 1847, parlayed every night to play games and discuss the welfare of Nepal. One evening, the king began flirting with Taleju, which angered her and she disappeared. After many long nights of prayer and worship, she returned to him, taking the form of a virgin child.
The selection process for the living goddess is rigorous and time consuming. It takes place on the 8th day of Dashain. There is a very long list of criteria. The young girl must come from an eligible family. The choosing is overseen by several Buddhist priests, including the Royal Priest among other religious leaders. Aside from health, there are many physical signs the child must display, such as ‘eyelashes like a cow’, ‘chest of a lion’ and black hair and dark eyes, just to name a few. The child must also show courage in the face of fear.
The Kumari is generally chosen at a very young age and retains her position until her first menstruation. At that point, it is believed that Taleju has vacated the child’s body and she is immediately sent from the temple back into society. While puberty is the primary sign that the child is no longer divine, serious illness or wounds that draw blood are also signs that the deity has left. Therefore, great care is taken to protect the Kumari. She is always guarded, and her feet can never touch the ground.
She is constantly being visited by the worshipers, who bring her offerings. Everything ranging from trinkets to alcohol. During their visit, they will often ask for the Kumari’s blessing, anything ranging from healing to academic success. Unusual responses from the child can mean different things. For example, if the child cries or laughs loudly, serious illness will befall you or your family. Rubbing of the eyes is an indicator of imminent death. If she trembles, you will face imprisonment at some point. If she begins picking at food offerings, your family will suffer financially.
Today, questions are being raised as to whether or not becoming the living goddess is actually harmful to a child. All too often, the shock of being returned to society is too much for these girls to handle and they withdraw themselves, believing that the goddess still lives within them. Some live out the remainder of their days unable to return to a normal life. Due to her status as a goddess, the Kumari is forbidden to associate with other people or children her age outside of accepting offerings. She must live in the temple, raised only by priests. Even when her family visits, it is only to worship. While this seems like a lonely existence, most former Kumaris say that over time, as they grew to understand the importance of the role they played, they had grown to accept these circumstances as facts of life. The early years of childhood are the most critical for building a foundation for learning social skills. Since the Kumari is chosen at such a young age, the isolation often hinders social development. All of this has drawn the attention of human rights activists.
The Kumari is not very well known outside of Nepal’s Hindu and Buddhist circles. A documentary on BBC brought some light to the Kumari and the traditions surrounding her. The current Kumari is Trishna Shakya, who was chosen in September of 2017 at the age of 3.