Nepal, situated between China and India, is a small country steeped in legends and myths. It was the crossroads for the salt and silk routes, connecting East and West. A beautiful, awe-inspiring land, Nepal is the birthplace of Buddha and home to the Kumari: the living goddesses who are unique to this country.
Aged between 2 and 4 years old, the Kumari (“virgin” in Nepalese) are pre-pubescent girls who are carefully chosen for their beauty in order torepresent an incarnation of the goddess Kali. They are taken away from their families at a very young age to perform this role.
These little girls are worshipped as goddesses for a few years. Sometimes they are chosen as soon as their first milk teeth appear and remain Kumari until they reach puberty, which is considered to be when they first start to menstruate. They are then suddenly thrust back into ordinary society; it is common for them to suffer from serious psychological and physical after-effects following the experience.
Kumuri are chosen at a very young age and must meet 32 strict physical criteria, which range from skin colour to the sound of their voice. The Kumuri have specific living conditions; for instance, they are forbidden from walking on the ground (this is seen as impure), they must wear layers of thick make-up and must dress in traditional red clothes and ornate jewellery, which weigh a considerable amount.
During their rare public appearances, their facial expressions are scrutinized for hints of divine messages. For example, if a Kumari receives a gift without saying anything, this is interpreted as a sign that the wish made at the offering will come true. On the other hand, if she cries or laughs loudly, this is seen as a portent of death or illness. Kumari are denied the normal life that all children are entitled to. They often do not attend school and once the dressing and make-up rites have been performed, spend their days in the absolute peace and quiet of the temple.
According to the supporters of this tradition, they lead the life of a “princess”; they believe it is every little girl’s dream to grow up to be a Kumari. However, this is in fact an infringement of their human rights. Defenders of human rights consider this practice to be a breach of their freedom and right to education.
When they become “mortal” again, the former goddesses face a great number of difficulties, starting with learning how to walk. Having been carried around by their servants for many years, their muscles are often under developed. Some of them cannot cope with not being worshipped anymore or with leading a “normal” life; it is extremely common for them to suffer from psychological problems. What is more, the Kumari often end up alone, as according to legend, any man who marries a Kumari will meet his death a year later.
Following the abolition of the Nepalese monarchy in 2008, the Supreme Court requested an investigation into the living conditions of the Kumari. The Court ruled that they should have greater freedom and that more importance should be given to their education.
Despite this step in the right direction, the tradition remains a highly controversial issue for defenders of human rights, although in the eyes of many Nepalese people who are living in poverty, it is better for a little girl to grow up as a goddess than on the streets.
This Nepalese custom is just one of many examples of religious and sociological practices perpetrated against children. As with female genital mutilation, child worship is difficult to challenge because it is deeply rooted in the cultural mores of the people concerned.
Written by : Pauline Martinez
Translated by : Tara Lowe
Proofread by : Faiz Kermani