Former Living Goddesses Struggle to Regain Normal Lives

 

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KATHMANDU, NEPAL – She describes the first eight-years of her life as “glorious.” She received divine respect. People worshiped her, literally.

Hundreds of tourists stood outside her window in the heart of Nepal's capital, Katmandu, just to trying to catch a glimpse of her tiny, bejeweled head. 

She never had to walk. Personal assistants carried her on a palanquin when she left her secluded palace. Devotees touched their foreheads to her feet. During religious festivals, she rode in a chariot. 

But life is different these days for Rashmila Shakya, the former living goddess, Kumari. She no longer has to pass ritual tests or be inspected for 32 specific attributes of physical beauty. Today, she is a software engineer. And the transition back to daily life for the girls who spent their childhoods as the living goddess Kumari is difficult, she says.

Kumari means virgin in Sanskrit. The ancient tradition entails worshipping young girls, who are regarded as the incarnation of a goddess until puberty, after which it is believed that the goddess relinquishes her body. During their time as goddesses, Kumaris in several cities in Nepal wear red, pin up their hair in topknots, and have a "third eye" painted on their foreheads. The Kumari of Kathmandu is known as the Royal Kumari. The Maoist Republic installed the current Royal Kumari in October 2008, after the monarchy was unseated in May of that year. Matina Shakya, the daughter of a watch repairman, became the Royal Kumari at the age of 3.

While several former Kumaris continue to lament the lack of education they received during their reign as living goddesses, a Supreme Court ruling in 2005 has guaranteed the new Kumaris access to education. Still, former Kumaris say the transition back to normal life, including finding love, is difficult.

The Selection Process

Kumaris are chosen from the Shakya clan of the Newari community in Nepal. As toddlers girls are evaluated based on their horoscopes.  Then, her physical characteristics are evaluated. The chosen Kumari always has 32 auspicious signs of beauty, including a neck like a conch shell, eyelashes like a cow, a chest like a lion, and thighs like a deer. Her eyes and hair must be black. And she must be brave.

During Nepal’s holy Dashain festival, going on this week, 108 buffaloes are sacrificed to the Kali goddess. The-would-be Kumaris are kept in a dark room with the slaughtered buffalo heads while men dance around to monitor their levels of “fearlessness.”

"It is a ritual that the Kumari goes through each year,” Rashmila Shakya wrote in her autobiography, From Goddess to Mortal. “There are only a dozen or so decapitated animal heads in the scary room test," she confirmed. But she described the requisite physical examination of each Kumari as neither intimate nor rigorous.

Once chosen, the Kumari is removed from her family and taken to live in the Kumari Ghar. The isolation and lack of education have long irked rights activists. In recent years, Kumaris have had increased access to educational opportunities.

Former Kumari Says Isolation, Lack of Education Were Difficult

Rashmila Shakya, who was the living goddess of Nepal, popularly known as the Kumari, from 1984 to 1992, is 29 today. Like the many Kumari before her, she lost her divine status when she reached puberty and menstruated for the first time. She says she remembers her Kumari days as beautiful. But the transition from being living goddess to just another girl was emotionally challenging.

Shakya says when she returned to her parents home after eight years of living in the Kumari Ghar of Kathmandu, the house where the living goddesses have been kept for centuries, she used to wake in the middle of the night and insist that her parents take her back.

Her family members also recall her transition as confusing for the young girl. "She used to walk awkwardly without knowing what to do when vehicles honked from behind," says Shakya’s sister, Sarmila Shakya. “My sister had very low exposure to the outer world during her reign as Kumari," she says.

But it was the lack of education that Shakya says was most difficult to recover from upon her return to mortal status.

"The Kumari Ghar was my home and my caretakers were my family members," she says. "I am still finding it difficult to live a normal life and to get back into school."

In the late 1980s and early 1990s when Shakya was the Kumari, she did not have access to any formal education. "I regret my lack of education during those days," she says.

For Rashmila, leaving the Kumari Ghar to enroll in the same grade as her sister who was six years younger, was “the worst thing,”

After growing up in an environment devoid of education, she has since dedicated her life to her studies. Last year, she completed a Bachelor's degree in Information Technology and was the university topper, or best in her class, during her final semester. Today she is a successful software engineer. She wrote an autobiography about her time as Kumari in 2005 in an attempt to boost awareness of the tradition.

Legal Action Ensures Goddess Education 

Rashmila’s successor, Amita Shakya, received access to textbooks and tutors for one hour each day after her parents lobbied the king to increase his daughter’s access to education during her time as Kumari. "I sent letters to the palace many times," her father recalls. He says the king responded, "Your daughter is a goddess, so why does she need an education?'"

It wasn't until Mimita Shakya, Amita's mother, personally delivered a letter to King Birendra at a Kumari ceremony that changes were made. Five years after Amita had been appointed a Royal Kumari, the king arranged formal education for the child.

After Amita was returned to mortal status in 2001, Preeti Shakya, was next in line. Her mother, Reena Shakya, says her daughter was taken from home when she was 3 years old. "You can imagine what a mother might feel," Reena says. "My baby was taken away from me for years. As soon as they took her, I knew she had already become a goddess."

It was during Preeti’s reign as Kumari that legal action forced the tradition to accept education.

Lawyer Pun Devi Maharjan was the one to finally file a formal court case to try to increase the rights for the living goddesses. She filed a case at the apex court in May 2005, on the grounds that girls selected as Kumaris face exploitation and psychological damage.

Maharjan did not go so far as to petition for the abolition of the tradition.

"By confining girls inside the Kumari Ghar for years, the tradition denies them to live a normal childhood and deprives them of education," she says. “Like other children, we have to guarantee their mental and physical development," says Maharjan.

On August 18 of the same year, the Supreme Court ruled that the Kumari should be able to go to school. The court ruled that "there are no historic and religious documents that say Kumaris should be denied their rights guaranteed in the Convention on the Rights of the Child".

After the court ruling, Preeti, the Kumari at the time, began receiving education in the Kumari Ghar. She was the first Kumari to receive a formal education during her time as living goddess. She was even allowed to sit for her exams. She was removed from the Kumari Ghar in 2008.

Rights Activists Debate Tradition

Concerns about the Kumari tradition are still a matter of national discussion. Despite the fact that Nepal became a secular republic in 2008 when the Hindu monarchy was overthrown, the Kumari tradition has remained alive.

The government continues to provide a pension of 6,000 rupees, $86 USD per month to the current living goddesses, and retired goddesses receive 3,600 rupees, $52 USD, a substantial sum. The Kumaris also receive a wedding stipend of 50,000 rupees, $725 USD.

But many former Kumari remain unmarried. “The belief that Kumaris should not marry is changing,” Rashmila says. “There are many who have been happily married.” But at 29, she remains unmarried. She says the traditional belief that a man who dared to marry a Kumari would die coughing blood left Kumaris single in the past, but says she might get married one day.

Despite the advances in education for the living goddesses, many say that the Kumari tradition is still a violation of rights. "Such a tradition still violates the country's laws on child rights," says Ram Bandhu Sharma, a lawyer who is well known locally. "The Interim Constitution of Nepal guarantees the right to education of children," he says. "Kumaris who are replaced by new girls after they enter [puberty] often struggle to readjust to normal lives after they return home."