We traveled to Nepal when my daughter Zoe was 11, touring Kathmandu and spending a couple of nights in a mountain resort so we could spend a day trekking in the Himalayas. Zoe found Kathmandu a bit scary. We walked the streets of the centuries-old section of the city, charmed by the scenes straight out of National Geographic - the rough muddy road that wound around tightly packed homes and shrines, and cows walking among the residents going about their daily business, many women carrying bags of vegetables and other goods. Often people would come to a halt when they spotted Zoe, laugh and approach her, talking loudly, and reach out to touch her. An American child apparently was quite a novelty to them. She sought refuge under the arm of her father who good-naturedly kept the curious from coming too close. (Meanwhile our 19-year-old son was continually approached by young men who wanted to sell him drugs.)
Kathmandu has a multitude of ancient temples and shrines but I wanted to see the Living Goddess Kumari, a Tantric deity worshiped by both Hindus and Nepalese Buddhists. The young girl is enshrined in an aging three-story palace in the old part of the city, packed between two plainer buildings. Nepalese who come to worship are admitted to a room upstairs for an audience. Foreign visitors enter a courtyard surrounded by intricately carved walls and windows. An attendant collects offerings from tourists, then calls out for the Kumari to appear. And she does, briefly, staring out from an upstairs window, with heavily kohl-lined eyes, a red "tika" or third eye on her forehead. She looked solemnly down at us for a few seconds then disappeared.
We had read about this young girl, who is chosen at the age of 3 or 4 from a certain caste by passing a series of trials to show whether she is the bodily incarnation of the goddess Taleju. Preliminary screening finds a girl with 32 "attributes of perfection," including the color of her eyes, the shape of her teeth and the sound of her voice, plus the right horoscope. Girls who pass these tests are then placed in a darkened room and subjected to terrifying sights, such as bloody decapitated buffaloes, demon-like dancers and scary noises to see if she can remain calm and goddess-like. As a final test, she is asked to select items of clothing that were worn by a former Kumari.
Once installed as the Living Goddess Kumari, she is said to possess unlimited spiritual powers and the ability to protect people from evil spirits. The Kumari stays in her temple, her feet never allowed to touch the ground, and she appears a few times a year in a covered palanquin at religious festivals. When the Kumari begins to menstruate, or if she bleeds due to a wound, the goddess leaves her body and the girl returns to her family.
We returned several times to visit the Kumari, at Zoe's insistence. But we didn't mind. We loved traversing the streets of the 17th-century old city, and the existence of a living goddess seemed to epitomize the strange culture.
The Kumari I'd read about in the news recently had her goddess status revoked because she left the country. She traveled to the United States in June to attend the Silverdocs film festival in Silver Spring, Md., that featured a film about her, called "Living Goddess." It turns out she was the Kumari of Bhaktapur, the former royal capital of Nepal, not the Kumari of Kathmandu, the one we had visited and who is the most important.
It's intriguing when traveling to imagine being born in other countries. How fascinating to think that if I'd been born in Nepal, I might have been visiting the Goddess Kumari as a worshipper rather than as a tourist. Stretch the imagination waaaay further, and I - or my daughter - might have been chosen as the Kumari.
-Dolores Fox Ciardelli can be e-mailed at editor@DanvilleWeekly.com.