The Living Goddess Kumari sat on her small silver throne, a look of curiosity on her pretty face. Her eyes sparkled, and it was obvious that she couldn’t keep still for long. She was dressed in bright red and orange finery. Her father invited me to sit down on the rug in front of the throne, while her grandmother smiled sweetly at me. I went down on my knees and the Kumari extended her hand to put tika on my forehead. I looked around the room on the first floor of the Kumari Ghar in Ga:bahal of Patan. It was, like other traditional buildings, low-ceilinged, with thick wooden rafters running across its length, although the room itself was quite spacious. In front of the Kumari were various items of worship, including a silver plate with a well fried egg and some other delicacies.
I can vouch that coming face-to-face with a living goddess can be pretty exciting for any mortal, even the most skeptical. The thing about the Kumari of Patan (Lalitpur) is that anybody can go up to get a darshan of her at any time of the day, and there’s no fixed amount you have to pay either, it’s totally up to you as to how much you want to offer the Kumari. I, myself, put down a hundred rupee note in the silver plate at her feet. Before going up to meet her, you got to take of your shoes and leave behind other leather items you’re wearing or carrying, otherwise there’s no other rule you got to follow to meet the Living Goddess Kumari of Patan.
I had gone at around midday and had to wait some 15 minutes since the Kumari was having her lunch. It was a good thing, too, because I got the chance to have a meaningful talk with her father, Mr. Ramesh Bajracharya. “Yes,” he said, “the Living Goddess Kumari of Patan has to be from the Bajracharya clan. I believe the Kumari of Kathmandu has to be a Shakya while the Living Goddess Kumari of Bhaktapur may be from any of the two.” What is your daughter’s name, and how long has it been since she was selected to be the Kumari? I ask. He replies, “Her name is Unica. She was a little over six years old when she was chosen to be the new Kumari about two-and-a-half months back.”
And, how was she selected, is what I want to know next. “Well, the Taleju Guru who resides in Mulchowk of Patan Durbar invited all Bajracharya families to bring their six- to seven-year-old daughters to this temple’s courtyard. Those who wished did so, and some 15 girls were brought here. He selected three from them and took them to Mulchowk where he put them in a room. I don’t know what the exact proceedings were, but, finally, my daughter was chosen as the new Living Goddess Kumari.”
Apparently, the general basis of selection is that the chosen Kumari must have all the 32 lachans (signs) of purity, and she must display courage and equanimity at all times. When face-to-face with Unica, the Living Goddess of Patan, I wanted to have a nice chat with her, she looked to be such a bright little girl, but since I didn’t want to flout any decorum, kept quiet. From what I could gather after spending some time with her parents in the adjoining room, the rules are not really that rigid. Unica’s mother, Ms. Sabita, looked busy, and I could understand that, since she had such a heavy responsibility on her shoulders, that of caring for the Living Goddess Kumari. Just think on this: the Kumari is not allowed to take any medicines or to be examined by any medical personnel. Mr. Ramesh explains, “Kumari is not supposed to get sick at all.” Well, it’s divinity, after all, that’s being talked about here, and illness of any kind is too much of a mortal thing. This, in fact, means that the Kumari’s parents have to be extremely careful about things like hygiene, diet, and so on to ensure that their divine child is not afflicted by corporeal ills.
Actually, it’s not much fun being a Kumari’s parents. Mr. Ramesh and Ms. Sabita have another daughter, Bipasha, and till two-and-a-half months ago, they were leading a perfectly normal life in their own home in Kumaripatti. Now, they will be living in Kumari Ghar for perhaps the next five or six years, till Unica reaches puberty. After that, too, it’s no cakewalk. Traditional belief is that any man who marries a former Kumari is doomed. However, that’s something that doesn’t hold much water nowadays, with many former Kumaris leading happily married lives with spouse and children. What about education? “Unica is in class one and a teacher from a local school comes here daily at three in the afternoon to teach,” says Ms. Sabita.
Her husband, while proud enough to have a living goddess as his daughter, does have a grouse as well. He says, “The government pays only around 6,100 rupees a month which does not even cover expenses for the many rituals we have to do. I hear that the Kumari of Kathmandu receives around 40,000 a month, and their monthly pension after retirement comes to some 10,000 rupees, while Patan’s former Kumaris get only 1,000 a month.” He discloses that he has submitted a petition recently for an increase in both. He himself is in the handicraft business, which unfortunately, he is now only able to give a part of his time to. “It’s not easy to look after the Kumari. It’s a very demanding task,” he admits.
Well, there you have it. While the myths and the fables about the Living Goddess Kumari are enchanting, and while Kumari is an integral, and very much, a most fascinating part of Newari culture, the demands of changing times is something that have to be met. At the same time, it is certain that the culture of the Living