Though I have been hearing about the Kumari tradition of Nepal (all these cute girls who are considered living goddesses and are almost always clad in dark gajal and red outfits) I hadn’t seen them directly until recently. A few days ago a Chinese reporter freelancing to an American publication for stories about Nepal hired me as his translator and fixer. Thus a few visits to Kumari Ghars (houses of Kumaris) of Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur. The Kathmandu Kumari, virgin girl who is considered the living goddess by believers, was inaccessible to the general public except that tourists and curios onlookers get to see her at a certain time of the day from the ground floor when she appears on a window of the Ghar).
Patan Kumari and her mom
Behind me is Patan Kumari
I managed to sneak into the house, climbed stairs and saw her eating along with her family members. That was that. The interview request, for the American publication, was quickly turned down by the visibly irritated male member of the family. “Too many foreigners come here for interview,” said the man. “They all ask the same questions. [And in recent months they all ask] what do you say about Kumari going to the US?” He was hinting at the controversy aroused from the US trip of Bhaktapur Kumari (who has since then retired and the post is in the process of being filled by another girl) last year.
In contrary, the Patan Kumari, who is not considered a royal Kumari like the Kathmandu one, was accessible. We didn’t actually talk to her (she will not talk to outsiders) but there was a long Q and A with her mother. We took photos of the girl, who is not allowed to go out of the home except a couple of times in a year when the tradition demands so, when she was seated on her customary seat in the Puja room.
The former Bhaktapur Kumari, Sajani Shakya hit the national (and international) headlines, is now in a boarding school. We met her mother who happily talked to us though a telephone conversation with her husband later made me conclude that he wasn’t very much enthusiastic about talking about Kumari to media. It was learned that Sajani quit because of her age and they were in the process of filling the vacant position. A six-year-old girl called Shreeya Bajracharya has been chosen but no formal decisions have been taken yet because of the abolition of monarchy [The palace has some sort of role in appointing Kumaris.]
Contrary to Kathmandu and Patan Kumaris, the Bhaktapur Kumari is allowed to go out of her home, attend school and interact with friends. That is, she can have a life as a normal girl, just like the ones in her neighborhood. So there are distinct differences among these top three Kumaris of Kathmandu Valley (there are couple of other lesser known Kumaris in Kathmandu): Bhaktapur has the most liberal tradition, Patan less liberal than Bhaktapur but liberal than Kathmandu.
The Kathmandu Kumari has to live in the stricter situation. My impression was that she has to live like that partly for tourist attraction.
Kumari is considered the source of power for Shah kings of Nepal. Now that there is no king and no monarchy in the country, where will that power go? Most probably to the President of the Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal!