Kumari, or Kumari Devi, is the tradition of worshipping young pre-pubescent girls as manifestations of the divine female energy or devi in South Asian countries. Kumari literally means virgin in Sanskrit, Nepali and other Indian languages and is a name of the goddess Durga as a child. In Nepal a Kumari is a prepubescent girl selected from the Shakya clan of the Nepalese Newari community. The Kumari is revered and worshiped by some of the country’s Hindus as well as the Nepali Buddhists, though not the Tibetan Buddhists. In India a Kumari is generally chosen for one day and worshipped accordingly on certain festivals like Navaratri or Durga Puja. In the Indian state of Bengal this is a particularly prevalent practice.
While there are several Kumaris throughout Nepal, with some cities having several, the best known is the Royal Kumari of Kathmandu, and she lives in the Kumari Ghar, a palace in the center of the city. The selection process for her is especially rigorous. The current Royal Kumari, Matina Shakya, aged four, was installed in October 2008 by the Maoist government that replaced the monarchy. Chanira Bajracharya, as the Kumari of Patan is the second most important living goddess
A Kumari is believed to be the bodily incarnation of the goddess Taleju (the Nepalese name for Durga) until she menstruates, after which it is believed that the goddess vacates her body. Serious illness or a major loss of blood from an injury are also causes for her to revert to common status.
Philosophy and scriptures
The worship of the goddess in a young girl represents the worship of divine consciousness spread all over the creation. As the supreme goddess is thought to have manifested this entire cosmos out of her womb she exists equally in animate as well as inanimate objects. While worship of an idol represents the worship and recognition of supreme through inanimate materials, worship of a human represents veneration and recognition of the same supreme in conscious beings .
In the Shakta text Devi Mahatmyam or Chandi, the goddess is said to have declared that she resides in all female living beings in this universe. The entire ritual of Kumari is based on this verse. But while worshiping a goddess, only a young girl is chosen over a mature lady because of their inherent purity and chastity which are considered to be principle characteristics of Durga.
Hindu scriptures like the Jñanarnava Rudrayamala tantra assign different names to a Kumari depending on her age. A one year-old girl is called Sandhya, a two year-old girl is called Sarasvati, a child of three years of age is called Tridhamurti, on her fourth year she is Kalika, on fifth she is Subhaga, on sixth she is Uma, on her seventh year she is called Malini, on the ninth year she is Kaalasandarbha, on reaching tenth year she is Aparajita, on eleventh she is Rudrani, on twelfth year she is named Bhairavi, on thirteenth she is Mahalakshmi, on fourteenth she is Pithanayika, on fifteenth she is Kshetragya, and on sixteenth years of her age she is Ambika.
In India, Kumaris are worshiped only for a day and these names are assigned only until the ritual lasts, usually a few hours. But usually one cannot be a Kumari beyond sixteen years of age due to the onset of menstrual cycles.
The main target of a Kumari puja is to realize the potential divinity in every human being, mostly female. A Hindu spiritual aspirant sees the universal consciousness manifested in an innocent child.
History in Nepal
Whilst the veneration of a living Kumari in Nepal is relatively recent, dating only from the 17th century, the tradition of Kumari-Puja, or virgin worship, has been around for much longer. There is evidence of virgin worship taking place in India for more than 2,300 years. It appears to have taken hold in Nepal in the 6th century. There is written evidence describing the selection, ornamentation and worship of the Kumari dating from the 13th century.
There are several legends telling of how the current tradition of the Kumari began. Most of the legends, however, tell of King Jayaprakash Malla, the last Nepalese king of the Malla Dynasty (12th–17th century CE). According to the most popular legend, a red serpent approached the king’s chambers late one night as he played tripasa, a dice game, with the goddess Taleju. The goddess came along every night to play the game, with the condition that the king refrain from telling anyone about their meetings.
But one night the king’s wife followed him to his chamber in order to find out who the king was meeting so often. The king’s wife saw Taleju and the goddess was angered. She told the king that, if he wants to see her again or have her protect his country, he’d have to search for her among the Newari (Shakya) community, as she would be incarnated as a little girl among them. Hoping to make amends with his patroness, King Jayaprakash Malla left the palace in search of the young girl who was possessed by Taleju’s spirit.
Similarly, there is another story about the disappearance of Taleju. Some believe that the goddess visited king Trailokya Malla every night in the human form. Like other legendary stories, the king and the goddess played tripasa (dice) while discussing about the welfare of the country. However, one night king Trailokya Malla made sexual advances towards the goddess Taleju. As a result,the goddess in rage stopped visiting the palace. The king in regret worshipped and pleaded for her return. Finally, the goddess agreed to appear in the body of the virgin girl from the Shakya family.
Even today, a mother’s dream of a red serpent is believed to be a portent of the elevation of her daughter to the position of Royal Kumari. And each year, the Nepalese King seeks the blessing of the Royal Kumari at the festival of Indra Jatra. This tradition has changed recently with the country becoming the youngest republic of the world. This year the president of Nepal sought Kumari’s blessing instead.
A variation of this and other legends names King Gunkam Dev, a 12th century ancestor of King Jayaprakash Malla, as the main character rather than Jayaprakash Malla.
A third variation of the legend says that during the reign of King Jayaprakash Malla, a young girl was banished from the city because it was feared that she was possessed by the goddess Durga. When the queen learned of the young girl’s fate, she became enraged and insisted that the king fetch the girl and install her as the living incarnation of Durga.
Once Taleju has left the sitting Kumari, there is a frenzy of activity to find her successor. Some have compared the selection process to the process used in nearby Tibet to find the reincarnations of Tulkus, such as the Dalai Lama or the Panchen Lama. The selection process is conducted by five senior Buddhist Vajracharya priests, the Panch Buddha, the Bada Guruju or Chief Royal Priest, Achajau the priest of Taleju and the royal astrologer. The King and other religious leaders that might know of eligible candidates are also informed that a search is underway.
Eligible girls are Buddhists from the Newar Shakya caste (the clan to which the Buddha belonged) of silver and goldsmiths. She must be in excellent health, never have shed blood or been afflicted by any diseases, be without blemish and must not have yet lost any teeth. Girls who pass these basic eligibility requirements are examined for the battis lakshanas, or ‘thirty-two perfections’ of a goddess. Some of these are poetically listed as such:
- A neck like a conch shell
- A body like a banyan tree
- Eyelashes like a cow
- Thighs like a deer
- Chest like a lion
- Voice soft and clear as a duck’s
In addition to this, her hair and eyes should be very black, she should have dainty hands and feet, small and well-recessed sexual organs and a set of twenty teeth.
The girl is also observed for signs of serenity and fearlessness (after all, she is to be the vessel of the fierce goddess Durga) and her horoscope is examined to ensure that it is complementary to the King’s. It is important that there not be any conflicts as she must confirm the King’s legitimacy each year of her divinity. Her family is also scrutinized to ensure its piety and devotion to the King.
Once the priests have chosen a candidate, she must undergo yet more rigorous tests to ensure that she indeed possesses the qualities necessary to be the living vessel of Durga. Her greatest test comes during the Hindu festival of Dashain. On the kalratri, or ‘black night’, 108 buffaloes and goats are sacrificed to the goddess Kali. The young candidate is taken into the Taleju temple and released into the courtyard, where the severed heads of the animals are illuminated by candlelight and masked men are dancing about. If the candidate truly possesses the qualities of Taleju, she shows no fear during this experience. If she does, another candidate is brought in to attempt the same thing.
As a final test, the living goddess must spend a night alone in a room among the heads of ritually slaughtered goats and buffaloes without showing fear. The fearless candidate has proven that she has the serenity and the fearlessness that typifies the goddess who is to inhabit her. After passing all other tests, the final test is that she must be able to pick out the personal belongings of the previous Kumari from an assortment of things laid out before her. If she is able to do so, there is no remaining doubt that she is the chosen one.
There are claims contrary to the commonly believed ritual and screening process, however. The ex-Royal Kumari Rashmila Shakya states in her autobiography From Goddess to Mortal (2005) that this has nothing to do with the selection process, but rather is a ritual the Royal Kumari goes through each year, and that there are no men dancing around in masks trying to scare her, and that at most there are only a dozen or so decapitated animal heads in the scary room test. She also describes the requisite physical examination of each Kumari as neither intimate nor rigorous.
Once the Kumari is chosen, she must be purified so that she can be an unblemished vessel for Taleju. She is taken by the priests to undergo a number of secret Tantric rituals to cleanse her body and spirit of her past experiences. Once these rituals are completed, Taleju enters her and she is presented as the new Kumari. She is dressed and made up as a Kumari and then leaves the Taleju temple and walks across the square on a white cloth to the Kumari Ghar that will be her home for the duration of her divinity.
Life of the Royal Kumari
Once the chosen girl completes the Tantric purification rites and crosses from the temple on a white cloth to the Kumari Ghar to assume her throne, her life takes on an entirely new character. She will leave her palace only on ceremonial occasions. Her family will visit her rarely, and then only in a formal capacity. Her playmates will be drawn from a narrow pool of Newari children from her caste, usually the children of her caretakers. She will always be dressed in red, wear her hair in a topknot and have the agni chakchuu or “fire eye” painted on her forehead as a symbol of her special powers of perception.
The Royal Kumari’s new life is vastly different from the one to which she has been accustomed in her short life. Whilst her life is now free of material troubles, she has ceremonial duties to carry out. Although she is not ordered about, she is expected to behave as befits a goddess. She has shown the correct qualities during the selection process and her continued serenity is of paramount importance; an ill-tempered goddess is believed to portend bad tidings for those petitioning her.
The Kumari’s walk across the Durbar Square is the last time her feet will touch the ground until such time as the goddess departs from her body. From now on, when she ventures outside of her palace, she will be carried or transported in her golden palanquin. Her feet, like all of her, are now sacred. Petitioners will touch them, hoping to receive respite from troubles and illnesses. The King himself will kiss them each year when he comes to seek her blessing. She will never wear shoes; if her feet are covered at all, they will be covered with red stockings.
The power of the Kumari is perceived to be so strong that even a glimpse of her is believed to bring good fortune. Crowds of people wait below the Kumari’s window in the Kumari Chowk, or courtyard, of her palace, hoping that she will pass by the latticed windows on the third floor and glance down at them. Even though her irregular appearances last only a few seconds, the atmosphere in the courtyard is charged with devotion and awe when they do occur.
The more fortunate, or better connected, petitioners visit the Kumari in her chambers where she sits upon a gilded lion throne. Many of those visiting her are people suffering from blood or menstrual disorders since the Kumari is believed to have special power over such illnesses. She is also visited by bureaucrats and other government officials. Petitioners customarily bring gifts and food offerings to the Kumari, who receives them in silence. Upon arrival, she offers them her feet to touch or kiss as an act of devotion. During these audiences, the Kumari is closely watched and her actions interpreted as a prediction of the petitioners lives’, for example as follows:
- Crying or loud laughter: Serious illness or death
- Weeping or rubbing eyes: Imminent death
- Trembling: Imprisonment
- Hand clapping: Reason to fear the King
- Picking at food offerings: Financial losses
If the Kumari remains silent and impassive throughout the audience, her devotees leave elated. This is the sign that their wishes have been granted.
Many people attend to the Kumari’s needs. These people are known as the Kumarimi and are headed by the Chitaidar (patron). Their job is very difficult. They must attend to the Kumari’s every need and desire whilst giving her instruction in her ceremonial duties. Whilst they cannot directly order her to do anything, they must guide her through her life. They are responsible for bathing her, dressing her and attending to her makeup as well as preparing her for her visitors and for ceremonial occasions.
Traditionally, the Kumari received no education as she was widely considered to be omniscient. However, modernization has made it necessary for her to have an education once she re-enters mortal life. Kumaris are now allowed to attend public schools, and have a life inside the classroom that is no different from that of other students. While many kumaris, such as the Kumari of Bhaktapur, attend school, others, such as the main kumari in Kathmandu, receive their education through private tutors.
Similarly, her limited playmates must learn to respect her. Since her every wish must be granted, they must learn to surrender to her whatever they have that she may want and to defer to her wishes in what games to play or activities to engage in.
Tradition in India
In India Kumari is a popular custom. On the days of Navaratri festival individual households worship young pre-pubescent girls who are usually sourced from neighboring families. They are worshiped and offered food and gifts with the intention of pleasing them. Sometimes there are simultaneous worship of nine girls in one same family. After the rituals they are free to return back to their normal ways. Worship of Kumari dates back to thousands of years in history. The worship of goddess in a little girl is considered the highest form of worship. In Bengal during the annual Durga and Jagaddhatri pujas Kumaris are worshiped by individual families. They are dressed as a goddess and worshiped with full regalia including chantings of mantras and invocations from the Brahmin priests. In Belur Math which is the headqurters of the international organisation Ramakrishna Mission, this ritual attracts thousands of visitors during Durga puja. Swami Vivekananda, the much celebrated Hindu monk and philosopher, worshiped a kumari on two occasions. He even worshiped a girl belonging to Muslim descent as a Kumari, recognising the inherent purity in all children and universal consciousness underlying all humans. In the southernmost tip of India there lies the ancient temple of devi kumari, dedicated to the form of goddess as a Kumari, in the town of Kanyakumari. The Cape of Comorin, located just near the sea beside this historical city derives its name from the words ‘cape of Kumari’ and later ‘cape of Comari’ leading to the final Cape Comorin.
The end of a Kumari’s divinity is abrupt and totally unplanned. As soon as she menstruates, Durga ‘vacates her body’ and she reverts to being a mere mortal. Once a new Kumari has been selected, the former Kumari undergoes a number of rituals that formally divest her of her status. Over four days, the symbols of her divinity are taken away from her. Once this ‘unfolding of the plait’ is complete, she is left with but a gold coin and a piece of the regal red fabric in which she has been clothed during her years as Kumari.
Former Kumaris receive a pension from the state of 6000 rupees per month ($80). This is around twice the official minimum wage and around four times the average income in this poverty-stricken country. They often continue to be called Kumari rather than by the names given to them at birth. Although they are once again part of the ordinary world, they are often unable to shake off fully the mystique associated with having been a Kumari and often have trouble adjusting to ‘normal’ life.
Popular superstition says that a man who marries a Kumari is doomed to die within six months by coughing up blood. In reality, however, it seems that most Kumaris do not have trouble eventually finding husbands. All of the living former Kumaris with exception of the youngest ones have married.