In search of Nepal's living goddesses

A prepubescent deity of Hindu-Buddhist tradition is also a modern child of HBO and Barbie.

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Patan, Nepal - Like any typical schoolgirl, 13-year-old Chanira Bajracharya struggles to finish hours of homework each day. That doesn't stop her from stealing away to watch TV (she enjoys HBO; her younger brothers often change it to Nickelodeon) or use the computer. She even has Barbies, but now that she's older, painting has replaced organizing tea parties as her favorite pastime.

The similarities end there. To start, no one – including her family – may scold her. Chanira eats whatever she desires, though she's yet to abuse this power by demanding an endless supply of ice cream. And don't even mention chores.

It may seem like she's hit the jackpot, but in exchange for this life of relative luxury, she's forbidden to leave her five-story home, save for religious holidays. She must also endure a constant stream of Hindu followers who come seeking her healing powers or to snap a photo of her.

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You see, she's no mere mortal: Chanira is one of three main kumaris, or "living goddesses," here in the fabled Kathmandu Valley. The practice of worshiping young girls – and then casting them aside once they reach puberty – is unique to this Himalayan nation.

Indeed, kumaris – Buddhists that are worshiped by both Buddhists and Hindus – symbolize "an amazing political accommodation" here where Asia meets the Indian subcontinent, says Nick Gier, former professor of philosophy and Eastern religions at the University of Idaho. "I stand in awe of how the Nepali have put religion and politics together creatively to get the Buddhists and Hindus to live peacefully together."

But this is no happily ever after princess tale. With the end of Nepal's 240-year-old monarchy last month, there is talk in the newly established constituent assembly of abolishing the whole religious tradition.

"The kumari is not an essential institution for the new Nepal," Maoist lawmaker Janardan Sharm, declared while another reportedly called the kumari an "evil symbol."

And Nepal's Supreme Court is expected to issue a decision July 1 in a lawsuit by human rights lawyers contending that the strict cossetting of kumaris is a form of child abuse.

I've come here to the land of Everest to meet the three main living goddesses before they go the way of former King Gyanendra. But getting past those pearly gates of heaven proved quite the challenge for a Western mortal, especially one carrying a reporter's notepad.

• • •

I begin in the capital, Kathmandu, where cows, considered sacred to the vast Hindu majority, have as much right to the road as the overflowing public buses that ply the labyrinth of rutted streets. In the center of this chaos is the three-story royal kumari palace, its wooden walls and windows full of centuries-old intricate carvings.

It's 4:15 p.m., and a couple of dozen tourists and locals are milling about the garden courtyard, waiting to catch a glimpse of the most famous living goddess of all, the royal kumari. She's 15 minutes late.

Four Nepalese college students cluster in a corner. They've traveled seven hours by bus from Pokhara to see Preeti Shakya, the fickle 10-year-old. "We have been learning about the kumari since childhood," says Neha Surung, dressed up for the occasion. "It's a long tradition so we just believe."

But it turns out that even devout worshipers, like Ms. Surung, have trouble untangling the mysteries and myths behind these living goddesses. Many believe that marrying a former kumari is fatal – a real hurdle in a yong woman's return to society. And the kumari selection process – by Buddhist priests – is a bit enigmatic, too. Rashmila Shakya, a former royal kumari who I meet later (and is not relation to Preeti), explains the selection process this way: When the current kumari starts menstruating, young girls from a specific caste of goldsmith families are brought to the king's priest. Whoever fits a list of 32 physical "perfections" – including having the voice of a duck and the body of a Banyan tree – becomes accepted as the reincarnation of the Hindu Goddess Taleju.

On this blistering May day, the royal kumari, Preeti, doesn't bother to show up at the third-story window. And why should she? Last year, the independent girl refused to give tika – a blessing in the form of a red mark on the forehead – to the prime minister, who was attempting to take over from the unpopular king the annual ceremonial duty of receiving a blessing for the nation.

While any Hindu or Buddhist believer may enter to receive a blessing from the kumari each morning, Westerners of uncertain faith are strictly prohibited from even entering the inner palace. My mere request for an interview greatly offends the palace caretaker, who angrily shooes my translator away.

So I head to nearby Bhaktapur, the seat of a once powerful kingdom in the valley and home to a kumari reported to be the most progressive – and accessible – in Nepal. The city has escaped Kathmandu's building boom and is relatively unchanged, with cobblestone streets and charming squares packed with temples. I eventually find the kumari's home tucked away in one of the myriad back alleyways.

Unlike Preeti or Chanira, 11-year-old Sajai Shakya is known to lead an almost normal life – a living goddess who goes to school, plays outside, and even visits the US (her unprecedented trip last June almost led to the removal of her title). Her parents, a marketing agent and a housewife, defend the middle path between protecting a girl's adolescence and fulfilling a religious obligation.

"The kumaris should be allowed to go out," says her mother, Rukmini Shakya. "If they are confined to their homes for as long as eight years, how can they interact with the world after this part of their lives?"

And I discover, to my dismay, that the Shakya family walks its talk. I've come all this way for an interview with a kumari, only to discover that Sajai had resigned earlier this year to enroll in a prestigious boarding school in Kathmandu.

• • •

It's at Patan, the third major city in the valley, that I come face to face with Chanira Bajracharya the HBO-loving living goddess. Chanira is already in her throne room, decked in full kumari regalia: elegant red garb (she cannot wear any other color), flowery headdress, thick silver necklaces, and a painted third eye that Hindus believe can see for miles – and into the future.

She's forbidden to smile, though to show any negative emotions would be a deadly omen to the guest. But the 13-year-old seems amused, invoking all her godly powers not to smile at the sight of a Westerner attempting to navigate the protocol for greeting a goddess.

Alas, her mother, Champa Bajracharya, steps in and informs me that outsiders must not corrupt Chanira's purity by attempting conversation. That's why she has no friends, explains Mrs. Bajracharya, "she's not allowed outside."

Her mother says she always knew her daughter was different. Standing in Chanira's presence, I sense a sort of dignity and sensitivity you don't normally see in a ninth grader. .

• • •

Right before leaving Nepal, I meet 25-year-old Rashmila Shakya, a former goddess who who seems like the girl next door. She is the first kumari to graduate from college, earning a degree in computer science last year. When Rashmila left the Kathmandu palace in 1991 as a 12-year-old, she knew only enough to be placed in second grade.

The two royal kumaris since Rashmila have received better private tutors, though they're still not allowed to attend school or live with their families.

She regrets not receiving a proper education, but staunchly defends the institution: "If the kumaris started to go to school, then what would be the difference between a kumari and any other girl? The tradition must be modernized with time, but that doesn't mean the whole system should be changed."

In a wistful tone, she recalls her former position as a source of spiritual healing. She fondly talks about the 6-year-old mute boy, who was able to speak shortly after drinking water that had been poured over her feet.

But for Rashmila, now dressed in stylish jeans and sporting pink nail polish, that is a past life.

In a noticeably relieved tone, she declares, "My life now is completely normal."

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