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Culture pop

October 1, 2017

Of goddesses and men


October 1, 2017

Culture Pop

S­he is three. A tiny little thing who for the next 10 years or so, until she reaches puberty, will literally be carried around from place to place and temple to temple so that people can benefit from her presence and blessing.

Trishna Shakya is the new ‘Kumari’ or living goddess for Nepal’s Hindus and Buddhists. She has parents and a twin brother, Krishna, who apparently cried when his sister was taken away to her new home in the centre of Kathmandu – a temple-palace where she will reside under the care of specially-appointed guardians. He will have to get used to the separation. Kumari Trishna will only be allowed to leave this complex (in the care of the guardians) up to 13 times in the year on what are considered to be feast days. On those excursions, her feet must not touch the ground. The goddess must be carried by her keeper. At all other times, she is confined to the palace.

Nepal’s living goddesses are young girls selected by a committee of Hindu priests. Trishna was among the final four contestants for the position. So what makes a toddler a viable candidate for the role? First, she should be devoid of physical imperfections and reasonably calm when witnessing animal sacrifice. Traditionally, around 100 animals were slaughtered during the Kumari initiation ceremony – a figure which has now decreased after pressure from animal rights activists.

She must also have (according to the official criteria) “thighs like a deer, chest like a lion and eyelashes like a cow”. It may seem like a tall order but it seems the panel of priests manage to find the perfect fit every 10 years or so. Kumari Trishna’s parents said they felt like crying as their little girl was taken away but were also happy at the honour bestowed on her and the family. “She is not [just] our daughter but the living goddess of the whole country,” said her father Bijaya Ratna Shakya emotionally. Quite a burden for a three-year-old’s bantam shoulders.

At college in Pennsylvania, I remember watching an old Satyajit Ray film called Devi (1960), made long before I was born, starring a young Sharmila Tagore. The story by Prabhat Kumar Mukherji was reportedly based on real-life events: a devout ageing man (Chabi Biswas) dreams that his daughter-in-law Daya (Tagore) is an incarnation of a Hindu goddess and begins to revere her as the Devi. Soon the whole town lines up to worship the new goddess and get her blessing. When the film was first released in India, it inspired a storm of protest against a supposed “anti-Hindu” bias.

Ray’s film was perceived as a critique of archaic Hindu customs. Over half a century later, in Nepal at least the goddess tradition is very much alive. Religious beliefs aside, the deification of children as goddesses for the mass consumption of devotees is troubling on many fronts. Activists have claimed that enrolling the Kumari for godly duties at the age of three amounts to child labour. However, in 2008, Nepal’s Supreme Court dismissed a petition for the Kumari process to be disbanded, citing the cultural value of the tradition. Not much has changed since.

Kumari reigns are time-specific. She is thought ‘pure’ until she reaches her first period, after which her replacement is found and the powers of the living goddess are passed on.

As the new child, Kumari entered the palace on Thursday this week, her predecessor Kumari Matina exited from a rear entrance on a palanquin. It would seem her usefulness as a deity was over. Priest Udhav Karmacharya says that it wouldn’t do to have a goddess susceptible to the distractions of young men. Hence, goddesses must be unmade.

When stripped off their divine status, the Kumaris receive a state pension. But many have found it difficult to reintegrate into normal society. Before Nepal’s monarchy was abolished in 2008, even its kings would seek the Kumari’s blessing. Later, the president was said to have bowed to her. How does a young girl relinquish all that elevation and power to settle down to a mundane life back at the home she left a decade ago? She has no choice.

Chanira Bajracharya was once a living deity known as the Kumari of Patan. But today she is a mere mortal in her twenties. In an interview to a Chinese newspaper, she described what assimilating back into a life devoid of divinity was like. “It was a challenging transition,” she revealed. “[After retirement at 15], I couldn’t even walk properly because I had been carried all the time. The outside world was a complete stranger to me.”

For a long time after leaving the temple, she still couldn’t navigate her neighbourhood and her mother walked her to school. However, the goddesses now do get a chance to get an education inside the palace. In 2008, Nepal’s Supreme Court ruled that the girls should be allowed to sit their exams there. But without classmates or a variety of teachers, the learning experience is quite different from what they will experience when they eventually go out into the real world.

There is something highly disturbing about a child being taken away from her family to enter into a cloistered world of rituals and secrecy beyond temple walls. Yet most retired living goddesses claim to feel honoured to attain divine status and grant wishes to pilgrims and devotees.

“There is someone supreme over me that makes me listen to (people’s) prayers,” Bajracharya explains. “You feel, you know, supreme. You’re not you, actually.” One wonders what long-term effects this negation of the self for a higher, divine ideal has on a child and how the child then is forced to relinquish all that she knows and has learnt to make way for a successor. How does the Kumari feel divested of all her divinity? And how confusing is it for her to form an identity around her deity status only to have to shed it and move on to a new life? Bajracharya feels that being a temporary deity afforded her a unique opportunity. “Nepal is primarily a male-dominated society, but here’s a girl worshipped and revered as a goddess. As a woman, I got that respect.”

During the Nepal earthquake, while other structures in the historic Durbar square in Kathmandu were mostly reduced to ruin, the Living Goddess palace, which has housed generations of Kumaris remained intact and emerged as a monument to Nepal’s tenacity.

In those desperate moments, the Kumari and her home provided solace to thousands. There is something to be said for the healing benefits of belief. But what is the cost of this endless cycle of divinity, this making and unmaking of child goddesses on the young lives that feed this turning wheel?

The writer is a journalist based in London and works with the BBC World Service as a broadcaster. Twitter: @fifiharoon

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