Nepal: After centuries, living goddess faces modernity

KATMANDU, Nepal — The living goddess likes bubble gum.

On a cold autumn evening during a festival to give thanks for the monsoon rains, dozens of chanting worshippers pulled her enormous wooden chariot through the narrow streets of Katmandu’s old city. Thousands of cheering people pressed forward, hoping for a blessing. Drunken young men danced around her, pounding drums and shouting.

But the goddess — a child wrapped in red silk, a third eye painted on her forehead as a sign of enlightenment — took little notice of the joyous riot. She stared ahead intently, her jaw pumping furiously. Then, she blew a yellow bubble about the size of a plum.

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Priti Shakya is 10 years old, the daughter of a family of poor goldsmiths. At age 4, Priti was examined by a panel of judges in a series of ancient ceremonies; they checked her horoscope, searched for physical imperfections and, as a final test, determined whether she would be frightened after a night spent in a room filled with 108 freshly decapitated animal heads. She was not.

So Priti became a goddess, worshipped as the incarnation of the powerful Hindu deity Taleju, and went into almost complete isolation in an ancient Katmandu palace.

She will return home at the onset of menstruation, and a new goddess will be named. Priti will be left to adjust to a life that is suddenly supposed to be normal.

That is how it has been for almost four centuries in a tradition that has survived even as Nepal has begun to change.

But change is coming, even to the goddess.

She has been dragged into Nepal’s political maelstrom, her influence argued over by everyone from Maoist militants to the prime minister. Her role, meanwhile, has become a topic of public debate, with human rights lawyers, politicians and academics wrangling about a child’s rights and an ancient form of worship.

A communist politician called her an “evil symbol,” and the Supreme Court launched an investigation after activists said the tradition violates Nepalese law. In a showdown that melded religion, politics and the monarchy, the nascent democratic government refused to allow King Gyanendra to receive the goddess’s annual blessing — thought to be a protector of the king. When the king went without permission, the government slashed the number of royal bodyguards.

Among the Shakyas, the goldsmith caste that chooses the goddess from its daughters, finding families that are willing to send their girls away has become increasingly difficult.

“We know there needs to be change,” said Manju Shree Ratna Bajracharya, the eighth generation of priests from his family to oversee the temple of the royal kumari — or virgin — as the goddess is commonly called. “But this criticism of the tradition, this is pure ignorance.”

He is bitter about politicians who he says focus on the kumaris for political gain. He distrusts the rights activists, wondering whether they are using the practice for publicity.

“The tradition can’t be treated like this,” said Bajracharya, who spends most of his days working as a bureaucrat in the state electricity company. “It is too important to Nepal.”

Nepal is emerging from centuries of Himalayan isolation. It was a nation bound by feudal traditions, a country that handed out visitors’ visas reluctantly. Few people imagined a king without absolute power.

Today, Nepal is a fragile democracy with crushing poverty, a figurehead monarch and a powerful Maoist militant movement. And change is coming even to the kumari.

Some of those changes are political: for example, the prime minister, not the king, now seeks the goddess’s official blessing. But some are more personal.

Teachers have been appointed to keep the goddess on the same academic track as other girls her age.

The palace now has television, which gives the kumari access to entertainment such as Bollywood films and to the news. There’s talk that she may someday be allowed to live at home with her family.

It is an attempt to give some normalcy to the goddesses, who often struggle when they return to the outside world.

Rashmila Shakya, one of eight former royal kumaris still alive, remembers the pain of her return. Now a 25-year-old computer technician, she left the kumari palace at age 12. She had had no proper schooling, and her feet hadn’t touched the outside ground for years. Her only playmates had been the children of the palace’s caretaker, and although her relatives could visit, even they saw her as a goddess. Her return home took a heavy toll.

“I didn’t even know how to walk around like a regular person,” said Shakya, a quiet young woman who wants to become a software designer. “The crowds frightened me.”

But Rashmila said she does not regret her time in the palace. “Not everybody gets to be a goddess,” she said. “In one life, I got to have two lives.”


(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
Tim Sullivan, AP, via, Dec. 22, 2007,

Religion News Blog posted this on Monday December 24, 2007.
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