Nepal, known to the world as the home of Mount Everest and Lord Buddha, the preacher of peace, are also starting to be renowned for worshipping Kumari, the living Goddess of Nepal. Already adorned with thousands of temples, monasteries and Gompas, idols, monuments and shrines dedicated to the uncountable Gods and superpowers in every corner of the country, the living Goddess Kumari is another aspect adding to Nepal being aptly called the “residence of the Gods”.
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The word Kumari, originated from the Sanskrit word Kaumarya, literally means virgin referring to the Kumari culture of worshipping the virgins. Kumari is also the childhood name of Lord Durga, one of the main Gods of the Hindu religion. It is believed that Kumari in Nepal is the manifestation of Lord Durga (Taleju Bhawani) in the body of a pure prepubescent girl, either until she suffers some kind of injury or illness or when she starts menstruating. It is believed that the tradition of worshipping a living virgin girl as Kumari started during the regime of the last Malla king Jaya Prakash Malla who had a dream where Goddess Taleju ordered him to select and worship a virgin girl from a Shakya or Bajracharya family as the manifestation of herself. Hence he ordered his men the task of building Kumari Bahal (home of Kumari in the Basantpur area) and also started the festival of drawing the chariot of goddess Kumari along with the chariots of Lord Ganesh and Bhairav.
Besides belonging to certain castes of the Newar community, the girls selected to be a Kumari have to fulfill a number of criteria, including certain physical requirements like black eyes and hair, twenty unbroken teeth, body like a banyan tree, eyelashes like a cow and many more. Basically the girl should be a virgin without any disfigurements, should have the 32 noble virtues of Hindu culture and her horoscope should match that of the present King. The major selection criteria is the events on Kalratri or ‘black night’ when the selected young girl would have to spend the night alone in a courtyard with the severed heads of animals and if she shows courage and fearfulness during such frightening times, then she is chosen to be the next Kumari of Nepal and is prepared for the ritual cleansing of her past life.
Once the Kumari is selected, she is placed in the Kumari Bahal, adorned with the clothes and makeup of a Kumari Goddess and has to be isolated from her family and relatives as she has to let go of everything from her past life. From this day on, she will be completely treated as a Goddess; will not set foot on the ground outside the Bahal, always carried by her caretakers or on a chariot during pujas and processions while celebrating various festivals in Nepal. Even though there are a number of Kumaris in Nepal (almost every Newari village has its own), the Kumari of Kathmandu is considered to be the Royal Kumari of Nepal and is even worshipped by the king and many political leaders. Other devotees can also petition to visit the Kumari Bahal and upon meeting her, offer various offerings and obtain blessings from the Goddess as she is believed to relieve people from their troubles, physical and financial problems and bring good fortune to her devotees.
Being a Kumari at an early age and being treated as a Goddess whose every wish and demand is fulfilled by the council and caretakers, the young girls live a life very different from the other normal children. So, the transition from being a powerful deity to a normal child doing her everyday chores and obeying other people while trying to fit into the family she left behind years ago is a very difficult task. Another difficulty in leading a normal life is a myth that a Kumari should never get married or else the groom will die within six months of the wedding ceremony. However, few of the Kumaris have been married with kids and seem to be leading normal family lives.
Kumari culture is not just a divinity being worshiped on certain occasions or taken around during processions, but Kumari culture has a very significant religious, historic and cultural value to the Nepali people, especially the Newari community. The living Goddess of Nepal, Kumari, represents the Nepali people’s identity and culture, is a tradition going on for centuries now and a divine power that blessed the Nepali people with harmony, faith and strength in difficult times. In light of the recent major earthquake and its destruction, the fact that the Kumari Bahal, despite being as old as the other monuments, still standing strong gives people a sense of faith that Goddess Kumari is watching over and taking care of Nepal.