Kumari is the living incarnation of Goddess Taleju.
The worship of the goddess in a young girl who is a virgin 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 the supreme through inanimate materials, worship of a human represents veneration and recognition of the same supreme in conscious beings.
In Nepal, Kumari is the only living goddess worshipped by Hindus and Buddhists. The literal meaning of Kumari is Virgin. The Kumaris are young pre-pubescent girls who receive the power of Goddess Kali and Taleju. So how did this tradition start and got entrenched in the Kathmandu Valley? Let’s find out:
History of Worshiping Kumari:
While the worshiping of a living Kumari in Nepal is relatively new, 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 Nepal 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 CE.
Legends regarding the Kumari:
There are several legends regarding the origin of the living goddess Kumari among the most prominent one is of involving the last Malla King Jaya Prakash Malla. It is said that
According to the legend, Goddess Taleju visited Jaya Prakash Malla’s chambers during nighttime as a beautiful woman. They would play Tripasa (a dice game). The goddess visited the king’s chamber every night on the condition that the king refrains from speaking about their meetings to anyone.
One fateful evening, the king’s wife followed him to his chambers and inspected his secret meetings with the goddess Taleju. The goddess became aware of the king’s wife and left furiously. Goddess Taleju told Jaya Prakash in his dream that she would reincarnate as a living goddess in children among the Shakya and Bajracharya community of Ratnawali. In his attempt to make amends with Goddess Taleju, Jaya Prakash Malla searched for children possessed by Taleju’s spirit and hence started the Kumari Goddess tradition. Jaya Prakash also built a house for Kumari to stay near the palace and named it “Kumari Ghar.”
Selection of a Kumari:
Once Taleju has left the sitting Kumari which she does after the first periods, there is a new requirement 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. 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 from the Newar Shakya caste 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 Lakshana or thirty-two perfections of a goddess.
The girl is also observed for signs of serenity and fearlessness, 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.
Life of a Kumari:
After the chosen girl completes her Tantric purification rites and crosses from the temple on a white cloth to the Kumari Ghar to assume her throne, her life changes entirely. 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 and gold, wear her hair in a topknot, and have the Agni chakshu, or “fire eye”, painted on her forehead as a symbol of her special powers of perception.
The power of the Kumari is considered to be so strong that even a glimpse of her is believed to bring good fortune. Crowds of people wait below Kumari’s window in the Chowk, hoping that she will pass by the latticed windows on the third floor and glance down at them. Even the irregular appearances of Kumari last only a few seconds, the atmosphere in the courtyard is charged with devotion, and is in awe when she appears.
Duties of a Kumari:
Despite the fact that the living goddess has no special powers, to begin with, the belief system is way too strong to refute that claim. Many people visit her for respite against illness and the coming of good fortune. She also presides over the various festivals and jatras like Machinndranath Jatra, Indra Jatra, and so on.
Reaction of the Goddess:
During the visits by the devotees the Kumari is closely watched, and her actions are interpreted as a prediction of the devotees’ lives, as follows:
Crying or loud laughter: Serious illness or death
Weeping or rubbing eyes: Imminent death
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.
The uniqueness of this system has given more than enough boost and prestige to Nepalese cultural heritage abroad. There is no other country in the world that has this cultural system and it symbolizes women’s empowerment from the modern concept as well.
Kumari Goddess is the human symbol of power and protection. She is the sole embodiment of pureness among Hindu and Buddhist followers. A Kumari must be in her pre-pubescent and should not have lost any drop of blood from her body. After she enters her adolescence and begins her first menstruation, she is retired and the search for a new one starts.
In some cases, the title is lost when the reigning Kumari suffers a cut and loses blood from her body. If she loses blood from her body, she becomes like any other human and loses the power of God bestowed on her.