By Razen Manandhar
A cheerful little girl, Priti Shakya of Itumbahal, gave continuation to the almost 720 year old tradition of choosing a flawless girl as the protector goddess, by entering the doorways of the artistic Kumari House at the now largely ceremonial Hanumandhoka royal palace two weeks ago.
After several examinations and final recognition from the king, the granddaughter of renowned traditional artist Siddhi Muni Shakya was made Kumari, a living representative of the royal deity Taleju. On July 10, she replaced the former Kumari, Amita Shakya, who "protected" the country for 10 years, some two and half months earlier than scheduled.
The world worships stones, carved into different shapes as saviours of mankind. They visualise all manifestations of Gods in the stones but the world finds it hard to accept a living person, with equal respect and love, as a god or goddess - this is human nature. They cannot accept anyone being celebrated in the same way a piece of stone may be. But Nepal might be the only country where a naive, little girl is. The girl is believed to represent the family goddess of the royal Taleju dynasty as a living incarnation with power to secure the throne s and the people’s prosperity. She is known as Kumari, the virgin one.
History has not yet traced the origins of the Kumari tradition. So far the chronicles argue that it started as early as in the time of a twelve-century ruler Gunkam Dev, to whom the credit of making this Kathmandu city goes. A chronicle, narrated by Daniel Wright in 1966 says that he instituted Indra Jatra festival by erecting the images of Kumaris. Further, Mary Slusser writes in her book Nepal Mandala that manuscripts written in 1280 and 1285 AD describe the method of choosing, ornamenting and worshipping Kumari.
There are several Kumaris in the Kathmandu Valley. Theoretically, each Bihar or the monastery should have one but many of them today have discontinued this tradition mostly due to lack of patronage. Kumaris can be found in Kwa Bahal, Kilagal, Tokha (Kathmandu). Sulimha-tol, Hakhaa Bahal, Bungamati (Patan), as well as Chaturvarna Mahavihar (Bhaktapur) among others.
Above all, the Kumari at Hanuman Dhoka holds the principal position for she is given an artistic house - Rajlakxmi Kul Vihara - with elegant woodcarvings and beautiful wall paintings. Her chariot procession during the festival of Indra Jatra is celebrated where the presence of the ruling monarch is a must. He receives ‘tika’ from her on his forehead and carries her divine sword to "recharge" the power of ruling for the next year.
According to Historian Dr. Chunda Bajracharya, till the Rana rule, the kings used to watch the festival from the stone paved platform in front of the Kumari House and follow the procession in a horse chariot.
The prime Kumari is selected from eighteen Viharas of Kathmandu. The girl must be born from "pure" Shakya families and free of blemishes. She is supposed to possess 32 "special signs" showing her divine nature. It is said that the candidate children are taken to a special dark room for a strenuous test, in which the little children has to sit in front of giant buffalo heads in puddles of blood where images of different unearthly creatures come and go in the oil lamp-lit chamber. The one, who can sustain the ghastly atmosphere bravely is selected.
However, Juju Bhai Shakya, the husband of the Kumari’s caretaker husband rules out any such criteria. "The only basis of selection are the family background, her physical characteristics and the stars. The jataa, or the birth-chart, prepared with detailed information of her birth stars, is sent to the astrologers for examination. If they permit it, she becomes the god," he says. He adds that a similar ritual is performed every year during the Dashain festival.
Chitaidars are hereditary caretakers of the Kumaris who live in the Humari House with the family. It passes from mother-in-law to the eldest son-in-law. She takes care of the god-child everyday. Bathing, doing make-up, feeding and also bringing other children in to play with the Kumari is her responsibility. The Kumari can play all day within her quarters but she is not allowed to go out of her residence except for 13 times in a year, during special festivals. The rule is that she should not even get the slightest of injuries. Any sort of bleeding, including menstruation would disqualify her from being a goddess.
There are numerous stories behind the origin of the tradition of worshipping Kumari. One says that an ancient king, Pratap Malla, used to play dice in his secret chamber with Goddess Taleju, the royal goddess and also seek advice in ruling the country. One night, perverted lust shadowed his mind and immediately the omniscient goddess vanished from his sight. Taleju, however, advised him in the dream that the king might select a Buddhist girl in whose body the Hindu goddess could dwell. The king followed the advice and received the power to rule from the goddess through the girl.
Jaya Prakash Malla, the last king of the Malla dynasty, was warned by the Kumari that his time of tenure would end soon and was asked to provide her with a permanent residence. He had the beautiful Kumari House built in just six months and also started the tradition of chariot procession along with two living attendant gods Ganesh and Bhairav - this gave him an extra 12 years on the throne.
As the girl reaches 12, or sustains any injury, she is sent to her home after a special ceremonial pooja. She starts her family life normally - studying, marrying and conducting a career as well – afterwards, but she is generally called by the name of Kumari, rather than her own name.
The tradition has continued, no political change or natural calamity has ever affected the unbroken chain. However, the set traditions are being modified along with time. Amrit Man Shakya, the father of the former Kumari, worked hard to grant formal education to her inside her residence and also urged the government to provide her with monetary allowances.
Today, he is grateful to the god for providing him with this opportunity.
The 84 year old Hira Maiya Shakya, the eldest among living former Kumaris did not know that studying was even necessary. She lives with her 87 year old husband at Bijayeshori.
But the parents today put emphasis on the child’s education. Rina Skhaya, the present Kumari’s mother said she was ready to send her daughter to become the goddess as the priests said that the girl would still get a proper education.
Twenty-two year old Rashmila Shakya, a Kumari till 1992, is now a modern girl. The career-conscious girl is now waiting for the results of the Intermediate Science examination. "That was quite fun. Playing and playing and no working at all," she said, remembering her merry childhood.
Juju Bhai Shakya of Kumari House says, the Kumari in position receives Rs. 6,000 as allowance, Rs. 1000 for education and plus much more. After retiring, they get life allowance of Rs 3,000.
About the present state of the Kumari tradition, Naresh Bir Shakya, a central member of Shakya Foundation said that the tradition of Kumari is at stake due to the people’s prejudiced attitude towards it.
"Some throw conservative rumours against it and others attack it with human rights propaganda, without even finding out the truth. But the tradition will continue as long as the Shakyas are ready to send their daughters to be Kumaris and I don’t think it will ever stop," he said.
The list of the former kumaris so far possible collected
1. Hira Maiya Shakya Wotu 1922-1923 BS married 0 children
2. Chini Shova Shakya* Lagan 1923-1931 married 2 daughters
3. Chandra Devi Shakya* Asonchuka 1931-1933 married 2 daughters
4. Dil Kumari Shakya Lagan 1933-1942 married 3sons ,1 daughter
5. Nani Shova Shakya Ombahal 1942-1949 married 4 sons,2 daughters
6. Kayo Mayju Shakya* Kwahiti 1949-1955 married 1 son,1 daughter
7. Harsha Laxmi Shakya Naghal 1955-1961 married 2 sons
8. Nani Mayju Shakya Naghal 1961-1969 married 1 son, 2 daughters
9. Sunina Shakya Ombahal 1969-1978 married 1 son, 1 daughter
10. Anita Shakya Sikamoobahal 1978-1984 unmarried
11. Rashmila Shakya Kwahiti 1984-1991 unmarried
12. Amita Shakya Asanbahal 1991-2001 unmarried
13. Priti Shakya Itumbahal 2001 unmarried
* passed away
The names of the Kumaris of earliers days could not be found.
Courtsey: Durga Shakya, Kumari House
( Published in Sunday Post, The Kathmandu Post on 2001/07/29)