Living Goddess Kumari and Human Rights issues

Living Goddess Kumari, ready for chariot procession.

Razen Manandhar

Kumari is considered in Hindu theology as a goddess of beauty and strength, in a very broad sense. Worshiping Kumari has been a 2000-year-old tradition in the Hindu sections of the Indian sub-continent. No wonder, Hindus of Nepal also worship Kumari as one of the goddesses of the Shakta sect. Unlike any other Hindu community in the world, since the 13th century, the Newars of the Kathmandu Valley have been worshiping goddess Kumari in the most unique form — that is, worshiping a girl child as the goddess, or as a living embodiment of those Hindu goddesses, that is also having been selected from a Buddhist family. This is the reason; this tradition has been drawing attention of the Buddhists, Hindus and others worldwide.

In the medieval period, as the Newar civilization fell into the hands of Hindu rulers, and they also were attracted by mystic rituals of tantraism, cult of worshiping Kumari drew “royal” attention. In whatever way, Kumari gained the position of being the prime deity to be worshiped by the Malla kings in the period between 13th to 17th century. So, an annual chariot festival of the Kumari girl was commenced and a decorated building was built just next to the royal palace as a residence for the Kumari. In fact, there are around a dozen Kumaris in the Kathmandu Valley in total.

President of Nepal comes to see the opening of the chariot procession of Kumari

After the Gurkhali king Prithvi Narayan Shah invaded Kathmandu Valley in 1769, all the art, culture and language — both tangible and intangible heritage of this ancient valley — took an abrupt breakage. Still, the tradition went on. It is said that the people of Kathmandu recognized the Shah king when he hurriedly admitted to worship the living goddess. The tradition of kings visiting the temple of the living goddess twice a year continued till the last year of the monarchy. And, ironically, it continued even with the presidents of the secular federal republic of Nepal. So the heritage continues.

The charges, attacks on this tradition by foreign media persons, Human Rights activities as well as by Nepalis, who belong to non-Newar communities came to ground after the 90s. As the new non-government organizations and “experts” are seen on the stage, the issue of Kumari and Human Rights emerged dramatically.

Those who oppose the tradition of Kumari basically say, that the girl is imprisoned, does not have right to eat, dress or play freely, or not given right to education. And some “Human Rights” academicians also claim that the Kumaris are supposed to remain unmarried for whole life (even when they know that all adult ex-Kumaris are married and are happily conducting social responsibilities).

A former Kumari, in her school uniform

What is Human Rights? Since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Paris by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, lots of things have been said, written and done. It is not possible to write all about these universally accepted documents here.

We know that Human rights are rights inherent to all human beings, whatever our nationality, place of residence, sex, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, language, or any other status. We are also all equally entitled to our human rights without discrimination. And now, when we talk about Human Rights, we are talking about civil and political, economic, social and cultural rights too.

Nepal, a country in solitude, was worshiping the living goddess, when the Europeans and Americans were still buying and selling human beings and as animals. This country’s unique culture of living goddess came into the limelight after some international media portrayed the picture of the Kumari as if they found some new species of animal the in mystical jungles of the Amazon. It is not that the issue of Kumari was not discovered by the writers of earlier era, but after some journalists mystified, glorified, horrified or even commercialized it, this issue turned out to be a hotcake for foreign Human Right defenders and some local defenders too.

The issue took serious turn after then women’s rights activist Bidya Bhandari (the president of Nepal at present) announced in the capital in September 2002 that she would eradicate the tradition of Kumari by introducing a law. That was quite an alarming sensation among the cultural experts, Human Rights defenders as well politicians. Her logic was really quotable — she believed that former Kumaris are not supposed to marry and if they get married, their husbands would die in short period! That was what the women’s rights activist from communist background said.

Lakhe, the masked demon, dances during the festival of Kumari

Following this, many defenders of Human Rights and Child Rights have attacked this tradition. Their vague argument was that the was not allowed to go to school, dress ordinarily in functions, go out to play and have to wear ornaments in functions and so on. Then, a question comes, what is Child Rights in Nepal? Is it something like being victim of infanticide, discriminated at early childhood as girl, deprived of education, forced to sleep in hazardous cowsheds during menstruation, being sent to work as child laborer, forced to fast in the name of husbands or would-be-husbands, marrying at early age, forced to be married off with elderly groom, being rejected by groom’s family (or even being burned) for not bringing sufficient dowry, and forced to live life of widows? Those defenders point their fingers at the only one example, where a girl is literally worshiped because she is a girl. This has been going on in a country, where girls are generally bound to live lives of uncertainty, of being discriminated, harassed, abused, sold to brothels, raped or even murdered. And on the top of everything, most of criticizing defenders belong to the upper-caste Hindus, where discrimination against girl children and women takes place to the highest point of imaginable extent. Obviously, this attack comes merely out of jealousy, that their community cannot respect a girl like this. They cannot imagine giving this much of respect to a girl.

Once some advocates filed a case against this tradition in the Supreme Court. The case continued for long and eventually, not directly though, the court ordered that the Kumaris and ex-Kumaris should have better facilities and ordered the government to revise facilities and allowances. Three years ago, in 2014 January 14, the Kathmandu Metropolitan City Office decided to grant Rs 10 thousand of life-long allowance to each of the ex-Kumaris for coming ten years. Kumaris, in the case of the “royal” Kumari, get education in her residence and all others are going to school on their conveniences. Those hundreds of thousands of people, who gather at the premises of the historical royal palace as well as along the streets of the core Kathmandu during the festive period of the Yenyaa or Indrajatra, are not all ignorant of the worldwide movement of Human Rights and value of being human. Similarly, the heads of the state and heads of the governments, the government officials, as well as diplomats who visit her at the chariot processions also are not unaware of the international laws, treaties and conventions. Nepal Tourism Board showcases Kumari as one of international attractions. The Goddess is now revered by the Newars of Sikkim, Australia and the US too; they are also not blindfolded or hypnotized.

In this regard, when we keep ourselves free from any sort of prejudices against the community which has the privilege to host the biggest administrative hub of the country in their long-earned civilization, it can be said that there is no such violation of any of those rights. Of course, we criticize if we are giving any harm to one’s body or psychological misbehavior to one’s mind to any single human being, but if everything is reasonable, then we can say that there must be something called “cultural rights” too.

Most of the confusions in the international arena are the results of the “hard works” of some media persons or writers, who do their best to portray Nepal as a country, where uncultured, uneducated people or may be cannibals live in this 21st century. While exaggerating our culture and rituals, they completely blackout philosophic aspects and civilization and, instead, do not leave any stone unturned to find out any single flaw, mistake, problem or drawback in the highly esteemed tradition to make their stories sensational or at least sellable in their market. Or, they bring out certain issues unintentionally, which appear to the unknown readers as sizzling and alarming. Or, in most of the cases, the reporters, thanks to their half-baked preparation or their prejudiced “fixers” or mediators, who for some more coins tell unrelated stories at preparation or “research” period and the reporters, tend to attack the religion, culture, tradition and philosophy from the very beginning without any reason. Most of the reporters do not know that there are several Kumaris and that each has different rituals and disciplines to go through. They just jumble things for their weird pleasure. Their reports show that they are still not convinced that everything is normal with the girls, even after meeting dozens of people on hand for their assignments.

The stories appear in the Internet or are seen in televisions and we can’t stop laughing on the blunders those international reporters make. While we are laughing how stupid the reporters were to miss some important points or to twist the reality into hilarious fantasies, the whole world, as much of the readers or the audience the stories can draw, must be thinking that the Newars of the Kathmandu Valley are the most uncivilized or barbarians of the whole universe.

Precisely, the girl in the goddess’s attire carry the belief, devotion and tradition of the Newars, who had developed their own sense of theology, religion, harmony between two prevailing religions, a boost of the age-long art and architecture and also a viewpoint which is guided by the simple tradition that women are worthy to be worshipped and that there is power in every girl’s being. The girls laugh, play, enjoy, cry, sleep, fall ill, get medication and are pampered as much as any girl has right to be. They study, watch TV, meet their parents, paly with mates and with advanced smart phones and what not. Yes, they live disciplined life and are not allowed to do what is not allowed to any fortunate and elite class children. It is because she is not ordinary girl. She is special.

This elephant figure is taken to the street during the festival

Another issue these Human Rights defenders raise is so-called “trauma” the girls are said to face after bidding farewell to their Kumari House and when they start living as ordinary girls at homes. What so? All girls are naturally made strong to face new stages of life. And so are they. They come back to their home, with lots of love and prestige for their parents and neighborhood and country as a whole. And she takes time to adjust herself in to social circumstances, as any child who returns home after being graduated form a residential school. She enjoys all stages of mental and physical growth and learns new charms and responsibilities of being adolescent and life goes on. They are found doing well in studies and career. They are fortunate that they did not take birth in the society where abortion takes place after identifying sex, or where girl children are forced to sleep in cowshed during the period. They are proud to have been grown up in the Newar community where women have special values, indeed.

Because of such wide-spreading rumors and attacks, ex-Kumaris do not want to talk to others. I had an opportunity to ask these questions to a former Kumari, Preeti Shakya, who is now studying in graduation level through Facebook Messenger. She does not think that there is any kind of (Human Rights or Child Rights) violation. Regarding the problems one has to face in coming up with socialization and living a normal life, she says she does not have any problem regarding anything. When asked if she regrets being Kumari at that time, she says, “I feel very proud and special being ex-Kumari. It is a matter of pride for the Kumari’s family as well as the nation. I always get extra respect, love n care from the people. The people of the Kumari House also love me very much.”

(Guthi, UK. Photos are found in social media, I don’t claim any rights over them.)

A writer, a journalist, an Esperantist and a student of Buddhism; and works at Bodhi TV in Nepal.