The show of Kumari Jatra … goes on in Kathmandu

Razen Manandhar
7 min readJun 28, 2018

By Razen Manandhar

All people, who believe in God in a form or another love to worship him in stones. Some may have his image in other precious metals too. But you can hardly see a human being is being worshiped as a God. It’s only in Nepal, among the Newars, the indigenous of the capital city of Kathmandu, that they select a little girl to be worshiped as a goddess, to whom even the kings and queens (the president now, after Nepeal has become republic) worship and tens of thousands of people come around the ancient capital to cheer the event ! This has been a living heritage of Nepal.

Yes. The world worships stones, carved into different shapes as saviors of mankind. They visualize 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 Yenyaa (now commonly known as Indra Jatra for the outsiders) 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 worshiping Kumari.

Lakhe, the masked-dancer in demon’s guise, creates a thrill among the spectators. (photo source : unknown)

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 of “royal” 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.

The huge face of Sweta Bhairava is displayed during the festiva (photo : Holiday Nepal)

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 “Dyo-maa”, or goddess-mother, rather than her own name.

The tradition has been in practice, 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.

Kumari : The girl, who is worshiped by the state as a living goddess (photo : unknowon)

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.

Kumari and marriage

There is a big rumours, spread many by the non-Newars, who are just jealous about the is culture, that those who become Kumari will not find a husband to live a normal life in future. But observations show that there is no relation between being Kumari and being married.

“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.

It was a time that Kumari tradition was a target of women’s and children’s rights activists. Attacks came from those communities in which women were more discriminated. But the time has changed. It’s a big irony that the women’s rights activist, Ms Bidhya Bhandari, who once announced that should would terminate the Kumari tradition, is now the president of Nepal and she dose not miss a chance to visit Kumari and worship her during the festival.

Masked dance of Mahakali during Indrajatra (Photo : unknown)

Now, the things have been changed. The Kumaris have all facilities, including education in the Kumari House and provision of lifelong stipend. Making a child a Kumari for certain period is still a matter of pride for concerned families. And, looking at the crowd that gathers at the procession, we can be sure that there is little chance that this age-old tradion.

What you should know is that Yenyaa (Indrajatra) is much much more than chariot procession of Kumari. There are around a dozen masked dance troupes, including the irresistible demon, Lakhe, and traditional musical troupes, display of Bhairava’s wrathful faces at different places. To sum, the whole core city becomes colorful, zestful and romantic as never before. Of course, this is the best time to visit Kathmandu.

(I don not claim copyright of the photos I have used, they are taking form various websites)

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Razen Manandhar

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