Kumari- the living goddess, as the spirit of the Taleju goddess believed to be embodied in a long succession of Newar Shakya girls, has been worshiped for centuries.
Kumari is derived from the Sanskrit word Kaumarya, which means princess. Kumari culture is a unique cultural heritage of Nepal. Kumari, whose literal translation is a “virgin”, is a source of supreme power for both the Hindu and the Buddhist. The Kumari is a prepubescent girl who is hailed as a manifestation of divine and spiritual energy, state recognition, the living incarnation of the Hindu goddess of power Durga aka Taleju (Tulaja) Bhawani, Bhagawati, Kali, Parvati, Tripurasundari, Ambika, etc.
Kumaris are strictly connected with Newar Buddhist monasteries (baha) and specific caste groups (Newar Shakya Clan) and localities, and special cultural associations (guthi) are formed for their cult. They live a sheltered life at their abode called “Kumari Ghar” until they reach puberty.
History of Kumari Culture in Nepal
The Kumari tradition has special significance in the cultural and religious history of Nepal. There exist several myths entailed from the beginning of the Kumari tradition. There remain numerous stories behind the origin of the tradition of worshipping Kumari.
The most popular story attributes the last Malla King of Kathmandu to establishing the first Kumari. Jaya Prakash Malla, a king reigning in the first half of the eighteenth century, had instituted the practice of worshipping a living child after falling foul of a goddess with whom he used to spend the afternoon playing dice.
King Jaya Prakash Malla used to go to the Goddess Taleju’s place at night to play dice with her. After some time, the queen was worried about the king’s regular disappearance at night. One night she followed him and saw him with Taleju. Taleju then got angry and disappeared immediately. This incident made the king restless. One day goddess Taleju came into his dream and told to the king that she would not return any more. She asked the king to establish a Kumari Ghar and house a virgin Shakya girl if he wants to protect his country from any natural/unnatural calamities. Taleju would incarnate in her.
Jaya Prakash Malla asked to build a beautiful Kumari House at Kathmandu Durbar square and established a chariot pulling procession tradition along with two living attendant gods Ganesh and Bhairav. Since then, the people of Kathmandu believe that Goddess Taleju resides in Kumari to protect the country from ill events or bad omens.
The Selection Criteria and Anointing of Goddess Kumari
She must be in excellent health, no diseases, no bloodshed, no blemishes, and the set of twenty teeth intact. She who possesses a neck like a conch shell, a body like a banyan tree, eyelashes like a cow, thighs like a deer, chest like a lion, and voice as soft and clear as a duck's passes the test of "battis lakshanas", the thirty-two physical characterists of a goddess. In addition to this, her hair and eyes should be jet black, her hands and feet be dainty, small and her genitals be well recessed.
The transforming process of virgin Shakya girls into living conduits of these real unseen powers are described in sacred ritual texts called Paddhatis. Paddhatis detail ritual prescriptions for daily worship, festival worship, and worship for specific intentions, such as the power to win an election, get public support, etc.
Amongst these three types of ritual, the most common and most important is the daily ritual. Once the Kumari is chosen, she must be ritually purified each day so that she is an unblemished vessel for Taleju. The heart of the ritual is Kumari’s enthronement on a mandala-shaped ritual seat whilst Tantric priests (both Hindus and Buddhists) worship her. They make hand mudras and chant mantras (liturgical formulae) that empower Her body to be a living manifestation of what the Paddhatis call the Goddess of Universal Form, the Visvarupa Devi. By the completion of each daily ritual, it is understood that the power of the supreme goddess, the Oaradevi fully resides in the Kumari and that therefore she deserves the official title of “Taleju”, identifying her as the King’s sovereign deity.
Once the existing Kumari turns 11, the selection process for the new Kumari starts.
All the Kathmandu Mahabihar Associations circulate information to the concerned Shakya families. They collect the horoscope of the minor Shakya girls. The mandatory norms are: the family applying for Kumari cannot have an inter-caste marriage for the past three generations and their marriage ceremony should have been concluded at 28 Mahabihars of Kathmandu.
The national astrologer meticulously examines all the selected horoscopes on whether or not their horoscopes match the well being of Nepal. Earlier royal astrologers matched Kumari’s horoscope to the reigning King of Nepal. Mahabihar Association recommends the girls for the post. The Chief Priest of State, concerned Bajracharya priest of Mahabihar, Chitaydar (Caretaker of Kumari), and concerned personnel of Guthi Sansthan visit the Head of the State with offers of Betel nut.
On Kalaratri, the eighth day of the Dashain festival, the selection process of the Kumari begins. A 3-year-old girl is left in a room with 108 decapitated buffalos and goats laid out in a sea of blood with men wearing horrid masks dancing among them to test the fearlessness of the girl. If the child is scared and cries, she will be disqualified and the next girl has to go through the process until they find a girl who braved the situation.
The girl is taken into the Taleju temple’s courtyard where the butchered animal heads are illuminated by candles and men wearing ferocious masks dance about. Finally, the girl must spend a night amongst slaughtered animals-heads and again show no fear. If she passes these tests the girl is taken for ritual cleansing of the time she was a regular child.
Dressed in red brocade, decked in new ornaments and forehead markings the new Living Goddess Kumari is taken to her new house (the Kumari House).
The above mentions are the strict and official rules for the national Kumari of Kathmandu. However, Kumaris in Lalitpur, Bhaktapur, and other Newar cities see their families regularly and often family members live with them.
Once the chosen girl completes the Tantric purification rites and walks from the temple on a white carpet to the Kumari house to assume her throne, she enters an entirely new character. She stays at Kumari house the entire time during her diving reign. Hereafter, Her mortal life ends as her spiritual journey starts. She has to wear red, hair into a topknot and the Agni chakshu (holy fire eye) painted on her forehead as a symbol of the Goddess. She never wears shoes but red stockings. Her feet are sacred so they never touch the ground.
Once the Kumari is appointed by the Head of the State, She requires no further test. Her family can visit her to pay tribute only and she is allowed to step out of her abode only on ceremonial occasions. And when she does she takes a ride on her golden palanquin.
Kumari is free of her material troubles. Carries out her ceremonial duties. People crowd desperately at Kumari Chowk with the hope of catching glimpse of the Goddess at her window. It is believed that the sight of her brings good fortune to the viewers. People visit her for her blessings and they touch her feet to escape from troubles and illnesses. It’s customary for high state authorities to bow to Kumari in the Indra Jatra festival. She steps out of her Kumari Ghar for the total of 15 days in a year on occasions like Indra Jatra, and Machhendranath Jatra.
Goddess Kumari’s Dresses and Jewelry
The clothing, ornaments, and decoration of the Kumari have been always fascinating to many. The Kumari customarily dress in red every day because red is the color of gods and power for the Hindus in Nepal and everywhere.
A bright red jama (cloak) down to her feet is paired with a red chaubandi cholo (double breasted blouse), and a red pagari (a turban). She wears necklaces, bangles, and anklets. Her hair is gathered in a topknot and decorated with fragrant flowers. She bears a third eye (called ‘tri-netra’) painted on her forehead. The third eye is a metaphorical eye, which is believed to destroy all the evil in the world.
The Kumari’s red tika on her forehead, just above the tri-netra given during festivals, is called Bhrigu, which represents the cosmic energy of the earth. This brightest and most glowing tika is a sign of wealth, prosperity, and a bright future for the nation. The special tika is prepared by mixing vermilion powder, rock crystal powder, a naturally scented powder called ‘kumkum’, and sesame oil.
The Kumari wears necklaces of diamonds and gold coins. One of the two special necklaces is a golden chain made in the shape of a serpent god, the ‘Vasuki Naga’ that hangs down to her belly. These ornaments have multiple meanings; one, it is a symbol of the guardian of the national treasury because Vasuki Naga incarnated as Kuber (Hindu guardian god of wealth). Therefore, Kumari is also worshiped as the goddess of wealth, Laxmi, during the Tihar festival. Two, the serpent is often a symbol of anger. Three, Naga is also closely related to the monsoon because it brings rain for the farmers and often bite them too. Therefore, people worship Naga during Kumari Puja for the protection: of their wealth, and from the snakes’ anger and bite.
Another set of necklaces the living goddess wears is a four-inch-long golden Ta-yo:. Ta-yo: has a cylindrical body with a number of edges and a conical shape at both ends which is sheltered under the umbrella of an eight-headed miniature golden Naga, symbolizing the eight mother goddesses. Ta-Yo: extends down to her chest to indicate her authority with the eight mother goddesses. She also wears beruwa aunthi (a spiral finger ring), bala (broad bangles), and armlets.
It is believed that the ornaments that Kumari wears were hand-crafted near the ending of the Malla regime i.e when the Kumari tradition was instated.
The ceremonial clothes and ornaments are passed from one Kumari to the next, through the ages. On non-festival days (regular days) the Kumari wears ordinary clothes, still in red offered by visitors.
Kumari Jatra in Kathmandu
Kumari Jatra is part of the celebration of Indra Jatra, which is the largest public festival in Kathmandu.
The Indra Jatra festival is one of the most exciting and revered festivals of the Newar community in the Valley. It begins with the erection of a Yo: Shi, the pine wood pole at Basantapur Durbar Square in front of the old Hanuman Dhoka Palace. A huge crowd of devotees gathers to witness the procession of the Kumari in her enormous chariot and seek her blessings. On this occasion, the living goddess in all her bejeweled splendor is borne in a palanquin in a religious procession.
The chariot, set on massive wheels, covered with gold-plated copper sheeting, and culminating in a double roofed pagoda, travels the main thoroughfares of Kathmandu on a scheduled route for three days. On the last day of the Kumari Jatra, the president (Monarchs in the past) traditionally visits Kumari to receive a tika blessing as an annual ritual legitimating their right to rule. This tradition, probably started by King Jaya Prakash Malla in the eighteenth century, was appropriated by the subsequent dynasty and finally continued with the presidential system.
The Kumari continues performing her legitimating ritual for every head of state, as she has done since at least the eighteenth century.
Kumari after Stepping Down from Godhood
The godhood of Kumari comes to end with her first menstruation. It is believed that Kumari becomes a mortal as she hits puberty. Kumari will no longer remain a Goddess either if she loses her teeth or she suffers a cut or blood loss from her body. A search new Kumari begins at such unfortunate events too.
Kumaris when stepped down and return to their families were usually under-educated and physically underdeveloped. But these days owing to the Child’s right to education and they are home-schooled and allowed to spend times with friends and siblings. Yet, the most difficult reality they have to face is of being a mere mortal after living a deified life for as long as they can remember.
The Kumari culture preserves a sacrosanct tradition that has been handed down through generations.
Lists of Goddess Kumari and Their Reign Timeline
|Names of the Kumari||Duration|
|Nani Mayju Shakya||1961-1969 (2018-2026 BS)|
|Sunita Shakya||1969-1978 (2026-2035 BS)|
|Anita Shakya||1978-1984 (2035-2041 BS)|
|Rasmila Shakya||1984-1991 (2041-2048 BS)|
|Amita Shakya||1991-2001 (2048-2058 BS)|
|Priti Shakya||2001-2008 (2058-2065 BS)|
|Matina Shakya||2008-2017 (2065-2074 BS)|
|Trishna Shakya (Present Kumari)||2017 (2074 BS)|
- Basnet, Binupama. A Sociological Study of Kumari, Tribhuvan University.
- Featured photo of Kumari by Oomesh Rana Manandhar (Jatra of Nepal)