As there are many wonders in Nepal, one of the most significant cultural traditions is - the only living goddess, Kumari - also believed to be an embodiment of Goddess Taleju, a manifestation of Goddess Durga.
Worshiping Kumari as a goddess is a centuries-old tradition followed both by Hinduism and Buddhism. The word “Kumari” literally translates to the virgin in Nepali, hence the goddess is a prepubescent girl.
There are 12 Kumaris in Kathmandu Valley but almost all the Newari communities have their own Kumari. The main Kumari is of Kathmandu Durbar Square and she is given the title of the Royal Kumari. This living idol possesses divine spiritual energy, she is who protects the valley from demons and negative energy.
History of Worshipping Goddess in Nepal
There are numerous sects in Hinduism and among the Shakta sect is that worships Goddess as their main deity. Shakta sects were believed to be started in the Paleolithic age as evidence of goddess worship in this age was discovered by the historians from the fossils.
At the Paleolithic age in Europe, the statue of Goddess Venus was found that dated back to 12-14 thousand years back. We can find the culture of worshipping goddesses in the various civilization of the world. So, we can say there is a culture of worshipping ladies/females from the starting of human civilization.
During the early Vedic period, we find the dominance of male gods but names of Devi (goddess) can be found as well. During this period, the Shakta sect was not much heard of.
In the Post-Vedic period, in Rig-Veda, 1 out of 4 main Vedic texts (main religious books of Hinduism), we found the description of the goddess.
Post-Vedic period (1000BC-600BC) ancient religious textbooks like Upanishads have developed the concept of Prakriti (energy) and Purush (the one supreme conscience). Shakta as religion has emerged and developed in this post-Vedic period. Stories regarding the development of various goddesses from Parbati can be seen in this Era.
During the Pauranik Period, stories related to the Devi have been developed and the story quoted Devi as the strongest being universe. Shakta has developed in this period and gradually developed later on.
Regarding the history of Nepal, during the Gopal, Mahispal, and Kirat periods, there is no clear-cut explanation about the Shakta religion, however, during the excavation in Lumbini (Birth Place of Lord Buddha), an idol of Goddess was found. So it can be assumed that the Shakta religion was developed during that period in Nepal. Kirat might have worshipped the goddess.
During the Lichhivi period in Nepal, Shaiba and Vaishnav religions were at their peak, Bhagawati (goddess) worship was not seen but at the inscription of Palanchowk Bhagawati stated about the worshipping of Devi.
Linga Puja was developed in this period and Jalahari indirectly explains the worship of Yoni Puja, so in the Lichhivi period, Devi worship can be seen. Linga and Yoni are worshipped for their ability to produce offspring.
Further inspecting the idol and statue, we can say that the Shakta religion was developed in the Lichhivi period.
Nepal’s oldest statue of Gajalaxmi dated 1st-3rd century is found which is still at the chyasal Hiti of Patan. Hiti in Newari language means water tap.
During your visit to Patan Durbar square, if time and interest allow the traveler, they can witness the oldest statue found in Nepal. During this period plenty of lady statue were found that proves Shakta religion development is at the peak in this period.
The Malla period or medieval period is the golden period for the development of the Shakta religion in Nepal. Almost all the temples of Devi/Bhagawati were of this period. Malla kings worshipped Devi Taleju as their main deity and built the temple around the country.
The culture of Durga puja (Worship) during Dashain (The biggest festival of Nepal) was started in the medieval period. Mahismardini cult that was developed in Bangal introduced in Nepal in this period and we can see the masterpiece image of Mashismardini at the main entrance of Bhaktapur Durbar square (Travelers on their day tour to Bhaktapur Durbar Square can see this image).
During this period Tantra mantra tradition among the Shakta was introduced in Nepal.
Kumari is devotedly worshipped in both Hinduism and Buddhism. Worshipping of Kumari has officially started during the post-Vedic period. Pauranik literature explains the 16 different kumaris according to their name and age. It is believed in Hinduism that till the age of 16 ladies have various images of Devi till the age of 16. They are as follows:
1st-year lady Sandhya.
2nd years lady Saraswoti.
3rd years lady Trimurti,
4th years lady Kalika,
5th Years lady Subhag,
6th years lady as Uma,
7th years lady as Malini,
8th years lady as Shambhavi,
9th years lady as Kalashpadarshani,
10th years lady as Aparajita,
11th years lady as Rudrini,
12th years lady as Bhairabi,
13th years lady as Mahalaxmi,
14th years lady as Pithnayika,
15th years lady as Xetraja and
16th years lady as Ananada
By worshipping the lady as Kumari, Hindu believe to get the fruitful blessings of their desire, as Hindus have the varnashrama system means caste system on worshipping lady of various caste various blessing can be obtained.
Hindu believed that worshipping Brahmin lady being blessed as Gyansiddhi (Knowledgeable), worshipping kshetra lady Bijayasiddhi (Victory), worshipping Baisya lady Satruvijaya (Victory over Enemy) and on worshipping sudra lady maran, Mohan, uccaran & Basikaran (can control other).
Among the saptamatrika, kumari is one of them. During the pauranik period, various literature has been written about the goddess Kumari. After the medieval period, systematic worship of kumari has started in Nepal.
King Jaya Prakash Malla (1792-1825 BS) of Kathmandu has stated and developed the systematic worshipped of Living Goddess Kumari. Kumari system was officially made systematic and been developed by Jayapraksh Malla and that system is still in practice and we can see it still in Kathmandu Durbar square on the tour to this UNESCO heritage site.
The power of Kumari is believed to be very strong. Even a glimpse of her is believed to bring good fortune, after all, she is the only living goddess. She is worshipped by doing puja, providing gifts and food offerings, and touching or kissing her feet.
Even the King of Nepal visits Kumari and kisses her feet as an act of devotion. She has the power of curing illnesses especially people suffering from blood-related and menstrual disorders. While worshipping, she is observed very closely as her actions are related to devotees life as given below:
- Crying or loud laughter: Serious illness or death
- Weeping or rubbing eyes: Imminent death
- Trembling: Imprisonment
- Clapping: Reason to fear the King
- Picking the food offering: Financial loss
The Legend Behind Kumari Tradition
There are several legends stating how the Kumari tradition started. But among them, the tale of Malla King Jayaprakash Malla is believed the most.
Every night the king and goddess Taleju used to play Tripasa (dice game) in his chamber discussing the wellbeing of people and country. But their meeting had to be a secret. The king never told a soul about Goddess Taleju, but one day the queen got suspicious and followed him to the chamber.
Goddess Taleju saw her and she was furious with King Jayaprakash Malla and told her that she would never meet him again nor protect the country. The King begged her so the goddess made a condition that she would only protect the country if he would search her among the Shakya caste of the Newar community.
She said that she would incarnate as a little girl of the Shakya family. After that, the King began to search for her, found her, and hence the Kumari tradition started.
Process of Living Goddess Kumari’s Selection
The selection of the new Kumari is done by 5 senior Buddhist Vajracharya Priests, Panch Buddha, Bada Guruji (Royal priest), Achajau (priest of Taleju), and the royal astrologer. The horoscope of Kumari must match with the King of Nepal. The Kumari should be of the Shakya and Bajracharya caste of the Newar community. She must be the permanent resident of 18 Bahal who has good health, never shed a drop of blood, never suffered from any illness, hasn’t lost a single tooth, has no blemishes or scratches, black eyes and hair, set of twenty teeth, and all the Battis Lakshanas (32 perfections).
The selection process is done during the 8th day of Dashain called Kalratri. The Kumari is taken to a room where 108 buffalos and goats get sacrificed and offered to Goddess Kali and several men in horrifying masks are dancing around her. The Kumari must be fearless and if she cries during the process, she will be disqualified.
But ex-Kumari claimed that the process to select Kumari is not very horrendous. Only a couple of animals are sacrificed and no men in masks were scaring her. Likewise, the lady of Bada/ Shakya and Chandal's daughter are eligible for selecting Kumari.
Life of Goddess Kumari
Kumari is taken as the incarnation of Goddess Taleju (main deity of Malla Kings) so the main priest of Taleju temple is the priest of Kumari. The life of the young girl will completely change after being chosen as a goddess.
She will be always beautifully dressed in red and gold, wear lots of gold and silver ornaments, her hair will be in a topknot, her cheeks will be rosy and her lips red, long eyeliner touching her temples will be drawn, and she will have Agni Chaksu (fire eye) painted on her forehead. She will not touch the ground with her feet until the goddess departs from her body.
She will not wear shoes and her hands and feet will be beautifully painted with Allah (traditional red dye or Henna) but she is allowed to wear red stockings. Kumari sits on a golden Lion's throne. All the cost for worshipping Kumari is done by the Guthi (Government office of Nepal) as Kumari of Kathmandu is the Royal Kumari.
A small lady worshipped as Kumari is allowed to be out only 13 times a year on her golden palanquin (chariot) only during the special festival and functions that are held outside the Kumari Ghar. Kumari during her outing is dressed special to show her specialty according to culture.
Being a Kumari she has to take part in three types of rituals that are Nitya puja (Regular worship), Parba puja (Worship during the festival), and Bisesh Puja (Worship During special Occasion). She is taken care of by the caretaker family during her stay in Kumari Ghar and her parents can visit her now and then. The teacher from the school comes to the Kumari Ghar to teach Kumari, in order to settle her in the outer world after being retired from Kumari.
The government pays the amount for Kumari for her life support throughout the period of Kumari and also after her retirement throughout her life. Kumari after her retirement in the past did not get married but in the present day they can get married after their retirement and society will heartily accept this.
What happens to Kumari after dethroned?
Kumari has to be replaced after she gets her menstruation. After Kumari starts her first menstruation, she has to perform the Gufa ritual. Gufa is a 12 days ritual that every girl from Newar family should perform when they start menstruating for the first time.
During these 12 days, young girls are hidden in a dark room that doesn’t reach sunrays and they cannot see any men. After 12 days, they are taken out of the room and have a grand celebration. Similarly, after the completion of 12 days of Gufa, Kumari goes to a nearby river and untie her topknot hair, wash off eyeliner, and fire-eye painted on her forehead with the help of her mother and caretaker.
It is said that the goddess Taleju will leave the Kumari’s body after puberty, so the search for the next Kumari will begin, and the then goddess worshipped with full faith will return back to the normal life that she has never experienced.
During the previous time, ex-Kumaris were not allowed to get married because it was said that the person that she would marry would die leaving her a widow. But nowadays Kumaris do get married and society full-heartedly accepts her.
The Architecture of Kumari Ghar (House)
Kumari Ghar is famous for the wooden carving among the architecture lover. Travelers can witness the fine woodworks on the windows and tympanum. On Tympanum on the center image of Mahismardini Bhagawati is seen as Kumari is taken as the incarnation of Devi Taleju/Mahismardini Bhagawati. Woodworks are extraordinarily fine of the 18th century.
Kumari Ghar is also famous for the Terracotta art (art done by Mud), Terracotta art is painted red on the four corners inside the courtyard of Kumari Ghar. Inside the Kumari Ghar, there is a famous wall painting, painted in the time of Jaya Prakash Malla but normal people/ travelers are not allowed inside the house to see this wall painting. Travelers can see the Living Goddess Kumari twice a day (If no special Functions) generally around midafternoon.
Kumari Ghar is the melting point for the Buddhist and Hindu pilgrimage and travelers as Buddhists also worship Kumari, Living Goddess as Tara. Bajracharya is the Buddhist priest and Karmacharya is the Hindu priest. And instrument worship is done and this is seen only in the Shakta religion.
Worshipping the Living Goddess Kumari is the unique tradition in the world where a lady is worshipped as a goddess in this 21st century, and all the Nepali people have respect towards this tradition.
Kumari Ghar (house) is in the Kathmandu Durbar square and the visitor can witness her on their visit. Travelers can see the good example of religious tolerance among Buddhism and Hinduism in Nepal as kumari by Hindus is worshipped as the incarnation of Goddess Taleju and by Buddhists as Tara.