There is a tradition in Nepal of appointing a Royal Kumari, a living goddess whose body is to be inhabited by the goddess Taleju. The living goddess plays a key role in important Nepalese festivals and her blessing is required for the continued authority of the monarchy. The living goddess is worshipped and her every wish is met. She gets to live in a palace, has great wealth at her disposal, and her every need attended to by her devotees.Sounds lovely?
Sounds also like a wonderful tradition of goddess-worship in which Woman is fully appreciated?
Think again. There are more than a few catches.
As for the goddess herself, it doesn’t seem like much of a life. The person chosen must, of course, be physically perfect and meet the requirements specified for a person who is to be inhabited by a goddess. (Seems fair enough? Sounds like an alternative version of the beauty myth to me.) One of these requirements is that the person must not have ever shed blood – for the shedding of blood results in the shedding of the goddess. This does not just mean that the living goddess is carefully shielded from accidents: it means that she cannot menstruate.
For this reason, the ideal candidate for elevation to the status of a deity must be a little girl many years from puberty. Children are usually selected at the ages or five or six. The current incumbent was appointed before her fourth birthday.
So this is what happens. A little girl, barely more than a toddler, is taken away from her parents and her family. Secret rituals purify her. From then on, she lives in a palace and her feet may not touch the ground. She receives no formal education. She sees nothing of real life, and very little of anything outside her palace. She is encouraged to behave at all times like a goddess: calm, serene, impassive, unemotional. Every whim is attended to. Then, one day, she bleeds. She becomes a woman. And she is immediately stripped of all status, her palace life is snatched from her and she is turned out into the world to fend for herself on a monthly pension of $80 in a place where tradition has it that if you marry a retired goddess you are likely to die within six months of so doing.
Is it any wonder that she looks unhappy?
There are suggestions now that these little girls may be being exploited. The BBC reports today that the Nepalese Supreme Court has ordered a full inquiry into the matter and will make a final ruling when this is complete, in three months time.
Modernisation might mean, perhaps, that the life of the Royal Kumari becomes a little less isolated, that she is given better education, and that her pension is increased. These will be good changes, but although they might ameliorate the situation for Kumaris and retired Kumaris, I’m not sure these steps would mean that the children in question are not being exploited: only that they would be well-remunerated for the exploitation.
But the question of exploitation aside, I want to ask if there is not something quite disturbing about the whole tradition of the Kumaris. This does not apply just to the Royal Kumari but also to lesser “minor Kumaris” who lead much more normal lives.
Here are some examples of things that give me the heebie-jeebies:
- The prospective goddess is selected on a number of exacting criteria, many of which focus on her physcial perfection, her “beauty”. One of the requirements is that she have small, well-recessed sexual organs.
- Pre-pubescent girls are being venerated – but, when they reach puberty and therefore (in the eyes of the Nepalese) womanhood, the veneration stops. To put it mildly, that does not send a good message about womanhood.
- The girl “venerated” is in fact wholly isolated and restricted.
- The raison d’etre of the living goddess is her power to endorse the (male) monarch, but she does not have any direct power of her own. (In this context it is worth noting that the family of the prospective goddess is carefully vetted to ensure they are firm monarchists.)
I don’t believe that anyone rules by divine right. However, if I had to make the choice, if we must have a living goddess of one kind or another, then I would rather see one in the style of a divine king: a grown woman, strong and vigorous and genuinely powerful.Or would that be too scary?