Sajani Shakya, KumariThose who have been paying attention have probably heard about the recent visit of minor kumari, Sajani Shakya, to the United States to help promote a film about kumaris, and to appear on the opening night. On her return to Nepal, it was threatened that this breach of etiquette would lead to loss of her divinity – although the priests later changed their mind and have permitted her to continue as Goddess. (Farcical, eh? You almost couldn’t make this stuff up.)

Without further ado, I introduce some recent remarks of one Andrew Buncombe of the New Zealand Herald:

There are certainly those who believe the kumari tradition needs to change and that this ancient practice is an affront to the rights of those children who, to a greater or lesser extent, lose their childhood for the sake of tradition. In 2005, Kathmandu-based human rights lawyer Pundevi Maharjan filed a lawsuit claiming the children’s rights were being abused and demanding a reform of the practice. The Government ordered a commission to investigate and the publication of its findings is imminent.

“I said exploitation and discrimination has been going on. This should be eliminated,” says Maharjan, herself a member of the Newari, and who asked for a kumari’s blessing before filing her lawsuit. “We don’t want to end the tradition but we have to change for the protection of the culture. If we don’t change the culture, maybe one day it will collapse.”

Maharjan says that the most egregious abuse concerned the Kathmandu or Royal Kumari, the most senior of the goddesses who lives a life of isolation cut off from her friends, forced to stay inside her palace and wave to tourists. She is carried everywhere, her feet not being permitted to touch the ground. Evidence suggests many kumari and their families live in considerable poverty and former kumari face severe challenges in their adult lives, struggling to relate to other people and their reduced status. In some cities, there is a shortage of candidates for kumari as families seek to avoid the poverty and problems associated with the honour.

Sajani’s life appears to have a better balance. Five days a week she goes to school with her friends, she lives at home with her two sisters and brother, and other than for special ceremonies she wears her normal clothes. Were you to see her playing with her siblings on any normal day you would presume she was just any child from a poor family living in a very poor country.

Yet such a perception would be wrong. Not only is there the regular worship from neighbours seeking her help or blessing, but during the autumnal festival of Dashain, Sajani’s participation is required for 15 consecutive days, culminating with her spending the final day alone in the temple surrounded by the severed heads of hundreds of sacrificed buffalo, goats and other animals. It is not, by any means, a normal childhood…

Sajani has been a kumari since the age of 2, picked from the goldsmiths’ caste according to a traditional checklist of 32 various attributes. Almost ever since she has been conscious that people have treated her differently. The 10-year-old says her friends treat her normally and that at school she studies the same subjects – maths, science, Nepali, social studies – as everyone else. And yet if someone in the community is taken ill, Sajani will be collected from school and asked to use her shakti, or powers, to try to heal them. “There was an old man and an old woman and their son had taken all their money and belongings. Everything,” she recalls. “I believe they got it back after getting my blessing.”

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