Our initial crisis had been faced and solved. It was time for our first (half) day of exploration in Kathmandu. Per my request, Robin agreed to take us to Durbar Square in downtown Kathmandu, where I hoped to see countless temples, historical buildings and Nepali culture oozing from every corner. So far, everything around us was so very different. Coming from post-soviet Azerbaijan, where the masses most often donned black (with the occasional deviation of a navy blue or dark brown), it was exciting to see the bright reds, yellows and oranges of Nepal. In the spirit of the colorful culture, we decided to wear our recently purchased “crazy Turkish leggings” for our first outing.
The buses were a confusing mess to us. Characters we had never encountered heralded destinations we didn’t know were possible. I felt a newfound respect for Robin that he would be able to navigate such a system and offered a silent prayer of thanks that he would be our guide. Luckily, Azerbaijan had groomed us for an overly crowded bus with 80% of the passengers gawking at our foreign appearance. Even so, it was a little unsettling to be thrown back into the chaos of being the center of attention with no idea of what was going on around us. Arriving at our destination in downtown Kathmandu, the mix of excitement and apprehension I felt was suddenly drowned out by a sensory explosion – the aromas of incense and fried treats lingered in the air while crowded streets boasted reams of people, each with his or her own story and destination. The high-pitched voices of Bollywood hits rang out, rivaled only by chanting monks and feverish chatter as residents went about their daily lives. Knowing I would already stick out like a sore thumb with my white skin and blondish hair (not to mention the loud leggings), I wore my excitement proudly and allowed myself to soak in everything with giddy enthusiasm. Old buildings inspired flights of imagination while carefully painted signs non-verbally made their message clear.
High on anthropological curiosity, I couldn’t believe our luck when I realized we would be there in time to see Kumari, the living goddess. I had very briefly heard about this practice before, albeit usually with very negative and unapproving overtones. I guess that, in a sense, I stepped outside of the human experience for a few minutes and started to view everything happening around me as a spectacle, something so foreign to me that it would be mind boggling to contemplate it as reality. I insisted that we be present for the Kumari’s afternoon appearance. Mercedes was apprehensive, but agreed.
Time for an educational break. The tradition of the Kumari (according the the all knowing Wikipedia) dates back to roughly the 17th century CE. Kumari Devi is “the tradition of worshipping young pre-pubescent girls as manifestations of the divine female energy in Hindu religious traditions.” While there are many Kumaris throughout Nepal, the best known and most revered is the Royal Kumari in Kathmandu. According to popular legend, the goddess Taleju would visit King Jayaprakash Malla every night in his chambers to play dice and discuss the welfare of the country under the condition he tell no one of her appearances. But one night, the king’s curious wife followed him to his chambers to see who he was meeting so often. The king’s wife saw Taleju, which angered the goddess. She told the king that if he wanted to see her again, or if he wished for her to protect his country, he would have to search for her among the Newari people, as she would be incarnated as a little girl among them. To this day, the Kumari is chosen from the Newari community through a rigorous selection process based on a number of requirements having to do with her purity and beauty. For example, the Kumari must never have shed blood in her life, and as such, it is said that the goddess will vacate the body of the young girl should she shed blood during her appointment or when she has her first menstrual period.
The Kumari leads a vastly different life from that of her peers. Because she is the incarnate of the goddess, she is required to live in the Kumari Ghar, a palace in the center of the city. Her feet may no longer touch the ground as they, along with the rest of her, are now sacred, so when she ventures outside of the palace she must be carried or taken in a golden palanquin. Traditionally, the Kumari was not granted an education as she was believed to be omniscient, but in modern day, she is provided with private tutors and a limited number of playmates.
The practice of Kumari Devi is particularly fascinating to us in the west. A number of organizations and individuals disapprove of the practice, claiming it is in violation of basic human rights. If you would like to read more about the Kumari, check out this wikipedia entry. Educational break over.
We stepped into the courtyard of the Kumari Ghar, looking up at the balcony from which Kumari would grace us with her presence. An air of reverence mingled with curiosity filled the space. After a short time, a man came out to tell us that all photographs and videos were prohibited at this time, as the Kumari was about to appear. Honestly, I don’t know what I expected. I think I had this fantastical idea that a figure wreathed in divine light would glide onto the balcony and start making sweeping predictions about the fates of those who had come to revere her. But what I saw that day was a little girl. A little girl dressed in the most luxe clothing and jewels. A little girl who wanted for nothing, but whose sad and drooping eyes betrayed her. A little girl bound by duty. A little girl with a dying spark. A little girl burdened with the weight of being a goddess.
Suddenly, the spectacle shattered. Reality returned to smash me in the face as a rush of confusing emotions began to radiate from my chest. What had I just seen? Was that little girl happy? Was the fate bestowed upon her one of honor, or was it a prison? Was I looking at this with the misunderstanding that often arises in intercultural exchanges? Was this really as heart-wrenching as my gut led me to believe? What was in store for this little girl? How would she continue her life when she was no longer the goddess? Try though I might, confusion did not make way for understanding, nor could anthropological curiosity quell the sickening feeling in the pit of my stomach.
“I didn’t like that,” Mercedes said. “I didn’t like that at all.”
I guess I didn’t, either.
Quiet moments passed.
Then a question. And another. And another. Robin began to fill us in on the legends surrounding the tradition, which left me feeling even more confused than before. I wondered what the Nepali people thought of this tradition. I wondered if many of them even thought much about it at all. Mostly, I wondered how the Kumari herself felt about her fate.
I still think of her sometimes, the culture shock of that day forever fresh in my mind. I still imagine what her mysterious life must be like. I still wonder how she feels about it. And I still ask myself if I’m being culturally insensitive in my feelings of disgust toward the practice. But mostly, I just hope and pray that she is happy. Though to me, she is in a gilded cage, I hope she feels free to fly. Though I see her position as oppression, I hope she sees it as a divine honor.
To close out this sobering post, I’ve decided to share a little ray of sunshine. For some reason, I found myself infatuated with the adorable goats that seemed to be lurking around every corner and took an unreasonable amount of pictures of them throughout our time in Nepal and India. It’s possible I have a real problem. (In my defense, some of them were inexplicably wearing shirts! What?! This will be addressed in a future post.)
So. I present the first in a very long series of stupid pictures of goats. Until next time, dear readers…