The Kumari’s Blessing (Part One)

IMG_0730Just short of a year after the April 25, 2015 earthquake that struck Nepal, my daughter and I landed in Kathmandu.  We were there to visit the recovery programs that Episcopal Relief & Development was supporting.  Before leaving Kathmandu to tour the epicenter of the destruction and our work, my daughter and I took an afternoon to visit the Living Goddess—the Kumari—and to receive her blessing.

The ancient historic center of old Kathmandu, a UNESCO World Heritage site, was literally propped up.  Almost all of the temples and pagodas had scaffolding around them to keep them from collapsing.  It did not inspire confidence to walk under and around the buildings.  One was reminded of the impermanence of life at every turn.

We approached the Kumari Chen from Basantapur Square.  The Kumari Chen is where the Kumari lives, or perhaps more appropriately where she is sequestered.  Kumaris are selected between the ages of three and five and taken from their families to live in the Kumari Chen, where they are worshiped and revered.  Once a Kumari enters puberty she is no longer considered divine and she returns to her family to be replaced by another young girl who has been revealed to be the next Kumari.  

For anyone wanting to know more about the lives of the young girls who become Kumaris and what happens to them after they return home and retire, I recommend Isabella Tree’s poignant and fascinating book The Living Goddess. By no means is it easy being a Living Goddess.

We stepped into the courtyard of the Kumari Chen.  The Kumari was rumored to be making an appearance at 15 minutes past the hour.  The Kumari Chen had scaffolding around the outside, but inside the courtyard looked undamaged by the earthquake.  

We were surrounded by a gregarious group of Buddhist pilgrims from Japan posing for photographs below the small, enclosed balcony where the Kumari would appear.  A caretaker hissed at us to put away our cameras.  No photographs would be allowed.

The Kumari is believed to be the present day incarnation of the Hindu deity Devi.  The Kumari fulfills a complex role in Nepal.  Her historic function has been to offer (or deny) her blessing to Nepal’s monarchs.  The end of the monarchy in 2008 has called into the question the relevance of the Living Goddess.  Nonetheless, she remains an important figure in Nepal.  

Soon there was a flutter of activity behind the ornately carved wooden panels encircling the upper level of the courtyard.  A hush descended on the crowd and cameras were lowered.  We froze.

The shutters were pulled back on the balcony above us and a flash of scarlet cloth, the sleeve of the Kumari’s gown, startled us.  We all took a sharp intake of air.  

And then, there she was.  She was heavily made-up, but I would estimate her as being 10 or 11.  She was nearing the end of her tenure as a Living Goddess.  

A chair was placed at the opening and she sat down, gazing down at us.  What was she thinking with all those upturned faces, day after day, coming to worship her?  Her expression was quizzical and curious.  Perhaps reflecting our own expressions.

The Kumari gave us her blessing.  Suddenly there was a rustle of activity behind her and one of her caretakers gave a signal and the shutters on the balcony were drawn closed.   The audience could not have lasted more than about 90 seconds.

It was only after she had left us that I felt the power of her divinity.  It was her absence that made the memory of her presence so intense.

Photo courtesy of Evangeline Warren

Published by Rob Radtke

President & CEO, Episcopal Relief & Development, husband, father, friend, traveler, reader, New Yorker.

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