The Living Goddess
The Living Goddess
In a small medieval palace on Kathmandu’s Durbar Square lives Nepal’s famous Living Goddess—a child chosen from the Buddhist caste of goldsmiths whose role is to watch over the country and protect its people. Once she attains puberty, another girl takes her place. To Nepalis she is the embodiment of Devi and for centuries the kings of Nepal have sought her blessing to rule. Legends swirl about her. But the facts remain shrouded in secrecy and closely guarded by the Living Goddess’s priests and caretakers.
Deeply felt and written over many years of travel and research, The Living Goddess is a profound, compelling and extremely moving book.
‘A unique insight into an astonishing tradition.’ - Colin Thubron
‘... a fantastic and illuminating read – as much a book about the history of Nepal as it is about the Living Goddess.’ - Prajwal Parajuly
The Living Goddess
Format: 368pp demi pb
Isabella Tree is an acclaimed author and award-winning travel journalist and was, from 1993 to 1995, senior travel correspondent at the Evening Standard. She has written several highly praised books including "The Bird Man: The Extraordinary Story of John Gould" and "Islands in the Clouds: Travels in the Highlands of New Guinea," which was shortlisted for the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award. She writes for the Sunday Times, Evening Standard, Observer and Conde Nast Traveller and her work has also appeared in Reader's Digest Today's Best Non-Fiction, Rough Guides Women Travel and The Best American Travel Writing.
Extract from Chapter One
A hush descends on the tiny stone courtyard. A footfall, a cough, the beating of a pigeon’s wings resound like a thunderclap in the silence. Outside, the jangling of rickshaw bells and motorbike horns belongs to another world.
Without warning, a child appears at an ornately carved window on the second floor. She could be six, eight or nine years old. It is impossible to tell. She gazes sternly down on the assembled foreigners, pouting slightly, looking mildly inconvenienced. Her eyes are huge, exaggerated with thick lines of kohl reaching all the way to her temples. She is dressed entirely in red, her lips bright red; her hair bound up tightly in a topknot; gold ornaments around her neck and bangles on her wrists. Her tiny fingers, their nails painted red, clasp a wooden rail across the bottom of the window with the command of a captain at the ship’s helm.
There are awed murmurs and even some applause. The child’s expression does not falter. Lowering his voice the guide explains, ‘She does not smile. If she did, it would be an invitation to heaven and you would die.’
Just as suddenly, the child is gone, reabsorbed into the shadows, leaving only a flutter of red curtains.
The little girl is Nepal’s ‘Living Goddess’, one of the sightseeing landmarks of Kathmandu, the face in every guidebook and on every tourist poster. To Nepalis she is known as ‘Kumari’ – the word for a virgin or unmarried girl. She is believed to manifest a powerful Goddess who protects Kathmandu and watches over the country and all its citizens. All-seeing, all-knowing, she is said to have eyes in the past and the future, and to see everything that goes on in the present. She has the power to cure illnesses, to remove obstacles in the way of happiness, to bestow immeasurable blessings on those pure of heart. She is said to punish the wicked with a single withering stare.
I was eighteen the first time I saw her, fresh out of school, travelling with three friends on a gap year in South Asia. For several months in the summer of 1983 we rented a couple of rooms in Freak Street, a fading hippy colony in the heart of old Kathmandu. Our shutters opened on to the southern facade of the old royal palace and, on the other side of Basantpur Square, an imposing three-storey building made of red brick with a deep, clay-tiled roof and wooden lattice windows – the palace of the Living Goddess.
The ‘Kumari Ghar’, or ‘Kumari Chen’ – the Kumari House – was a hive of activity, the entrance around the corner in Durbar Square guarded by a pair of magnificent stone lions. Every day devotees would climb the short flight of steps between the lions and, ducking their heads beneath the ornate wooden doorway, carry plates of offerings inside. Across the little courtyard they entered a door tucked away in a corner marked ‘Hindus ONLY’.
This was as far as we could go, the building itself being strictly closed to foreigners. But devotees themselves can only venture as far as the Kumari’s public puja room upstairs, behind the window where the little goddess occasionally appears for tourists. The rest of the building remains a mystery to them. In particular, we were told, there is one room where no one outside the Living Goddess’s inner circle can go. On the top floor, directly above the main entrance, is an elaborate five-section window looking out on to the pagoda temples of Durbar Square. The central section is bronze- gilt and framed by golden dancing goddesses. It is a window fit for a queen. Only the Living Goddess can look through it. Behind it is her throne room, the most powerful place in the whole building – a ceremonial chamber reserved for rituals conducted by tantric priests and attended by the king.
A certain amount is widely known about the Living Goddess. For most of the time, our neighbours told us, she is restricted to the inside of the Kumari Chen. She leaves the building only to attend festivals, a dozen or so times a year. In order to maintain her purity her feet must never touch the ground, so on most occasions she is carried out of the house in the arms of one of the male members of her household and then borne aloft in a handheld palanquin. For three days in September, during the festival of Indra Jatra, she is pulled around the city on a massive golden chariot.
A special female caretaker and her family are responsible for looking after her and preserving the conditions that allow the Goddess to reside inside her. The Kumari’s own family lives elsewhere. Her parents hand over their daughter to the Kumari Chen when she is selected for the role, around the age of three or four. Though they can go and see her they cannot embrace her or speak to her. They simply touch their foreheads to her feet like other devotees. She will be their daughter again only on the cusp of puberty, when she rejoins the world of mortals and leaves the Kumari Chen for good.
Another stipulation is that the Kumari must not bleed. If she cuts or grazes herself accidentally – if she suffers so much as a scratch – then the spirit of the Goddess inside her will disappear. So special care has to be taken to protect her from injury. When she shows signs of reaching puberty, before she can experience the blood loss of her first menstruation, the Kumari is dismissed and another little girl takes her place.
This much is popular knowledge. But much of what goes on inside the Kumari Chen is highly secret. The Kumari belongs to a belief system based on esoteric tantric rituals. Rumours and speculations are rife, even among Nepalis who worship her. There are stories of dark initiations at the dead of night: a terrifying ordeal in which the little Goddess walks barefoot through bloody courtyards scattered with the severed heads of goats and buffaloes while men dressed as demons leap and howl in the shadows. She is said to spend the night alone, shut up in a room with ghosts and rats. If the child shows no fear, our neighbours explained, it proves the Goddess has accepted her.
How the Kumari is selected is also a mystery. Some say it is a mystical process, the work of astrologers and tantric priests – like the selection of Tibet’s Dalai Lama. Some say she is stripped naked and subjected to an intimate physical examination. There are certain signs the priests are said to look for. She has to be exceptionally beautiful, with radiant ‘golden’ skin, no blemishes, birthmarks or scars, and no indications of smallpox that, until recently, blighted the complexions of so many children in Nepal. She is said to be blessed with thirty-two lakshina – the physical perfections of a bodhisattva. She has to have the chest of a lion, for example; a neck like a conch shell; eyelashes like a cow; body like a banyan tree; the thighs of a deer; small and well-recessed sexual organs; a voice clear and soft like a duck’s. Sometimes, mothers are said to dream of the Goddess when they are pregnant – a sure sign they are bearing a Kumari. Sometimes a snake – generally considered a good omen in Nepal – enters the house shortly after a future Kumari is born.
The child Goddess exhibits almost superhuman patience and poise. She is often required to sit motionless on a simple throne or cushion for hours at a time. Even when she is carried outside in her palanquin her demeanour remains sublimely calm, at odds with the thronging, excitable crowds around her. To westerners familiar with demanding toddlers her placidity is inexplicable. At Indra Jatra, her chariot processions last the best part of a day, during which time she does not touch a morsel of food or a drop of water, or absent herself to go to the lavatory. It was rumoured in the shady cafés of Freak Street that the caretakers use hypnosis, or strong alcohol or drugs – the only way, our hippy neighbours claimed, a toddler can ever possibly be this compliant. One old dharma bum was convinced, not without envy, that the Kumari is given soma – the legendary narcotic mentioned in the Rig Veda.
What happens to a Kumari after her dismissal is also a matter of conjecture. Former Living Goddesses are said to be extremely dangerous and capable of wreaking bloody accidents wherever they go. No one would ever want to marry an ex-Kumari, Nepalis told us. Snakes slither out of her vagina, threatening to emasculate any man foolish enough to try to deflower her. Some, on the other hand, insisted that sex is the only way these degraded goddesses can earn a living and claimed that ex-Kumaris are trafficked, along with thousands of other girls from Nepal, to brothels in Mumbai or Bangkok.
As we settled into life in Durbar Square the enigma of our neighbour became all-engrossing. We dropped in on her courtyard almost every day. Often she would grace us with an appearance at her window but some days we would wander away disappointed. At night we would catch a glimpse of a little figure in red flashing past the windows of her house. Her presence, like an occlusion in the mind’s eye, trailed us on our excursions around the valley. We began to see the name ‘Kumari’ everywhere we went – on signs for shops, banks, travel agents, as the brand name of beauty products. On quiet afternoons in our flat I would write about her in my journal, wondering where she came from, what life was like for her inside the Kumari Chen, whether she was happy, where she would go when she was dismissed, if there was any truth to the darkest of the rumours.
I realized my framework for understanding what she represented was very limited. I found myself likening her to a ‘Christ-child – innocent, vulnerable’. ‘Perhaps,’ I scribbled in my notebook, she stood for ‘some kind of sacrifice, atoning for the sins of the world’. Or, being virginal, she was a version of the Madonna – ‘meek and submissive’, ‘without sin’, ‘untainted by adult desires’. But deep down, I knew my theorizings were wide of the mark. The Kumari’s expression as she gazed down on us from her window – defiant, sultry, provocative – kept pulling me up. It warned me not to take anything about her for granted.
I was particularly intrigued by the notion of her power. I lived in a world where the omnipotent deity, if one still believed in his existence, was incontrovertibly male. The idea of a supreme female being was inconceivable. Yet to Nepalis the Goddess residing in this little child was regarded as sovereign, pivotal to the very existence of their kingdom. Every year, at the festival of Indra Jatra, the king of Nepal would come to the Kumari’s house, kneel at the feet of the Living Goddess and beg her blessing to rule. If the Kumari was happy with him, she would dip her fingers in a dish of vermilion by her side and place a red tika on his forehead. If the king did not receive this blessing, his reign was doomed. The Kumari’s displeasure, people said, might even signify his death.
The tradition requiring the king of Nepal to submit himself to the divine will of a female child originated in the time of the Mallas – the Hindu kings who had ruled the Kathmandu Valley before the present Shah dynasty. The Mallas were names still on everyone’s lips. Their influence was everywhere in the valley, but their showmanship was concentrated in the spectacular buildings they had created around their durbars and the votive pillars they had erected in front of certain temples with golden statues of themselves on top, kneeling in prayer.
The Mallas had originally fled to the Himalaya to escape the Turkish invasions of India, eventually coming to power in the Kathmandu Valley around 1200 ce. Their provenance is illustrious. They are mentioned in the Mahabharata and in early Buddhist texts. As with all Hindu kings, their subjects had considered them to be divine. Once established in the ‘Valley of Nepal’ they ushered in an era – lasting over five and a half centuries – of extraordinary prosperity and by the fifteenth century had established three separate dynasties in the valley ruling from three kingdoms centred on the cities of Bhaktapur, Kathmandu and Patan. Like the city states of ancient Greece each Malla kingdom was independent yet intimately connected to the others, bound together by an endless cycle of kinship and enmity, alliances and competition. At its height, under their auspices, the wealth of the Kathmandu Valley reached mythical proportions. Rumours of a lost Shangri-La, abounding in rivers of gold and untold treasure, tantalized the outside world as the Malla kings embellished their palaces and temples with golden doors, gigantic bronze gongs and bells, copper roofs and golden roof-finials.
The Mallas had derived their wealth from two vital trade routes traversing the valley: one running south–north from India to Tibet and, beyond, to China; the other east–west from Bhutan and Sikkim to Mustang and Kashmir. The city of Kathmandu lay at the centre of this lucrative crossroads. Sitting high on the steps of the pagoda temples, watching the world go by, the magnetism of this spot continues to be overwhelming. The same criss-crossing traffic passes by the old royal palace, skirting the temple plinths and the ancient pilgrims’ rest house of Kasthamandap (the building that gave Kathmandu its name) as it has for over a millennium. Coin dealers and money changers vie for passing trade as dark-skinned hawkers from the Terai wheeling bicycles loaded with apples and oranges intersect the passage of Sherpas from the hills staggering full tilt, heads bowed under some monstrous load like an oven or fridge. In the tight alleyways around Durbar Square, alongside shops selling motorbike parts and pirated cassette tapes, merchants deal in the same commodities that have filled their coffers for centuries – silk, musk, salt, wool, red coral, turquoise, lapis, silver, gold, rubies, yaks’ tails, spices, sandalwood, vermilion, cotton, tea.
But locals have another way of explaining the centripetal pull of Kathmandu’s ancient centre. According to legend the city had been founded in Satya Yuga, the Golden Age, by Manjushri – a great bodhisattva, or enlightened being – in the shape of his sword. Manjushri was the central figure in the Buddhist creation myth of the valley. The crux of his sword marks the crossroads that is now the heart of the city. It is a sacred place, a magical apex that generates prosperity for the kingdom and bestows blessings on everyone who passes through it.
In Kathmandu, we discovered, all the stories of the past are suffused with myth, and legends run circles around historical facts. To Nepalis this is natural, as if facts alone cannot reveal all the hidden meanings and deeper relevances. Myths are living things, stories to live by. As familiar as close friends, they permeate dreams and waking thoughts, evoking comparisons. Reminiscences and coincidences tumble about, instructive reminders that the present dances hypnotically to the rhythms of the past.
Nowhere are the boundaries between myth and reality more blurred than around the origins of the Living Goddess. The most popular story attributes the last Malla king of Kathmandu with establishing the first Kumari. Jaya Prakasha Malla, a king reigning in the first half of the eighteenth century, had instituted the practice of worshipping a living child after falling foul of a goddess with whom he used to spend afternoons playing dice. Though little more than two centuries ago, this was in the days when gods and goddesses still frequented the valley, consorting with mortals. But he did not worship her for long. In the middle of the eighteenth century an ambitious Hindu raja from the small hill kingdom of Gorkha, some eighty miles to the west of Kathmandu, set his sights on conquering the valley. In a campaign that lasted twenty- five years, Prithvi Narayan Shah – ancestor of the modern royal dynasty of Nepal – began attacking the Malla forts on the valley rim, capturing them one by one, cutting off the valley’s vital trade routes, and slowly starving the population into submission. His aim was to bring the Malla kings to their knees – a goal he ultimately achieved with the Living Goddess’s blessing.
Everyone in Nepal knows the story of how the Gorkha conqueror and his troops stole into Kathmandu at night during the festival of Indra Jatra while the population of the city was riotously drunk and Jaya Prakasha Malla was accompanying the Living Goddess on her procession in her temple chariot around the city streets. In the mayhem that followed, the Malla king was separated from the Kumari and forced to flee. The Kumari returned to Durbar Square in her chariot, took up her throne on the dais outside the Kumari Chen and, seamlessly, Prithvi Narayan Shah stepped up and knelt at her feet. In front of the astounded crowds the Living Goddess planted her tika on the forehead of the Gorkha conqueror.
From all we heard about this story and its enduring power in the community around Durbar Square it was clear that to Nepalis the fortunes of the Shah dynasty, sealed on that fateful night in 1768, depended on the reigning monarch’s continued devotion to the Living Goddess. More than two centuries on, Prithvi Narayan Shah’s descendant still came to the Kumari Chen every year, climbing the stairs to the Kumari’s throne room behind the golden window, seeking her blessing, securing his rule over the kingdom. As teenagers we had hoped, in vain, to catch a glimpse of him. King Birendra Bir Bikram Shah, the only remaining Hindu king in the world, crowned in 1975, was, like his predecessors, considered to be a god – an avatar of Vishnu, the great preserver. Seeing him, we were told, would wash away any sins committed that day.
The old royal palace of Hanuman Dhoka threw its shadow over our little flat. Its presence was a brooding legacy of palace intrigues and royal coups. A tangled knot of medieval towers, dark passages, long low-ceilinged halls and hidden courtyards, it had been vacated by the royal family at the turn of the twentieth century when they moved to a modern mansion, the Narayanhiti Palace, where they still lived. But the influence of Hanuman Dhoka remained. This was where the kings of Nepal came to be crowned and where the sword representing their power was kept. King Birendra was said to come at the dead of night, sometimes, to perform secret pujas at shrines in the palace’s courtyards. And in moments of uncertainty or danger, his priests would send offerings to the Kumari Chen, or the king might come himself to supplicate the Living Goddess.