The Living Goddess: A Journey into the Heart of Kathmandu

Have you heard of the Kumari in Nepal?

She is the living goddess of Nepal — the centerpiece of one of the most arcane, and fascinating, traditions to be found anywhere in the world.

Author Isabella Tree has written a book on the Kumari. It’s called The Living Goddess: A Journey into the Heart of Kathmandu and will be published on June 1, 2015.

Tree is a writer and journalist based in the UK. She is the author of three other non-fiction books and writes for publications such as Granta, National Geographic Magazine, the Sunday Times and the Observer. She has been travelling regularly to Nepal since the 1980s.

So what is the Kumari exactly?

Journalist Mick Brown explains in his article and interview with Tree:

At the age of three or four, a female child is chosen to be worshiped as the embodiment of the goddess Devi (or Durga; or Kali; or, as she is known in Nepal, Taleju – in the taxonomy of Hindu deities, the goddess takes many forms and is known by many names). She is taken from her family and installed in her own residence, where she is tended to by specially selected caretakers.

The Kumari, as she is known (the word means ‘virgin’ or ‘unmarried girl’), is dressed in the finery of the goddess. She may leave her residence – the Kumari Chen – only to attend festivals, a dozen times a year, when her feet must not touch the ground; she is carried by attendants and transported in a palanquin.

When she shows signs of reaching puberty, and before she begins menstruation, her role as the goddess is deemed complete. She is returned to her family and another child is chosen to take her place.

So what to make of the Kumari? To foreigners it is one of those cultural things that takes some getting used to. The idea of taking a four-year-old child away from their families for 10 years is appalling to the western world of course. But Nepalis, and even the former Kumaris themselves, swear by the tradition and continue to revel in it.

On my second trip to Nepal, in 2001, I happened to see the Kumari’s chariot as it processed through the streets of Kathmandu for the Indra Jatra Festival. Memories tend to get faulty after so many years, but I recall catching a glimpse of the Kumari’s face as she raced by.