Tuesday, 18 November 2008

From Goddess to Mortal

Book Review, November / December 2008

From Goddess to Mortal:  The True Life Story of a Former Royal Kumari

By Rashmila Shakya

Vajra Publications (2005)

ISBN 9789994678808


The Royal Kumari is one of the most revered figures in Nepal.  The most significant of the ten kumari, she is said to be the enamation of the goddess Taleju Bhawani.  During her tenure (from age 3-5 through to puberty, when she is replaced) she is treated as such, by everyone from her family (who kiss her feet) to the public (who worship her) to the king (who, in monarchical times, would bow to her).  The life and customs surrounding the Royal Kumari have until recently been shrowded in mystery and intrigue.  From Goddess to Mortal tells the story of Rashmila Shakya, who was the Royal Kumari from 1984 – 1991, and helps lift the veil of secrecy on a sacred institution that continues to draw strong criticism from international human rights groups.

Significance of the Role

As Rashmila outlines in her book, virgin worship has been a feature of Hindu tradition for over 2000 years.  Even today, in some orthodox Hindu families, adolescent girls are still worshipped in certain ceremonies in order to attract the attentions of the deities.  Only in Nepal, however, is there a widely accepted practice of worshipping a virgin girl as a living goddess, and of the ten or so kumari in Nepal, the Royal Kumari holds special significance as the most senior and powerful of all – a tradition dating back to the seventeenth century.

In addition to its historically close links with the (now abolished) royal family, the institution of the Royal Kumari has remained so strong because of its inclusive appeal.  As Rashmila points out, although girls are only selected from the Skakya caste of the Buddhist Newari people, the institution is primarily a Hindu one, and thus represents a tremendous symbol of unity in a country of such diverse ethnic and religious tradition. 

The Royal Kumari is thus revered by almost all Nepalese and attends all of the most important ceremonial events and rituals in the capital, Kathmandu.  Despite the abolition of the monarchy in 2007, there is very little public support in Nepal for any radical alteration to what remains one of the most important institutions in the country.

From Mortal to Goddess

Rashmila’s discussion of her transition from ordinary girl to Royal Kumari is largely based on her family’s recollections, but she offers some useful insights into her selection and enthronement.

The process by which the Royal Kumari is selected is relatively complex, although Rashmila argues that it is not as difficult or obscure as is widely reported.  There are essentially two components, relating to a girl’s identity and her physical appearance.  A Kumari must be between 3 and 5 years and come from the Newari Shakya caste.  There must be no history of inter caste marriage in the family and she must not have been through either of the two standard ‘marriage’ ceremonies (ihi and bahrah) for Nepalese girls.  In terms of physical characteristics, it is legend that prospective Kumari are subjected to a rigorous physical examination for the 32 bodily perfections (battis lagchan), which range from the mundane - a total absence of scars or bodily marks – to the obscure (the body of a Banyan tree, the chest of a lion, the voice of a duck!). 

Rashmila argues that, in practice, the criteria for a potential Kumari “are not nearly as strict as many people think.”  In her case, for example, there was a physical examination, conducted by the wife of the royal priest and her daughter, but “it was nor particularly rigorous or intimate.  I kept my underclothes on, and was looked over mainly to se if I was cross-eyed, had any birthmarks or scratches, or had lost any of my teeth.”  With respect to the 32 perfections, she says, they are actually all assessed on the basis of her horoscope and (traditionally) its compatibility with that of the king. 

Finally, she corrects a common misperception of the Dasain ceremony, which most books claim is a rite of passage for new Kumari, requiring the young girl to prove her fearlessness by walking through a dark room filled with 108 recently severed buffalo heads.  In fact, she points out, this is an annual ceremony for every Royal Kumari and has nothing to do with the selection process; nor indeed were there more than a dozen buffalo heads, and the dim light is to protect the secrecy of proceedings.  As for public concern at the scaring of young girls in this manner, she writes: “I was never afraid then, it was simple one of my many duties… There is never any deliberate attempt to frighten a Kumari, and I have never heard of one being afraid or crying.”

The Life of a Royal Kumari

Rashmila takes the early chapters to walk the reader through her daily routine as Royal Kumari, which was both elaborate and relatively fixed.  She was to live for eight years in a single building which she could not leave, except for the dozen or so occasions when her attendance was required at ceremonial events, which she clearly enjoyed and offers an interesting account.  She lived with a caretaker family and would see her parents and siblings only once or twice a week in a relatively formal capacity.  Her days were filled with rituals such as cleansing ceremonies; she would accept visits from public worshippers seeking enlightenment or healing; and she was expected to act at all times as would a fierce and powerful goddess, namely, she should not cry or smile.  She was washed and fed by her caretaker family, who were duty bound to cater for her every whim, and she would be carried or else walk only on white sheets – her feet would literally never touch the ground.

Interestingly, Rashmila always held a strong belief in her power as Royal Kumari, in particular her ability to heal the sick and influence events by her will.  “Whatever my failings as daughter and sister, I never once doubted my power.  The boy who could not speak was cured after about three weeks of pujas, the blood-vomiting journalist recovered after his forgiveness puja.  Judging from the number of offerings I got from other grateful mothers, I must have assisted with any number of problems that I never even really knew about.”

Rashmila accepts the extraordinary nature of her life as Kumari, but of course she knew nothing else and accepted it as her duty and role in society.  That said, and although her memories appear to be broadly happy ones, she clearly struggled as a child with the restraint required of a Royal Kumari and missed the normality of spending time with friends and family.  Indeed, she speaks often and repeatedly of the countless dolls she had as her main source of enjoyment and, at times, her sole company.

From Goddess to Mortal

On her departure at age 12, Rashmila returned to her family as a “normal” member of society, free of the burdens and lacking the privileges of her previous status as living goddess.  Writing of her last few weeks as Kumari, she notes how ill prepared she was for life on the outside.  “I was becoming a little curious about what another life would be like, and I had always known that the one I was leading could not last forever.  Little did I suspect, however, how totally my life would change, for the past 8 years had done almost nothing to prepare me for the hurly-burly of life in a big family, where everyone pulled their weight and no one was indulged.” 

She writes of the emotional difficulties of adjusting to a new life, of her guilt at crying, of her pride at handling money, of how she desperately missed her former home and of her embarrassment at schooling with girls much younger than herself.  However, she cautions the reader not to overestimate the difficulties of her readjustment, noting that her emotional imbalance lasted only a year or two and that she had caught up in school by age 16 and went onto college and ultimately to gain qualifications in computing.  Indeed, she claims that her time as Kumari did not significantly harm her development:  “Of course, I knew very little of the outside world at the time, but that could be said of any number of Nepali children who grow up in isolated mountain villages…. Except that I never quite learned to cope with the English language I cannot see that the experience harmed me in the long run.”

Rashmila lays blame at the door of the local and international media for perpetuating myths as to the life of the Kumari and exaggerating the difficulties Kumari have in adjusting to life afterwards.  It is the media, she argues, and their constant attempts to sensationalise the institution, that has led human rights groups to raise questions of child abuse and bring calls for its ending.  These calls, she argues, are based on a misunderstanding of the tradition and the effect it has on young women.  “I am not trying to claim that everything is perfect about the Kumari tradition.  There are many aspects of that can, and should, be criticised, but the criticism must come from an informed stance.  A campaign to stop locking up a child in a room full of buffalo heads is likely to accomplish little when nothing like this happens in the first place.”

As to the notion of girls being “imprisoned” in the Che Kumari, Rashmila finds this “confusing” and suggests that some perspective and context is needed when addressing these concerns.  “You do not have to look far to see child rights and human rights issues on the streets of Kathmandu…. The daily appers give us countless heartbreaking examples of the plight of the children of our country, some of whom are sold into virtual slavery or trafficked to brothels in India… Compared to them, Kumari is only one girl whose only problem is that she is overly pampered… True she is separated from her family… yet parents continue to send their children to boarding schools, and no one complains of human rights violations.”

Further, Rashmila argues that the institution has in any event undergone significant modernisation in recent years, noting in particular that the higher quality of education a Kumari receives, enabling a much smoother transition to school life.  Indeed, not only does she have “absolutely no regrets” with regards to her experience, Rashmila states that, with certain small changes, like the provision of counselling to girls prior to entry and departure of the Che Kumari, to help prepare them better for the outside world, she would have no issue with offering a daughter of her own as Royal Kumari in future.


From Goddess to Mortal is a very quick and easy read, but stands largely apart from the mainstream literature on the subject.  This is not merely because it is the first book written by a former Royal Kumari, but because it offers an ultimately positive view of an institution that has received so much criticism in recent years.  With the abolition of the monarchy and the enormous such socio-political upheaval in Nepal over the past few years, many commentators are predicting that the present Royal Kumari, Shreeya Bajracharya, may be the last.  Rashmila argues that letting the tradition die would be a mistake and, given how strong a symbol of national unity, continuity and stability the Royal Kumari offers the people of Nepal, it would be sadly ironic if this institution is a casualty of the difficult times the country faces. 

Rating:  1 out of 5

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