A living goddess sat in a room just above me. I wasn’t allowed to go inside because I’m a foreigner and not Hindu or Buddhist. But I imagined what her childhood will look like now that she has been chosen by a council from her people to be the next in a long line of a “living goddesses.”
She’s three, you guys. Three. Years. Old.
Skipping, plucking wildflowers, and going down to the corner store for sweets are now all out of the question. Seeing her family—that’s now only on festival days. Her childhood falls down into an Alice in Wonderland rabbit hole from which, unlike Alice, she’ll never truly wake up.
The Selection of a Living Goddess
She’s known as a kumari, and she is worshiped as what Nepali Hindus believe to be a manifestation of the goddess Durga and Nepali Buddhists believe to be a manifestation of the goddess Vajradevi.
Kumaris are chosen from high-caste families of the Newar people who live in the Kathmandu Valley. Several girls can hold the title at one time, and they live in various locations throughout the Valley.
The newest kumari’s name is Trishna Shakya. The day before my visit, with her parent’s consent, she was installed with much pomp and circumstance into her new home in the temple in Kathmandu’s Durbar Square. The most revered kumaris live there, one after the other.
Kumari means “virgin girl” in Nepali. The rules for selection vary according to region, but for Trishna’s designation as Kathmandu’s goddess, she had to fulfill thirty-two criteria. Thighs like a deer, chest like a lion, neck like a conch-shell, a body like a banyan tree, eyebrows like a cow, and sexual organs that are small and well-recessed are only a few of the boxes she had to check. Her body was thoroughly looked over for deformities, and she had to watch an animal sacrifice without flinching.
The selection process is quite secretive, and the family is not allowed to attend. Chanira Bajracharya, a former kumari who served in a different city, shared in an article for NPR that some girls were disqualified after being given grains known to cause adverse reactions, such as fever or a burning sensation. Bajracharya moved ahead in the selection process because she didn’t exhibit negative side effects, a supposed sign the goddess was within her.
Once installed as a kumari, the weight of her people’s spiritual needs is placed squarely on her small shoulders. She’ll live in isolation, except when people come to worship her, pay their respects, and ask for healing.
Kumaris are believed to have a gift of prophecy, be a connection to the spiritual realm, grant wishes, and heal the sick, especially those suffering from blood disorders. People sometimes bring her gifts, but their motive walks a fine line between admiration and manipulation to fulfill a request.
“Kumaris are seen not for who they are—little girls—but for what they can embody, symbolize, and provide.”
Trishna will be the goddess until she has her first menstrual cycle when it is believed the goddess leaves a kumari’s body. She is adored and revered and then, quite literally, shown the back door. When former kumari Matina Shakya aged out at twelve years old, she exited through a rear door in the temple and returned to everyday life on the streets of Nepal.
The Innocence Lost
Standing in the open-air courtyard of the kumari’s home, I wondered about Matina, who served for nine years. What was it like to live in the spotlight for all of her childhood, be worshiped, bowed down to, presented with offerings, and then—all of a sudden—become a mere mortal?
Few former kumaris have shared about their former lives. Those who have, revealed pain and feelings of displacement. Bajracharya, who spent ten years as a kumari, had trouble walking properly once she left the temple because she was carried around for a decade (a kumari’s feet shouldn’t be defiled by the earth). But the emotional and spiritual pain she experienced afterward left deeper wounds than her physical difficulties.
Bajracharya told the BBC she had to accept the fact that no one bowed down to her or wanted her blessing any longer. “I lost that respect. I never imagined that my life would be so changed in such a sudden way.” Even doing something as normal as attending school was difficult. Her classmates were afraid to talk to her, and some called her an alien.
The Steep Price of Idolatry
The world outside the Newar people has slowly raised the alarm in response to this horrifying religious tradition. Activists campaigned to categorize the practice as child labor, but the Nepali Supreme Court overturned the petition and pointed to the cultural ties and importance of the kumari tradition to the Newar people.
As awareness mounts, secular efforts and legislation have fallen into place to secure better education and rehabilitation for kumaris once they’ve aged out of their divinity. But something more sinister, more blatantly evil than poor education needs to be addressed in this practice.
The kumaris’ childhoods are essentially stolen for a perceived spiritual benefit. They are seen not for who they are—little girls—but for what they can embody, symbolize, and provide. Unfortunately, her experience seems to be a consistent theme that resonates into the manner in which women and children are treated in many places around the world.
“If we want the Newar culture, or any culture, to stop seeing people as commodities, then it falls to us as God’s people to promote the gospel.”
Dehumanizing people is one of the ugliest forms of idolatry. It makes it easier to commit acts of abuse, be it physical, emotional, or sexual. People are seen in light of what others can get from them—what they can do for us. They are no longer image-bearers of God, but candy machines, of sorts—reduced to commodities who exist for the needs and pleasures of others.
This mentality, whether it is overt or slow-brewed subconsciously, is the foundation for the belief that people—most often girls and women—exist to meet needs. It can lead to parents handing their toddler daughters to temples, a doctor sexually abusing young gymnasts, and men taking advantage of women. It’s the reason why #MeToo still fills our Twitter feed and why Nepali girls have their childhood stolen in the name of religion.
The only true solution to this problem is the gospel. The gospel gets to the root of such sin instead of treating side effects of its stain. The chain-breaking good news of the gospel—that we have a mediator, a healer, and a redeemer—will bring freedom to kumaris because it frees them from the impossible burden of healing and redemption for so many others.
The One Solution for All Oppression
Fair treatment of girls in Nepal—just like fair treatment of women in the entertainment industry, women in oppressive cultures, and women who are put down in the workplace—will only happen when we start treating them in the light of these truths. If we want the Newar culture, or any culture, to stop seeing people as commodities, then it falls to us as God’s people to promote the gospel as the appropriate response.
I pray the Lord will comfort the current kumari during this time away from her family. I pray that he will somehow redeem the past nine years the last kumari spent in the temple. I pray the global body of Christ will champion justice and model Christ-like treatment of girls and women both at home and abroad.
Caroline Anderson is a writer and photographer with the IMB. She currently lives in Southeast Asia.