Kumari or the Living Goddess is the tradition of worshiping a chosen virgin as representation of the divine female energy or Shakti in Dharmic Nepali religious traditions. The girl is considered to be possessed by Taleju, also known as Durga. The Sanskrit word for Kumari means princess.
A prepubescent girl known as the Kumari is revered as the goddess Taleju’s living incarnation. Apparently the last Malla King of Kathmandu, the weak Jaya Prakash, was lusting after Taleju. She was offended and advised the king to choose a virgin girl so that the goddess could reside in her. Though she is selected from the Buddhist Shakya clan of goldsmiths, the Kumari is revered as a Hindu goddess. When interviewing Shakya girls, aged three to five, elders determine whether or not the girl possesses 32 auspicious signs, such as a body similar to a banyan tree or a neck similar to a conch shell.
Only on specific festivals is the youthful goddess, who resides in isolation within Kumari Chowk, carried outside on her throne.
Kumari is forbidden to put her feet on the ground. The goddess is said to be retired with a minimal pension after her first menstruation, when her spirit is said to flow out of her. According to legend, the Kumari’s partner will pass away at a young age, so it seems difficult for them to find someone to marry.
The chosen girl’s life takes on a completely different character once she fulfills the Tantric purification rites and crosses from the temple to the Kumari Ghar on a white cloth to take her throne. She will only step outside of her palace for formal events. Rarely, and only in an official capacity, will her family pay her a visit. Her playmates will come from a select group of Newari kids belonging to her caste; these kids are typically the offspring of her caregivers. She will always have the “fire eye,” a symbol of her exceptional perceptual abilities, painted on her forehead, wear her hair in a topknot, and wear red and gold clothing.
The Royal Kumari has only had a short existence and her new life is very different from her old one. She no longer has any financial difficulties, but she still has ceremonial obligations to fulfill. She is supposed to act like a goddess even though she is not regimented. Her continued peace of mind is essential because she demonstrated the right characteristics during the selection process. It is said that a goddess with an explosive temper indicates bad news for those who approach her.
Until the goddess leaves her body, the Kumari’s walk across Durbar Square marks the last time her feet will touch the earth. She will now always be carried or driven in her golden palanquin whenever she leaves her palace. Now, her feet are sacred, just like the rest of her. Petitioners will touch them in the hopes of being relieved of their problems and ailments. She will never wear shoes; red stockings will be the only thing covering her feet.
It is thought that the Kumari’s power is so great that just catching a glimpse of her will bring good fortune. In the Kumari Chowk, or courtyard, of her palace, crowds of people wait beneath the Kumari’s window, hoping that she will walk past the third-floor latticed windows and look down at them. Though her short appearances only last a few seconds, when they do happen, the courtyard is charged with amazement and devotion.
Petitioners with greater luck or connections pay the Kumari a visit in her chambers, where she is seated on a golden lion throne. Since the Kumari is thought to have particular healing abilities over illnesses like blood or menstrual disorders, many of the people who visit her are those who suffer from these conditions. Administrators and other government officials also pay her visits. Traditionally, petitioners present the Kumari with gifts and food offerings, which she accepts silently. She arrives and extends her hand to touch or kiss her feet as a sign of devotion.
The Kumari is closely observed during these audiences, and her behavior is seen to indicate the petitioners’ futures in the following ways:
Sobbing or overjoyed laughter: serious sickness or demise
Weeping or Rubbing Eyes: approaching death
Shivering: Being imprisoned
Clapping with hands: Justification for being afraid of the king
Snatching food offerings: Monetary losses
The devotees of Kumari leave happy if she stays silent and unmoving throughout the audience. This indicates that their requests have been fulfilled.