This is a story about how I got to meet a living goddess and how it taught me a lesson on tolerance.
«That’s just a tourist thing», is what I thought when a few weeks ago I walked past a sign indicating the home of the living goddess of Patan. There was a photo on the sign showing a serious-looking young girl with a colourfully painted forehead, wearing traditional clothes and a lot of jewellery. The idea of this girl being worshipped as a living goddess seemed somewhat absurd to me, and the fact that tourists can pay to get a blessing from her I found rather weird as well.
But the worship of the living goddess is real in Nepal, at least among the Newar people. The Newar make up around 5 percent of Nepal’s society. They are an amalgamation of the various races, groups and cultures that chose to migrate and settle in the Kathmandu Valley over time and are primarily based in the cities of Kathmandu, Patan, and Bhaktapur.
Each of these Newar cities has its living goddess, called kumari. The living goddess is selected by various Hindu and Buddhist priests according to several criteria. One of the criteria is for the girl to be as ‘pure’ as possible. A potential living goddess should not have scars or any other injuries and she must come from a high caste. Once elected, the living goddess is not allowed to walk, as that would damage her purity. She has to be carried in a palanquin, but she doesn’t get to leave her home very often. Most of the time, the living goddess’s job is to stay home and give tika (putting coloured rice grains on one’s forehead) to her worshippers.
But the purity criteria has yet another implication: a girl’s life as a kumari ends with her first menstrual cycle. Then, a new girl has to be chosen as it is believed that the divine spirit leaves the kumari’s body when menstruating. If it hadn’t been for my lovely host family, this text would probably end here with a critique on how this cultural practice creates a cult of purity stigmatising girls for the most natural thing on earth: the menstrual cycle. But there is another, more personal, side to this story.
Blessed by the kumari
For my three months stay in Nepal, I’ve rented a room from a family in Patan, a city neighbouring Kathmandu. The family happened to belong to one of the oldest and most influential Newar families of Patan and that’s why, once every year, the living goddess of Patan is brought to their house to give all the family members and neighbours a blessing. Kind and welcoming as they are, they had invited me to attend this meaningful religious event. Being given a blessing by the kumari is believed to bestow prosperity and protection upon its receiver and is viewed as a big honour.
Despite my reservations about the purity cult, I felt very pleased to be invited and agreed to celebrate with them. The event was about to take place in the yard behind their house, at around 9 pm. Everybody was getting excited. But there was another rule which I was told about an hour before the ceremony was to start: If you’re on your period please don’t attend.
I wasn’t on my period. But I was getting a little upset now. What was it all about that period shaming? Why were they all so obsessed with this ideal of a ‘pure’ and ‘clean’ female body? During the period, the body actually cleans itself from the tissue the uterus builds up to prepare for pregnancy. Excluding women from social and religious activities just because their body does what it is supposed to do seems so utterly wrong to me that I thought of staying in my room boycotting the event. But a knock on my door interrupted my thoughts. «Tsina» – it’s how my host mum pronounces my name – «the kumari is here, come, come!» When I opened the door, I saw my host mum beautifully dressed up in a red sari, wearing gold and red jewellery, beaming at me and excitedly pointing at the yard.
No way I could have let her down at that moment. I like my host mum way too much, and I realised how much this event meant for her and the family and how excited they were to show me their tradition. So I went.
The dimly lighted yard was full of people. Kids were running around, elderly people were sitting on plastic chairs, some of them half asleep, and there was a neat queue in front of a small room in one of the houses attached to the yard. I lost sight of the family and lined up at the end of the queue. Suddenly my host sister appeared, persuading me to skip the queue and join the family, who was about to get in now. Despite the many people gathered, it was very quiet in the room. The kumari was sitting on a few cushions, dressed up just as on the sign I had seen a few weeks ago. One after the other, people had to kneel down and bow to her with their hands put together in front of their chest. In a routined way, the kumari gave them the tika, stifling a yawn from time to time. She never smiled, nor talked, nor wailed. It was stunning and at the same time bewildering to see that 6-year-old girl carrying out her duty in such a serious and prudent way. Eventually, it was my turn. I was a little nervous now, but more because of everybody else’s excitement and because I feared to do something wrong. I knelt down, bowed to her and felt her soft finger touching my forehead. I didn’t feel any special energy coming from her but it felt very nice to be given the blessing and to be part of that ceremony. Somehow it gave me a feeling of belonging and protection.
Don’t get me wrong: I still think the tradition of the living goddess is problematic from a feminist point of view. The obsession with the purity of the female body legitimates various other practices which stigmatise women and girls. In rural areas of Nepal, the practice of chhaupadi banishes menstruating women and girls from the house, forcing them to stay alone in a shed, even at night. While this phenomenon might slowly be losing its relevance, nachhune, the exclusion of women and girls on their period from religious ceremonies and kitchen activities is still widespread.
However, period shaming happens all across the world and in many different settings. Talking about my personal experiences, in Switzerland, we would rather excuse ourselves by mumbling something about a headache instead of talking about period cramps. In offices or public spaces women suddenly behave like professional drug dealers when passing over a pad or tampon to a friend. And if it was too much for the audience to cope with the fact that blood is red, TV ads usually use a weird bluish liquid to demonstrate the purpose of a sanitary pad.
So, this blog post still ends with a critique of cultural practices stigmatising women for their bodies. But on a personal level, this story ends with a lesson on tolerance. My host family follows this practice and being their guest at this ceremony I didn’t feel entitled to judge. That’s not the reason why I came to Nepal. I came here to observe and learn.
Fancy reading more about the living goddesses of Nepal? Click here.