In the three articles “Kumaris: The Temporary Child-Goddesses of Nepal” by Jesse Pesta, “Meet Nepal’s Living Goddesses” by Isabella Tree, and “The Very Strange Life of Nepal’s Child Goddess” by Julie McCarthy, the authors explore the difficult transitions kumaris face once they hit puberty and have to return to a normal life.
In the three articles, the writers explain the practice of worshipping kumaris, child-goddesses that are the “living embodiment of Durga, the Hindu goddess of strength and protection” (Pesta 1). Hindu holy men choose these kumaris after considering the child’s zodiac, determining whether the child possesses the “’32 characteristics’ of physical perfection,” and conducting several other tests that would help determine which child is the living goddess (McCarthy 3). Once the kumari is selected, she holds her reign until she reaches puberty or loses any blood. Kumaris is rarely seen once she is chosen, living an isolated existence in which she is carried around because her feet cannot touch the ground.
Pesta’s article, “Kumaris: The Temporary Child-Goddesses of Nepal,” emphasizes the importance of the kumari tradition during the time of the magnitude 7.8 earthquake that struck Nepal in April. While many of the buildings in central Kathmandu were badly damaged or destroyed, the local kumari’s home remained intact. Those faithful to the kumari tradition saw this as a sign of the her power; they believe that they survived the earthquake because of the “blessings of the goddess” (Pesta 4). The article (as do the other two articles) also discusses the need to educate kumaris during their reign so they are not as far behind in their education when they must join the real-world. Though some see the kumari tradition a violation of human rights, in a video interview attached to the article ex-kumari Chanira Bajracharya explains her belief that especially in a male-dominated country such as Nepal, “the kumari tradition gives an important message to the society that girls are to be respected” (Pesta).
McCarthy’s article, “The Very Strange Life of Nepal’s Child Goddess,” explores the experiences that Bajracharya had as a kumari in more detail. She recalls during her reign that she felt “a distinct physical sensation when the force was present in her” and during that time she “understood people’s ‘wishes and granted them'” (McCarthy 5). She explains that there was a supreme being that manifested her body and made decisions for her. Feelings of greatness are heightened by “the culture,” “the religion,” and “the state” which “subsidizes Kumaris with a small stipend in recognition of their service” (5). The article also reveals that the reasons a kumari must retire once they hit puberty is because it makes them more susceptible to the distractions of young men and as a child grows older, “she will be tempted to tell the secrets of the temple” (5). However, much of the information about the kumari (what she knows/does) is a mystery because she is a goddess and, if she were to share those things with the rest of the world, she would be nothing but a “common woman” (5).
Although Pesta and McCarthy’s articles were very informative, I found Tree’s article, “Meet Nepal’s Living Goddesses” the most interesting because it traces the experiences of a girl and her family as she goes through the steps to become a kumari. While I was reading it I felt that Tree was much more involved in the actual experience of the kumaris than Pesta and McCarthy, making the writing feel more genuine. In her article, Unika is in the process of becoming a kumari and her father expresses his concerns with the situation. Though being the parents of a child goddess is an honor, he was worried about the costs of having a kumari daughter. These costs include the price of “special clothes and make up” and creating a space of worship in the house with a throne in which the kumari can receive visitors. The family would have to perform daily worship rituals, the kumari would have to be carried everywhere, she would have to be put on a strict diet, and everything in the house would have to be kept “ritually pure” (Tree 2). In addition to all of this, she would not have a proper education and it would be difficult to find a man to marry her because “men are superstitious about marrying ex-kumaris” making it very difficult to assimilate to the real world once her reign is over.
I found these three readings incredibly interesting, but I think as a whole, a lot of the information was redundant. As I mentioned before, I found “Meet Nepal’s Living Goddesses” the most intriguing because of how involved Tree was in the process – she seemed to make a real personal connection with Unika and her family and watching Unika change into the kumari over time brought a fresh perspective. Though looking at ex-kumaris sheds a lot of light on some of the faults in the system, it was interesting to look at, in detail, how the kumari is chosen and the dilemmas that families face leading up to a daughter becoming a kumari.
The concept of the kumari giving the people of Kathmandu hope after such a devastating natural disaster made me wonder what the class thinks about the relationship (if there is any) between religion and optimism. Is somebody who believes in a higher power more likely to look optimistically toward the future?
The disconnect between the people declaring this tradition a violation of human rights and the people who follow the tradition/the women who have served as kumaris also brings me back to the question: whose responsibility is it to determine what religious practices are “okay” to practice?
I thought it was interesting that in the kumari tradition, they trust younger children with secrets more than older adolescents. Growing up, the younger children would never be informed of any secrets because they were thought to be more likely to slip, so it was a very new concept for me. Reading this section made me wonder how they ensure that the outgoing kumari won’t share the “secrets of the temple” as they grow older and less inclined to keep those secrets.
I also found it interesting how the kumari comes from a Buddhist family, but she is considered a reincarnation of Durga, a Hindu goddess. It made me wonder why Buddhist families are willing to put forth their daughters for this position. How does being a kumari affect ones religious beliefs?