“We take our orders from heaven, not from the Supreme Court.” So say the caregivers of the royal Kumari of Nepal.
The world is laden with religion and politics mingled and evolving and perpetuating and disrupting perhaps, ways of life, centuries observed. Authoritative religious texts and teachings and traditions have often been and continue to be the source of authority for the subjugation of women and girls. Complicity or faith? Are congratulations in order to the family of three year old Matani Shakya, the most recent incarnation of the Hindu goddess Taleju, royal Kumari of Katmandu? As a result of her newfound divinity, the child will leave her family and move into an ancient palace where she will be worshipped by Buddhists and Hindus as the “living goddess.” She will remain Kumari until menarche at which time, the goddess will leave her body (in search of another toddler in which to be incarnated who will be approved by priests and government) and Matani will be returned after years of separation to her family. Sources conflict as to the specific problems faced by the former goddesses once they return home, but presumably, there are many. There are eleven Kumari at a time. The royal Kumari of Katmandu is the most powerful given her association with the royal family. The girls when chosen are so young it is unlikely they will have any memory of having gone from mortal to goddess. It can not be an easy transition, changing from holy back to human.
Kumari tradition, or virgin worship, is ancient having been practiced in India for more than 2,600 years and dates from the 17th century in Nepal. The royal Kumari is chosen from the Newar Shakya caste which is the caste to which the Buddha belonged. She is vigorously tested, as are other young contenders, for the required attributes and her horoscope was formerly compared to that of the king, as the Kumari of Katmandu was above all things, protector of the royal family and viewed as “tacit spiritual approval of their reign.” However, the last Hindu monarchy in the world was dissolved in May and many question the continuation of a tradition with such strong ties to the previous form of government. Nepal is now a democratic republic in the process of drafting its own constitution. The monarchy is no more and despite a somewhat favorable court ruling in August in which the Nepalese Supreme Court ruled that Kumaris have the right to attend school, the “royal” Kumari will be home schooled at the palace. Critics of the practice hold that the Kumari tradition violates international child rights and it was a public suit brought by a young female Nepalese lawyer against the Kumari tradition that landed the case in court at about the same time as the 239 year old dynasty of the Shah monarchy ended. The Shah Kings were believed to be incarnations of the Hindu god Vishnu.
A committee was ordered formed by the court to study the condition of the Kumari and to submit its findings within one year. Likewise, there exists the possibility of Kumari receiving social security and this issue has likewise been ordered explored by the court. Within the new Maoist government of Nepal, opinions are split as to whether to abolish Kumari altogether as without royals, there is no need for a royal deity. Other lawmakers believe Kumari is an important cultural symbol. While Kumari tradition at first blush does not appear to be the most extreme example of gender based cultural/religious exploitation, it is important to remember that child trafficking and forced prostitution are rampant in Nepal and India. Further, two other cultural practices in the country closely tied to religion are Deuki, in which a female child is married to a god and Jhuma, in which a daughter is offered as a nun must also be considered by the new government.
It is gravely ironic that the former king of Nepal, Gyanendra, the last of the Shah Kings who assumed the throne upon the gruesome massacre of the royal family by Crown Prince Dipendra in 2001, now lives as a commoner near Katmandu having been stripped of his title and holdings by the newly formed government earlier this year. The royal Kumari of Katmandu, whose tradition began with the monarchy of Nepal centuries ago and who was charged with the protection of the royal family now blesses the young leader of this new Himalayan democratic republic. It is a political and religious evolution taking place in Nepal – and the world should hope that the new government will strive to protect her women and children from all that would harm them. One that will revise the practice of Kumari in such a way that continues to honor the tradition while protecting the young girls who go from human to holy and back again.