The Very Strange Life Of Nepal's Child Goddess : Parallels She's young and beautiful. A glimpse of her is believed to bring good fortune. She's Nepal's Living Goddess, or Kumari, who is selected as a small child and lives a life of isolation and secrecy.
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The Very Strange Life Of Nepal's Child Goddess

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The Very Strange Life Of Nepal's Child Goddess

The Very Strange Life Of Nepal's Child Goddess

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Now, we're going to hear about a goddess. She's young, beautiful, dignified. Even a glimpse of her is believed to bring good fortune. She's one of Nepal's living goddesses, or kumari. Plucked from a select group of girls as young as age 2, she lives a life of isolation that's cloaked in secrecy. NPR's Julie McCarthy recently traveled to Kathmandu.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOVELING)

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: Just steps from the front door of the Kumari of Kathmandu, crews clean the debris of the city's historic Durbar Square, a World Heritage Site. Treasured palaces and temples lie in ruins from last month's earthquake. While the centuries-old home of the child goddess stands intact, the caretaker says its square shape stabilized the building. It was nothing so mundane, insists Udhav Karmacharya, one of the main priests attending the kumari.

UDHAV KARMACHARYA: (Foreign language spoken).

MCCARTHY: "It's the power of the goddess. It's about faith," the priest declares. "It's been the home of kumaris for ages, and we believe the force of that goddess made the house safe," he says. Step inside the enigmatic world of the living goddess. The fluttering of pigeons in the courtyard mixes with the early-morning stirrings of this storied household dating to the 1700s. Ubiquitous bird droppings seem incongruous with the home of no mere mortal. A sign posted beneath a black-latticed window warns no foreigners beyond this point. We gaze up for a sighting of the 9-year-old Kumari of Kathmandu. The caretaker's son, Gautam Shakya, appears, the 11th generation of kumari caretakers, who's inherited a suspicion of outsiders. But he drops his guard long enough to recount...

GAUTAM SHAKYA: (Foreign language spoken).

MCCARTHY: "The moment the earthquake struck..."

SHAKYA: (Foreign language spoken).

MCCARTHY: "The kumari and her caretakers were all upstairs on the upper floor," Shakya says. "The visitors - some 50 or 60 - were in the courtyard, terrified, as was I." But, he says, "their guide told them don't be afraid and don't move. The kumari will save you," he recalls. In wide-eyed amazement, he says "no one was hurt."

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

MCCARTHY: Kathmandu's child goddess is the best-known of several girls who are worshiped in Nepal. Selected usually around age 5, kumaris are drawn from the Newars, the original inhabitants of the Kathmandu Valley, who follow a bewildering array of gods. Caretaker Gautam Shakya, says they are Buddhists who adopted the Hindu caste system and embody harmony.

SHAKYA: (Foreign language spoken).

MCCARTHY: "One doesn't discriminate against the other. We Newars are Buddhist. The Kumari is from a Buddhist family, but she is a Hindu goddess," he says. Kumari is said to be the incarnation of the fearsome Hindu Goddess Durga. One myth - there are several - has Durga visiting the king of the Malla Dynasty each night until the king makes lustful advances, and she vanishes in rage. The goddess appears in his dreams and tells him find a child from the Shakya caste, and I will enter her soul, and you can worship her as you worshiped me. The king complies, and the centuries-old belief in the world's only living goddess is born. The kumari's priest says the prepubescent child must be rigorously tested for 32 perfections, including eyelashes like a cow.

KARMACHARYA: (Foreign language spoken).

MCCARTHY: "She should be charming and beautiful, not have a blemish on her body, have good teeth. And she should be innocent," he says. "She is Telaju," he explains, "the unseen force that only the priests have the power to see," he says, and adds "she is revered by the whole country." Heady stuff for a 5-year-old. Chanira Bajracharya, a former kumari, remembers her initiation rite at that age in a darkly-lit room.

CHANIRA BAJRACHARYA: Actually, the room was quite scary. It was dark, only lit through oil lamps. But then you get the power of the goddess. I think you don't get scared at all. Even though I was 5 years old, I was sitting there calm.

MCCARTHY: Canira served 10 years as the kumari of the historic city of Patan, retiring as goddess at the age of 15 when her power was transferred to the next girl goddess. Her power included granting people's prayers, such as good health and prosperity. At times, she says she would grow angry and refuse people's prayers.

BAJRACHARYA: My behavior is not in my control, so there's someone supreme over me that makes me, you know, listen to their prayers or just ignore them.

MCCARTHY: You're saying some other force was going through you that honored what someone said or ignored it.

BAJRACHARYA: Yeah, it's true. You feel, you know, supreme, and you're not you, actually.

MCCARTHY: Before Nepal's monarchy was abolished seven years ago, kings sought the kumari's blessing. Today, the president bows before her. Human rights activist and lawyer Sapana Pradhan Malla says with everyone surrendering themselves to her, there's little wonder the Kumari feels supreme.

SAPNA PRADHAN MALLA: Yes, she inherited this power because of the culture, because of the religion and also because of the state itself practicing this culture to make her powerful.

MCCARTHY: The secrecy surrounding the kumari begs questions. Why is she isolated? Why is she retired when she reaches puberty? Priest to the Kumari of Kathmandu, Udhav Karmacharya, says it wouldn't do to have a goddess susceptible to the distractions of young men. Besides, he says, as she's no longer a child, she will be tempted to tell the secrets of the temple.

KARMACHARYA: (Foreign language spoken).

MCCARTHY: "There is information we cannot divulge. When she's conversing in the temple with the priests, she's God-like," he says. "It's a mystery. It's sacred. And if we tell all of the secrets, she'll no longer be a goddess, but just a common woman," the priest says. "It's no different from the Vatican's secrets," he adds. But human rights activist Sapana Pradhan Malla notes popes are adults; these are small girls. Malla says venerating them as goddesses is disturbingly at odds with the treatment to which some children of Nepal are being exposed.

MALLA: Five years girls are being raped, 7 years girls are being raped, 9 years, girls are being raped. Are you really considering kumari as a goddess? There are all kumaris.

MCCARTHY: Former Kumari Chanira Bajracharya says she enjoyed her time being treated like a princess and that the transition to ordinary life was tough. She'd like to smooth the journey for the next generation of living goddesses who will one day return to the hum-drum world of humans. Julie McCarthy, NPR News, Kathmandu.

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