Letter from Nepal: Watching HBO with a living goddess

Like any typical schoolgirl, 13-year-old Chanira Bajracharya struggles to finish hours of homework each day. That doesn’t stop her from stealing away to watch TV (she enjoys HBO; her younger brothers often change it to Nickelodeon) or use the computer. She even has Barbies, but now that she’s older, painting has replaced organizing tea parties as her favorite pastime.

The similarities end there. To start, no one – including her family – may scold her. Chanira eats whatever she desires, though she’s yet to abuse this power by demanding an endless supply of ice cream. And don’t even mention chores.

It may seem like she’s hit the jackpot, but in exchange for this life of relative luxury, she’s forbidden to leave her five-story home, save for religious holidays. She must also endure a constant stream of Hindu followers who come seeking her healing powers or to snap a photo of her.

You see, she’s no mere mortal: Chanira is one of three main kumaris, or “living goddesses,” here in the fabled Kathmandu Valley. The practice of worshiping young girls–and then casting them aside once they reach puberty–is unique to this Himalayan nation.

Indeed, kumaris–Buddhists that are worshiped by both Buddhists and Hindus–symbolize “an amazing political accommodation” here where Asia meets the Indian subcontinent, says Nick Gier, former professor of philosophy and Eastern religions at the University of Idaho. “I stand in awe of how the Nepali have put religion and politics together creatively to get the Buddhists and Hindus to live peacefully together.”

But this is no happily ever after princess tale. With the end of Nepal’s 240-year-old monarchy last month, there is talk in the newly established constituent assembly of abolishing the whole religious tradition.

“The kumari is not an essential institution for the new Nepal,” Maoist lawmaker Janardan Sharm, declared, while another reportedly called the kumari an “evil symbol.”

And Nepal’s Supreme Court is expected to issue a decision this week in a lawsuit by human rights lawyers contending that the strict cossetting of kumaris is a form of child abuse.

I’ve come here to the land of Everest to meet the three main living goddesses before they go the way of former King Gyanendra. But getting past those pearly gates of heaven proved quite the challenge for a Western mortal.

I begin in the capital, Kathmandu, where cows, considered sacred to the vast Hindu majority, have as much right to the road as the overflowing public buses that ply the labyrinth of rutted streets. In the center of this chaos is the three-story royal kumari palace, its wooden walls and windows full of centuries-old intricate carvings.

It’s 4:15 p.m., and a couple of dozen tourists and locals are milling about the garden courtyard, waiting to catch a glimpse of the most famous living goddess of all, the royal kumari. She’s 15 minutes late.

Four Nepalese college students cluster in a corner. They’ve traveled seven hours by bus from Pokhara to see Preeti Shakya, the fickle 10-year-old. “We have been learning about the kumari since childhood,” says Neha Surung, dressed up for the occasion. “It’s a long tradition so we just believe.”

But it turns out that even devout worshipers, like Ms. Surung, have trouble untangling the mysteries and myths behind these living goddesses. Many believe that marrying a former kumari is fatal – a real hurdle in a young woman’s return to society. And the kumari selection process – by Buddhist priests -– is a bit enigmatic, too. Rashmila Shakya, a former royal kumari who I meet later (and who is not related to Preeti), explains the selection process this way: When the current kumari starts menstruating, young girls from a specific caste of goldsmith families are brought to the king’s priest. Whoever fits a list of 32 physical “perfections” – including having the voice of a duck and the body of a Banyan tree – becomes accepted as the reincarnation of the Hindu Goddess Taleju.

To be continued in part 2 tomorrow.