Patan, Nepal–On this blistering May day, the royal kumari, Preeti, doesn’t bother to show up at the third-story window. And why should she? Last year, the independent girl refused to give tika – a blessing in the form of a red mark on the forehead – to the prime minister, who was attempting to take over from the unpopular king the annual ceremonial duty of receiving a blessing for the nation.
While any Hindu or Buddhist believer may enter to receive a blessing from the kumari each morning, Westerners of uncertain faith are strictly prohibited from even entering the inner palace. My mere request for an interview greatly offends the palace caretaker, who angrily shoos my translator away.
So I head to nearby Bhaktapur, the seat of a once powerful kingdom in the valley and home to a kumari reported to be the most progressive – and accessible – in Nepal. The city has escaped Kathmandu’s building boom and is relatively unchanged, with cobblestone streets and charming squares packed with temples. I eventually find the kumari’s home tucked away in one of the myriad back alleyways.
Unlike Preeti or Chanira, 11-year-old Sajai Shakya is known to lead an almost normal life – a living goddess who goes to school, plays outside, and even visits the US (her unprecedented trip last June almost led to the removal of her title). Her parents, a marketing agent and a housewife, defend the middle path between protecting a girl’s adolescence and fulfilling a religious obligation.
“The kumaris should be allowed to go out,” says her mother, Rukmini Shakya. “If they are confined to their homes for as long as eight years, how can they interact with the world after this part of their lives?”
And I discover, to my dismay, that the Shakya family walks its talk. I’ve come all this way to meet a kumari, only to discover that Sajai had resigned earlier this year to enroll in a prestigious boarding school in Kathmandu.
It’s at Patan, the third major city in the valley, that I come face to face with Chanira Bajracharya the HBO-loving living goddess. Chanira is already in her throne room, decked in full kumari regalia: elegant red garb (she cannot wear any other color), flowery headdress, thick silver necklaces, and a painted third eye that Hindus believe can see for miles – and into the future.
She’s forbidden to smile, though to show any negative emotions would be a deadly omen to the guest. But the 13-year-old seems amused, invoking all her godly powers not to smile at the sight of a Westerner attempting to navigate the protocol for greeting a goddess.
Alas, her mother, Champa Bajracharya, steps in and informs me that outsiders must not corrupt Chanira’s purity by attempting conversation. That’s why she has no friends, explains Mrs. Bajracharya, “she’s not allowed outside.”
Her mother says she always knew her daughter was different. Standing in Chanira’s presence, I sense a sort of dignity and sensitivity you don’t normally see in a ninth grader.
Right before leaving Nepal, I meet 25-year-old Rashmila Shakya, a former goddess who who seems like the girl next door. She is the first kumari to graduate from college, earning a degree in computer science last year. When Rashmila left the Kathmandu palace in 1991 as a 12-year-old, she knew only enough to be placed in second grade.
The two royal kumaris since Rashmila have received better private tutors, though they’re still not allowed to attend school or live with their families.
She regrets not receiving a proper education, but staunchly defends the institution: “If the kumaris started to go to school, then what would be the difference between a kumari and any other girl? The tradition must be modernized with time, but that doesn’t mean the whole system should be changed.”
In a wistful tone, she recalls her former position as a source of spiritual healing. She fondly talks about the 6-year-old mute boy, who was able to speak shortly after drinking water that had been poured over her feet.
But for Rashmila, now dressed in stylish jeans and sporting pink nail polish, that is a past life.
In a noticeably relieved tone, she declares, “My life now is completely normal.”