Rashmila Shakya is probably one of the best known ex-Kumaris of all time. This is mainly due to the success of her autographical book, From Goddess to Mortal, co-authored with Scott Berry in 2005. Walking through her house looking at walls decorated with her own childhood photos, visitors are astounded by the life of a small girl who has gone on to become a goddess, and then to grow up to be a young woman.
"Scott found me through a local photo printing shop where he happened to see a picture of me," recalls Rashmila. Berry, an anthropologist, remembers photographing her a decade previously when Rashmila was still a Kumari.
"After hearing that I wished to publish my experiences, he volunteered to do the interviews, that is how the book came about," Rashmila recalls with a fond smile.
Six years later, Rashmila is the first ex-Kumari with a bachelor's degree despite being nearly illiterate when she stepped down as Kumari at age 12. "It was difficult," she confides, "and even after graduation it has been difficult to find a job." After working for a support group which shelters the urban poor, Lumanti, she is now working on banking software in a computer company.
Rashmila is also continuing with her masters degree in information technology. Asked about whether she is stressed by juggling work and studying at the same time, she easily shrugs it off with a smile: "I still have some personal time, and the knowledge from the masters degree is helping me in my current job."
Rashmila's predecessor, Anita Shakya, on the other hand, is a more traditional ex-Kumari, hardly venturing outside the house. Slightly shy, she says she enjoys cooking and doing household chores for her tightly knit extended family. She has passed Grade 10 and watches tv dramas during her spare time, and is supported by her loving relatives.
"I miss being a Kumari," Anita's cheerful niece translates on her aunt's behalf. "I was treated like a princess and I have fond memories of a carefree childhood and my loving Kumari caretaker family." Another niece, who now lives in the US, says she thinks Anita may have been slightly more outgoing if she had more childhood friends.
Berry himself remembers Anita in the early 1980s as always stone-faced, as required by tradition. Rashmila, on the other hand, told him that as soon as she donned her naga necklace she felt like she was in "a different world". Today, the current Kumari smiles all the time.
The traditional belief is that Kumaris should not get married, and Anita's parents say she is likely to respect that. But, Anita's elder sister pipes in from across the room: "Or maybe she just hasn't met her Mr Right." Everyone bursts into laughter.
Rashmila and Anita know each other well and as former Kumaris are required to visit incumbent living goddesses. The criticism from child rights groups doesn't seem to bother these two ex-Kumaris who say they treasure the unique opportunity that tradition bestowed upon them and their society.
Says Rashmila: "Being a Kumari allowed me to experience a double life and possess a double identity. I will always cherish that."
PICS: MIN RATNA BAJRACHARYA
She is always dressed in festive red, glittering jewel accessories, long and heavy eye makeup and a striking third eye on her brow. This image appears in guide books on Nepal, postcards, NTB brochures and websites.
As the live representation of the Hindu goddess Durga, the Kumari is by far the most important tourist attraction in Nepal after the mountains. But she is more than just a tourist icon: she is a living embodiment of the Kathmandu Valley Newar culture and its harmonious mixture of Buddhism and Hinduism. It is also an important part of Nepali history because it was on Indra Jatra day more than 250 years ago that the Gorkha conquest arrived in Kathmandu Valley.
This year, Indra Jatra is on 11 September the day the Kumari Chariot procession will be pulled past dignitaries, including the president, at Hanuman Dhoka as it has for centuries. Till then, the faithful of Kathmandu and curious foreigners will throng the Kumari Ghar every day, hoping to get a glimpse of the goddess as she looks down from her ornate window.