Divine intervention by ex-Kumaris

The combined power of eight former living goddesses brought down an April storm on a book launch

Patan Kumari Samita Bajracharya in her throne in Kumari Ghar on April 2011. Photo: NARENDRA SHRESTHA

During my first days in Kathmandu, I ventured into the medieval courtyard to catch a glimpse of the child peeking through the richly carved windows of the Kumari Ghar’s upper storey. I could only imagine the daily routine of the diminutive living goddess in that mysterious gloom, tended with sacred concern and seldom permitted to emerge into daylight, paraded at festivals through the palace squares and venerated in her gilded palanquin.

Tripping on the uneven flagstones and shielding my eyes from the piercing blue sky, I gazed upward, trying to discern how she spent her days and what thoughts could be passing through her childish mind. Once regaled by her pujari attendants, her face painted and her small body swathed in gold brocade, the shy restless child looking down at curious tourists is transformed into a stately goddess, her altered presence commanding respect and reverence from all Hindus, including the nation’s royalty and rulers.

This searing image of the royal Kumari emerging from dark shadows in her carefully guarded life continues to be a tourism staple, encapsulating the clash of culture between ancient Newar Tantric custom and the distractions of modern life. Honoured with bloody animal sacrifices as the incarnation of Taleju, the young girls are selected from the Shakya clan for a strange childhood separated from family until puberty returns them home.

Like so many who lacked any real knowledge of the Kumari, my information was limited to clichés trotted out by uninformed guides -- the girls are shunned once they return to ordinary life, none ever marry, lack of education paralyses their prospects – none of it true. In early days pre-pubescent children were worshipped as living goddesses in multiple Valley towns. There were even whispers that in remote corners, propitious offerings to the demanding deity Durga extended beyond buffalos, goats and chickens to requiring human sacrifice.

It was only in 2014 that a new book by Isabella Tree shone a startling light on the hidden practices that had successfully been obfuscated and concealed for generations. For uninitiated readers such as myself, it was a revelation. Unimaginatively titled The Living Goddess, it reads like a historical thriller, exploring the tangled politics of the Shakyas and explaining the origins of their Tantric traditions. Over many visits from Britain, Issy digs deep to expose the complexities of Newar heritage, religious beliefs and Kumari worship. For me, Valley customs would never seem the same ever again.

First visiting Freak Street on a university holiday with her childhood sweetheart and future husband Charlie, Issy became obsessed with uncovering the details of Kumari lives. It took her 13 years to win the trust of their custodians and caretakers, and to coax them to reveal their judiciously kept secrets. The timing was right, the social upheavals caused by the royal massacre, new regimes and millennial change were challenging the relevance of hidden Newar religious practices judiciously kept secret over many centuries. With perfect pitch she was there with her notebook at the right moment to receive their confidences, interview the protagonists, and ‘journey into the heart of Kathmandu’.

Isabella Tree casts a slender figure, a pixie haircut and an air of applied energy. Her Nepal book is one of several written in her modest writing shed, tucked away in the walled garden of her English home. The most recent is an acclaimed account of how she and Charlie ‘re-wilded’ their Sussex farm, bringing back a profusion of wild flowers, insects and animals to save the environment.

I arrived late for supper one autumn evening, and Issy was putting the final touches to a wild mushroom risotto on the kitchen Aga whilst Charlie perused a plant catalogue and Highland cattle grazed peacefully beneath the lime trees in the parkland beyond the gothic windows. ‘Can you help me arrange the launch for The Living Goddess book – I have family and friends coming from all over, as well as many former Kumaris, their relatives, guardians and priests whose support was so essential for my study insights. I want something relaxed and informal in which we can all feel comfortable together.’  April is a gentle month and I suggested we hold it outside in the Garden of Dreams.

The spring afternoon was clear as guests gathered at Kaiser Mahal for the book launch event. The fountains flowed, the bamboos rustled, and waiters hurried across the grass lawns marshalling their plates and glasses. But then, with no apparent warning, the sky blackened and leaves swirled in sudden gusts. Books and drinks and guests were rushed under cover.

Within minutes we were drenched by the unexpected rainstorm, lightening streaked the sky, and thunder crackled overhead with ominous persistence. The Garden of Dreams is not the place for a large group to get caught in an April deluge. The bar pavilion at the western end was solid with cheerful guests, even though the servers could hardly move with their precarious trays amongst the noisy, damp bodies beneath the mirrored metal ceiling. I was pressed between the large American Ambassador’s grey suit and writer William Dalrymple in flowing Indian dress, hair plastered against his forehead. A self-conscious Hollywood actor was pinned helplessly against a jaunty elderly artist in floral print.

When the downpour abated we made our way to the shelter of the Kaiser café. Brahmin clerics greeted their former Shakya and Vajracharya charges – eight ladies who had progressed from a childhood as living deities to become college graduates, professionals, wives and mothers. Despite their divine background they seemed like regular young women to me, dressed for the day, and excited to meet up with Issy and her young family. Although we had forgotten they are unable to eat from communal plates for purity reasons, so there was a scramble to prepare special canapés.

The launch went ahead with prayers and speeches drowned by the auspicious storm, and stacks of books soggy around the edges. Issy was pleased and philosophical, smiling beside a wizened Pujari elder leaning heavily on his walking stick. ‘It is rare for so many to be together in one place. The combined power of eight former goddesses is so immense and convincing that of course the elements are influenced. We should not be surprised by the effect of their presence on the weather.’

Lisa Choegyal