King’s end spells doom for Nepal’s ‘living goddesses’

May 1st, 2008 - 12:39 pm ICT by admin  

By Sudeshna Sarkar
Kathmandu, May 1 (IANS) With Nepal’s Maoists having begun an inexorable countdown for the ouster of the once all-powerful King Gyanendra, the fate of one of the oldest religious institutions of the nation - the Kumaris or “living goddesses” - also lies in jeopardy. The culture of worshipping the Kumari, whose rituals form a key part of Hindu festivals here and draw thousands of tourists every year, was started in the 16th century by the Malla kings of Kathmandu in the belief that the deity, an incarnation of the Hindu goddess of power Durga, was the protector of the royal family.

According to legend, the last king of the dynasty, Jayprakash Malla, angered the goddess who forsook him, leading to his defeat. When he tried to woo her back, the goddess is said to have relented, saying that she would be reincarnated as a young virgin identifiable by auspicious physical and mental characteristics.

Despite the divine promise, Malla was vanquished by Prithvi Narayan Shah, the forefather of the current king, who uprooted other ruling dynasties of Nepal and began the Shah reign. The conquering king, however, kept the custom of worshipping the Kumari, making the goddess the protector of his own dynasty.

Even today, there are three Kumaris presiding in Kathmandu and its sister towns of Bhaktapur and Lalitpur. They are prepubescent girls selected from the Buddhist Newar community on the basis of their horoscopes, which have to be compatible with the king’s, and physical characteristics.

The Kumaris live in their own palaces till they near puberty. Then they have to exit the palace to make way for a successor.

The Kathmandu Kumari is the most revered, being the only human being before whom the kings of Nepal bowed during important Hindu ceremonies.

But now, the Kumaris may have to leave their palaces once the king exits from his Narayanhity royal palace.

Nepal’s newly elected constituent assembly will hold its first meeting next month and officially begin the process of abolishing the king’s 239-year-old crown and turning him into a commoner.

“The people have mandated us to transform Nepal into a federal democratic republic and end the feudal monarchical system,” Maoist lawmaker and winner of constituent assembly election Janardan Sharma told IANS.

“All institutions associated with the royal family and feudalism will have to be changed. The Kumari is not an essential institution for the new Nepal,” he said.

Two years ago, when the king’s bid to seize absolute power with the help of the army failed and he became a hated figure, a national uprising led by the Maoists forced the monarch to step down.

The new government of opposition parties subsequently declared Nepal, the world’s only Hindu kingdom, a secular nation.

However, Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala, who succeeded the king, kept up the state attendance at Hindu festivals, triggering much criticism.

Now, however, with the Maoists having emerged the largest party after the April 10 elections and bidding to lead the new government, religious institutions nurtured by the state could face the axe.

“We are also opposed to other feudal systems like Deuki and Jhuma,” said Sharma, better known as Prabhakar, the nom de guerre he took up during the Maoists’ 10-year guerrilla war when he was one of the deputy commanders of the dreaded People’s Liberation Army.

Deuki, similar to India’s Devadasi ritual, is a culture of poor families offering a girl child to god and leaving her in the temple to be brought up as the deity’s “handmaiden”. It is still prevalent in the remote mid- and farwest Nepal.

The Deuki becomes a subject of sexual exploitation and lives as an illiterate beggar.

The Jhuma culture, practised by Buddhist families, involves offering a girl child to nunneries to be brought up as a nun.

Both customs have been flayed by women’s right organisations, some of which have also filed public interest suits in the Supreme Court, asking the state to abolish the discriminatory practices.

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