Dressed in a graduation gown and felt hat, Chanira Bajracharya looks just like the hundreds of other students gathered for a ceremony at a private university in central Nepal.
But the bespectacled 21-year-old, who graduated in November with a business degree and is now pursuing an MBA, was once worshipped by thousands of people and carried in gilded chariots during festivals in the ancient city of Patan, south of Kathmandu.
Bajracharya was barely six years old in 2001 when she was selected as a Kumari, or “virgin girl” in Nepali, part of a centuries-old Nepalese tradition that worships prepubescent girls as living goddesses.
Kumari are revered by both Hindus and Buddhists as an incarnation of the Hindu goddess Taleju.
Living goddesses are confined to their houses or temples, where they face a taxing daily routine including elaborate rituals that begin with heavy eye make-up, followed by prayers and an endless stream of visitors seeking blessings. Unlike other girls their age, Kumaris experience a childhood that is far from typical.
Devotees worship the living goddesses. Some even ask that the young girls’ feet touch their forehead in a blessing.
Girls aged three to four from Kathmandu’s indigenous Newar community form the pool of potential living goddesses. Parents can send their daughters to Hindu priests for consideration.
The living goddess is required to be fearless and she must not have previously suffered any injuries that drew blood. She typically retires between age 12 and 16.
Child rights activists and some parents of child goddesses – there are nine such Kumaris in the Kathmandu Valley currently – began demanding home schooling for the children in the early 2000s.
Bajracharya became one of the earliest beneficiaries of this educational movement.
Her nine-year tenure as a living goddess ended in 2010 when she reached puberty, but she says her transition back to mere mortal status was not easy. Her troubles began as soon as she stepped out of her home into the crowded streets of her neighbourhood south of Kathmandu. “I had to walk to a nearby temple. It had been nine years since I walked on the streets and I was no longer used to it. I wished someone would carry me on a palanquin,” she recalled.
With the help of her middle-class parents – her father is a painter and her mother is a homemaker – she gradually became more comfortable with such ordinary tasks.
But socialising with her peers at college proved difficult.
“My friends at college said they found me reserved and reluctant to mingle with them. Maybe it was because of my past experiences,” said Bajracharya, who remains a shy young woman and is fond of reading Nepali-language novels.
A few years ago, Bajracharya’s schoolteachers found a similarly taciturn girl and encouraged them to befriend each other. Now the two are best friends.
Nepal's child rights activists have long criticised the Kumari tradition, saying it violates a girl’s right to her own childhood and education.
“Ultimately, the living goddess is a child, so she should not be treated in ways that may have negative implications on her psychology,” said Gauri Pradhan, a former commissioner of the National Human Rights Commission.
In 2005, a petition was filed in Nepal’s Supreme Court demanding an end to the practice. The court ultimately ruled against the petition but ordered government reforms.
Chunda Bajracharya, a professor of culture at Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu and of no relation to Chanira, said the tradition has significantly changed over the years.
“This is not child abuse. The girl is allowed to play indoor games. It shows that our culture values her childhood by bestowing divine power upon the girl. And it's only a matter of a few years and then she will be free,” she said.
Bajracharya, the former living goddess, credits the tradition with helping her feel connected to her Nepalese culture. The practice of Kumari continues despite the end of Nepal’s monarchy, with which it was closely associated.
But, Bajracharya has also called for an increase in pensions for former living goddesses – there are roughly 50 ex-Kumaris in the Kathmandu Valley, some of whom receive a monthly allowance of up to 10,000 Nepali rupees (RM405) – and she has urged temple authorities to create an environment similar to schools for living goddesses.
Although she has struggled to adjust to post-Kumari life, Bajracharya has never complained about her divine experience.
“I feel very lucky to have had two lives, first as a living goddess and now as an ordinary human. I am very happy and proud of that,” she said. – dpa/Deepak Adhikari