Kathmandu’s Kumaris

Seth Sicroff's picture

A couple of days ago I was scanning my “Google Alerts” for keyword “Nepal,” and stumbled on a shocking bulletin. The shocker: Lonely Planet travelers list “Kumari Restaurant” as #12 on the list of Things To Do in Kathmandu.    In a city of innumerable monuments, festivals, and traditional arts and crafts, how does this rinky-dink Freak Street hole-in-the-wall come in #12 out of 187 attractions? 

Personally, I love Kumari. Tucked into the Century Lodge courtyard, it is a peaceful and unselfconscious survivor of the glorious age of hippies. The bamboo matting on the walls, the ten little tables, the rice paper lanterns, and the menu itself are pretty much unchanged from when the Kumari first opened in 1981. The soundtrack is frozen in time: Grateful Dead, Crosby Stills and Nash, Pink Floyd, John Mayall, James Taylor. The food is standard international fare: burritos, egg-plant parmagiana, minestrone soup, curries, banana pancakes, and so on... and as cheap as you’ll find in Kathmandu. Despite the infinite options in Kathmandu, including a lot of places I love (nearby Diyalo, in the Annapurna Lodge; the Snowman; K-Too...), I’ve eaten about half my Kathmandu meals at the Kumari.  Especially breakfasts: delicious curd fruit salad with granola, generous pot of coffee, fresh-squeezed mango and orange juice.

The funny thing about Nepal is that with all the things to do, what tourists love most is the food. On trek at 15,000 feet, hunkered around the fire in a darkened tea-house, people talk about the restaurants they’re going to hit as soon as they return to Kathmandu: maybe the Yak and Yeti buffet for a first-night splurge, KC’s for upscale grill and cocktails, Roadhouse Café for pizza and tiramisu. We come for the trek -- and the abominable snowman -- but we return for the food.

Of course, there are more conventional tourist obligations: the Great Stupa at Boudhanath, the Monkey Temple at Swayambhu, the hanging fruit bats northwest of the former royal palace, and the Kumari Bahal (a.k.a. Kumari Chowk or Kumari Ghar), abode of the living Virgin Goddess. Located at the south end of the Durbar Square temple zone, the blocky little “palace” house with the carved wooden windows is on everybody’s must-see list, despite the fact that the girl herself rarely appears at a window, and even if she does, photographs are verboten.  (Here’s a “virtual tour” of the courtyard: http://www.nepalopedia.com/Default.aspx?TOUR=KumariGhar )

Several times a year, most notably on the occasion of the spectacular Indra Jatra festival, the Raj Kumari (“Royal Kumari”) is trotted out on a sedan chair to greet the throngs. Over the years, I’ve accidentally crossed paths with several of these goddesses, and it always creeps me out.  It’s not that I’m an atheist and would prefer to see a world like John Lennon imagined (“nothing to kill or die for, and no religion too”), although that is certainly true. Rather, I see the Kumari cult as the literal apotheosis of misogyny in Nepal.

Around Kathmandu, the name Kumari generally refers to a living goddess (there are at least three in the Valley). However, the word kumari itself has a broader usage. It is the female form of kumar, which in Sanskrit and related languages means a young unmarried boy, son, or (especially when used as a name) prince; Kumar (a.k.a. Murugan, Kartikeya, etc.) was the son of Shiva and Parvati, commander of Shiva’s armies (therefore God of War), and brother of the elephant-headed god Ganesh. In Nepali, the adjective kumari most commonly means unmarried and therefore virgin.

The Kumari cult is attributed to Newari Buddhists. While they constitute around 6% of the overall Nepali population, the Newars are the largest ethnic minority in Nepal, and the founders of the Kathmandu Valley kingdoms; the name Nepal itself derives from Newar, and for many hill tribes it specifically refers to Kathmandu Valley. Newari Buddhism and Nepali Hinduism share important cults and holidays, and in many respects are closer than the Newari and Tibetan variants of Buddhism; Tibetan Buddhism does not embrace the Kumari cult.

The backstory of the current Raj Kumari cult, like most aspects of South Asian religion, entails several overlapping and contradictory stories. The specific tradition of the cult in Kathmandu is said to have begun with a king in the Malla dynasty which flourished from the twelfth through the eighteenth century; most commonly it is attributed to King Jaya Prakash, one of the last Mallas. In one variant of the myth, the king had the habit of playing tripas, a dice game, with the goddess Taleju, protector of the kingdom. These encounters, during which the goddess would discuss matters of state with the king, were supposed to be secret; eventually, however, the king’s suspicious wife (or daughter) caught sight of the goddess. The angry goddess told the king that if he ever wanted to meet with her again or enjoy her benign influence, he would have to find her. She was going to incarnate herself as a little girl of the Newari Shakya clan. The Shakyas are the goldsmith clan, a very low caste (butchers, hunters, and smiths are essentially untouchable in Buddhist communities); paradoxically (meaning that I can’t explain it), the Buddha Siddharta (a.k.a. Shakyamuni) was the son of King Suddhodana, leader of the Shakya clan. In any case, both the exhalted lineage and the poverty of the girl's family serve the cult’s purposes. Jaya Prakash, of course, immediately undertook the search and came up with the first Kumari.

In other stories, Taleju was visiting King Trailokya, another Malla, again to talk and play tripas. The king infuriated the goddess by making sexual advances; Taleju absconded and only reappeared in human form – as a sacrosanct virgin – after the king had performed extravagant expiatory rituals. Still other variants cite the King’s impregnation of a pre-pubescent girl who subsequently died as the outrage that precipitated the withdrawal of the goddess. As part of the King’s penance, he had to worship the Kumari and, once a year, convey her around the city.

Taleju is a name perhaps most familiar to tourists as the tallest of the pagoda-roofed mandir (temples) just north of the Hanuman Dhoka complex; outside Kathmandu Valley, she is better known as Parvati, wife of Shiva. Parvati is a benign deity, but she has other names and manifestations, including Durga, Kali, Sakti, and Devi. Durga and Kali are the terrible demon-killers. The ten-day holiday of Dasain celebrates the victory of the gods over the demons; those demons had been displaced early on by the gods, but they returned with a monstruous champion, Mahisha the buffalo-demon. When Brahma reported the impending victory of Mahisha to Shiva and Indra, they reportedly went completely ballistic, emanating female energies that combined to generate Durga, whose victory is recapitulated in the beheading of hundreds of buffaloes (and tens of thousands of other animals) on the final day of Dasain. Sacrifices are performed throughout Nepal, but ground zero for the most intense slaughter is Durbar Square, in the shadow of Taleju Mandir and Kumari Bahal. Taleju was for centuries the chief protective deity of the kings of Nepal, and the king had to get the Raj Kumari’s blessing and tika (the forehead mark representing the third eye of wisdom) every year in conjunction with the festival of Indra Jatra, which comes just before Dasain. Indra Jatra is also referred to as Kumari Rath (chariot) Jatra (street festival).

As for the embodied goddess, the search for Taleju incarnate is something like the search for the American Idol. A great number of little girls, generally three or four years old, are inspected. Candidates must be of the Newari Shakya caste, unblemished, in perfect health, and never have shed blood. Their horoscope must be rigorously compatible with the king’s. They are inspected for the battis lakshana, 32 perfections  (the same number as are attributed to the Buddha); these include black hair that curls to the right at the bottom, eyelashes like a cow’s, voice soft and clear as a duck's, neck like a conch shell, body like a banyan tree, golden tender skin, long slender arms, chest like a lion, and thighs like a deer. The candidate must be serene and fearless, even when locked in a room full of freshly slaughtered buff heads and serenaded with a cacophony of scary noises. Like the Dalai Lama, the new Kumari must also identify the personal belongings of the previous Kumari from an assortment of stuff presented to her.

So, what’s the harm? Assuming you are not repelled by the idea of subjecting a young child to carnage at close quarters (which is perhaps not so problematic in a country where animals are routinely slaughtered both in public and in private homes), there is the inhuman nature of the Kumari’s internment. She is treated literally like an icon, gaudily painted and suitable only for display. There is no playtime: if she were to scrape her knee, the jig would be up. No school – although there are reports of a crusty old tutor for one hour a day. The girl’s family receives a modest stipend and great prestige, but for the child this lifestyle is the intellectual and social equivalent of Chinese bound feet.

When the gig is over, at first blood or first sign of impending pubescence, the girl reverts to mortal status. She gets a small stipend until she marries, and a dowry of sorts, but she is uneducated, unsocialized, and nearly unmarriable due to a belief that her husband would die coughing blood within six months – or prematurely, at least. Many Kumaris have reportedly ended up as prostitutes.

Now, before we dive into cultural characterizations, we should recognize that beliefs and values are never universal or exclusive. Muslim jihad and Christian crusade are no more universal or exclusive than tolerance or charity. The very fact that the Kumari cults are wrapped in contradictory myths is a sign that certain elements are not as restrictive (or motivational) as others. Nonetheless, we can pick out key messages. As Nanda R. Shrestha says of the Kumari tradition in his book In the Name of Development, “…it is quite apparent what its hidden motives are. This tradition translates into a social myth couched in religious terms, a myth designed to inculcate in the minds of young girls that remaining virgin until marriage has its rewards as they will be seen as pure and clean and hence most desirable.”

A second message is that the sexual purity of females is critical to the power and prosperity of males. Third, the tradition emphasizes that female purity is inherently unsustainable: as females mature and function in ways that are normal and unavoidable, they inevitably lose their highest value. Fourth, male transgressions can be expiated – again and again and again.

Apart from the particular mythic concomitants, the Raj Kumari cult is just a continuation of South Asian virginity cults that date back thousands of years. Virginity, unlike fecundity, has no economic value: it does not produce more laborers (or any kind of citizens) and it has no apotropeic or sympathetic magical value (in warding off evil or inspiring agricultural success, for instance). Nonetheless it is the focus of a polygenetic male sexual fantasy. Although sexual behavior is not played out in the Kumari ritual itself, it is implicit in the selection criteria (beauty and passivity) as well as in the remarkably whorish make-up; it is also strongly suggested in the various male transgressions that must be expiated according to the mythic backstories.

The Kumari cult's conservative agenda is unmistakable in Nepal’s skewed social context. As in most agrarian societies, women do most of the work, both in the fields and in the house, and yet boys are regarded as inherently more valuable than girls, both economically and also spiritually, since they perform key rituals necessary to make sure the parents don’t get hung up in undesirable reincarnations due to karmic lapses. Girls are systematically oppressed, getting less food, less medical care, and less education than their brothers.

It is no accident that the dowry system is alive and well, and that there are typically conflicts between the girl and her mother-in-law over whether the dowry was inadequate. (In India, to this day, these tensions still sometimes result in “kitchen accidents,” in which a young wife whose family resists demands to renegotiate the dowry is simply burned to death.) The legal disparities between husband and wife, and even more so the customary gender equities, make marriage a form of bondage. A divorced or widowed woman has little chance of remarriage, since she has lost her virginity. The custom of sati (widow burning) may now be illegal, but it is sanctified by religion; the motive may have been represented in myth as grief, but in reality the point is to eliminate potential shame to the husband’s family if the widow tried to move on. In many cases, prostitution is the only option for widows and divorcees.

The legal situation may arguably be improving, particularly among the affluent, but there is no doubt that gender inequities persist. A recent article in the Himalayan Times, for instance, reported on findings that post-partum depression is common among rural women.

“Since many families have son preference, women face mental pressure if they give birth to female child,” said Dr. Babu Ram Marasini, Senior Health Administrator of Ministry of Health and Population. "If women suffer from post-partum depression they fail to breastfeed and take care of their children and prefer to live an isolated life." According to the National Maternal Morbidity and Mortality Survey 2009, 16 percent of women of reproductive age commit suicide due to mental health problems. Dr. Marasini added,"We do not have treatment and counseling services and most of women die due to fear of society and family." 

The observation quoted above from Nanda Shrestha’s In the Name of Development appeared in the chapter on prostitution, which opens with a four-page excursus on the Kumari cult. He eventually gets around to the role played by sex tourism and development in general, but he makes it clear that the Kumari cult is part of the mix that makes Nepali girls particularly desirable on the international sex slave market. It is not only their natural beauty and comparatively light skin: Nepali girls are brought up to be submissive. They are extremely unlikely to lose their virginity before marriage. Their poverty makes them (and their families) amenable to offers of work as domestics, particularly in Arab countries; often the families are complicit in tricking or simply selling their own daughters into slavery.

Last November, as I was in Melbourne for the presentation of the 2010 Sir Edmund Hillary Mountain Legacy Medal to Scott MacLennan, CNN gave their Hero of the Year award to Anuradha Koirala. http://www.maitinepal.org/ 

Since 1993, Koirala’s organization has freed 12,000 enslaved Nepali girls by raiding brothels and by boarding buses at the Indian boarder and confronting their traffickers. That figure is all the more shocking when you consider that Nepal’s population is one-tenth that of the United States. Of course, human trafficking is big business in the States, too: authorities estimate that every year some 17,000 young women and girls are forced to work in the sex industry by organized criminals. The majority of the victims are probably foreign exchange students and illegal immigrants, and similar patterns evidently occur elsewhere around the world. Likewise, it is true that virginity is fetishized here, and that our own hypocritical religious leaders have been involved in egregious sexual exploitation. The situation in Nepal is worse both because the fetish is fostered by mainstream institutions and because the exploitation is often perpetrated by the victims’ own families.

In August 2008, a few months after the Maoists deposed King Gyanendra, Nepal’s Supreme Court came out with a decision that requested the government intervene on behalf of the Raj Kumari, finding that she was being illegally confined and denied basic human rights laid out in UN conventions.  Rajan Maharajan, vice president of the Kumari committee, responded, "This is not good news. In any case, she is a goddess so how can court rulings apply?"  He added that there was no violation of rights, as "her teacher comes to the Kumari Palace every day, and she has three hours a day when she can meet people… We do not keep her prisoner. We will ask the goddess if she wants to go outside more, and if she wants, she can go, but I don't think she feels comfortable leaving the palace."

Meanwhile, there has been confusion as to who should get the Kumari’s blessing. There was quite a bit of push-back from the religious community when Nepal’s secular heads of state (Girija Prasad Koirala in 2007, and subsequently  Ram Baran Yadav) stepped forward to get the tika, and there were protests when the government tried to eliminate the subsidy of the mass slaughter on Dasain. But the government seems also to be backpedaling, in large part due to fears that the tourism industry will suffer if these popular attractions are suppressed.

So, where does that leave us tourists? Clearly we should not try to apply direct pressure to bring about changes in Nepali traditions. On the other hand, it might be a good idea not to hang around and gawk at displays that you don’t approve of; your exotic visage will always be noted and counted as an argument in favor of the display. A better idea would be to support the work of groups like Scott MacLennan’s Mountain Fund. Scott is starting a new Girls’ Leadership Program designed to give girls from impoverished backgrounds the skills they need to become entrepreneurs and activists. This kind of affirmative action is absolutely necessary to level the playing field for men and women in Nepal.   Contact Scott directly (email: scott AT mountainfund.org) to see how you can become involved.

Meanwhile, don’t let your disapproval of the Kumari captivity prevent you from visiting Kumari Restaurant on Freak Street. The adjacent Century Lodge is a great place to stay – in fact, I walked in on December 7, 1974, after a 5-week Freak Bus trip overland from Istanbul, and stayed for 310 days. I love the Shrestha family, and Suman is truly a wizard. If they’re full, try the Kumari Guest House – just around the corner from the Kumari Bahal. Located in the heart of Durbar Square, the Kumari Guest House is a landmark in its own right. Quiet, cozy, intimate, it is a testament to the virtues of budget tourism. Mrs. Bhagabati Joshi, proprietor of Kumari, is a long-time social activist. She is president and founder of Women For Change, and has organized a number of cultural events in Durbar Square. Tell her I said hello.

[Belated note: the Kumari Guest House has recently closed. Mrs. Joshi is still around. She'd love to meet you.] 



Seth Sicroff, Nepal Editor for Wandering Educators
Manager, Sunrise Pashmina

Photo of the Kumari courtesy of Visit Nepal