The religious and cultural practices of the Nepalese rarely make headlines in the West. That changed back in 2007 when a Nepali Kumari (living goddess) made a historic first journey to America in support of a documentary. That film, “Living Goddesses”, explored the lives of the Kumari against a backdrop of conflict between Maoist/Communist revolutionaries and the Nepal monarchy.
Former Kumari Sajani Shakya during her American visit.
“The film begins as a sublime elegy to a private world of ritual, devotion and childish mischief. However, the extraordinary lives of these girls soon collides irreversibly with the modern world: an out-of-touch King, who survived the notorious palace massacre of 2001, wrests power for himself as a Maoist led civil war rages. Defying the King, ordinary people take to the streets demanding freedom, only to be confronted by the might of the King’s army.”
Since then, King Gyanendra, in negotiations with Maoists and other democracy advocates, gave up some of his sovereign power. In May, the monarchy was dissolved in the wake of an electoral landslide which gave the Communist Party of Nepal control of Nepal’s House of Representatives. Nepal was declared a federal republic, and is now officially secular, dropping Hinduism as the official state religion.
In this new atmosphere, many have wondered what the fate of the Kumari would be. In the past, the Kumari were intrinsically tied to the monarchy, and in many ways helped validate monarchical rule. At first, it seemed that Nepal was going to carry on the tradition, despite hostilities from the newly appointed Maoist Prime Minister and MPs.
“This year she was called to approve the Himalayan state’s interim prime minister. But the change in Nepalese politics over the past year could make the current Kumari search the last. In elections in April, former Maoist guerrilla fighters won most of the seats. The country’s new leader, Prachanda, who was appointed Prime Minister yesterday, is a former communist rebel – and not a fan of girl goddesses. “The Kumari is not an essential institution for the new Nepal,” Janardan Sharma, a Maoist MP, said. Many of his colleagues regard the Kumari as an “evil symbol” linked to Hinduism’s rigid caste system and incompatible with socialism.”
Now a recent ruling by Nepal’s supreme court seems to have doomed the tradition.
“…the country’s highest court accepted the argument from a lawyer that keeping a young girl locked up in a medieval palace in Kathmandu was a violation of her fundamental rights. The court ruled against the rights of the Kumari being “be violated in the name of culture”. “There should be no bar on the Kumaris from going to school and enjoying health-related rights as there are no historical and religious documents restricting Kumaris from enjoying child rights,” the court said. Some analysts said the court was simply responding to the new political atmosphere in the Himalayan nation under former rebel Maoists, who are determined to end “feudal” practices.”
The court’s stance does seem to be a nod to the new powers in Nepal. While the living goddesses (there are several, the Kumari of Kathmandu being the most prominent) aren’t formally educated, they are hardly “imprisoned”, and their temporary position of power often greatly benefit the girl’s family (who take part in her care and daily rituals). It seems that, unlike Togo’s situation with Vodun adepts, the government and courts weren’t willing to come to a compromise or modernization that would afford the Kumari more freedoms while keeping the institution in place.
It remains to be seen if this is truly the end of the Kumari throughout Nepal, or if some regions will fight to keep their living goddesses. One can only hope that “secular” to the newly empowered Maoists doesn’t really mean the suppression of religion.