Tradition and Tourism Trumps Maoist Ideology

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Back in August I reported that Nepal’s new Maoist-led government seemed ready to scrap the tradition of the Kumaris (“living goddesses”), calling the practice an “inessential” and “evil” symbol of the former monarchy. A decision by the country’s highest court ordering the Kumari to attend school seemed to be a further harbinger of an outright ban on the practice. But it looks like the fears of this tradition being scrapped are somewhat premature.

Shreeya Bajracharya, the new Kumari of Bhaktapur.

“Nepal’s new Maoist-led government has appointed a 6-year-old girl as a “living goddess” in the ancient city of Bhaktapur, for the first time snapping the link between the ancient ritual and the ousted monarchy. For centuries, the head priest of the Nepali monarchy appointed the “Kumaris” in several towns in the Kathmandu valley. But with the abolition of the monarchy in May, that position has also disappeared. Instead, officials at the state-run Trust Corporation overseeing cultural affairs appointed Shreeya Bajracharya as the new Kumari of the temple-town of Bhaktapur near Kathmandu, Deepak Bahadur Pandey, a senior official of the agency said.”

So what made a government hostile to the Kumaris willing to get into the living goddess business? First off, the Nepalese people have been increasingly hostile towards Maoist attempts to curtail religious traditions, and secondly, the Kumaris are a major tourist attraction.

“The Kumaris are a major tourist attraction and are considered by many as incarnations of the goddess Kali and are revered until they menstruate, after which they return to the family and a new one is chosen.”

A tourist attraction that no doubt gained even more attention after the previous Kumari of Bhaktapur visited America to promote a documentary about their lives. So enter Shreeya Bajracharya, the new Kumari of Bhaktapur.

“Shreeya was enthroned on Sunday amid prayers by Buddhist priests and will be worshipped by devout Hindus and Buddhists until reaching puberty, the girl’s caretaker Nhuchhe Ratna Shakya said, adding: “She is pretty and nice.” Shreeya, in a golden costume with her eyelashes blackened by mascara, was sitting on a carved throne, a butterlamp burning by her side, when a Reuters team visited her on Monday. Asked what she wanted to become in future, a quiet Shreeya just said: “nurse.” She loves to eat biscuits and flattened rice, a common Nepali food, her aides said.”

Unlike previous Kumari, she will no doubt attend school and have more personal freedom than previous girls in her position. Her appointment may represent an new spirit of compromise between the Maoist urge to “modernize” Nepal by ridding it of “inessential” institutions, and the desire by Nepalese Hindus and Buddhists to keep their religious traditions intact. Perhaps, like in the case of Togo’s Vodou adepts, Nepal will decide that human rights and modernization can move forward without destroying religion and culture.