Do you really want to be a goddess?

In Nepal, one girl's life in the role hasn't been all that great.


Catherine Price
July 24, 2007 12:30AM (UTC)

I'm not sure if this is good news or bad news, but the BBC reports that one of Nepal's living goddesses, Sajani Shakya, will not be stripped of her divine standing despite her recent trip to the United States.

For those who don't remember the brief mention of this Nepali practice a couple of months ago in Broadsheet (reported on here in more detail by the Christian Science Monitor), here's some background: The Nepalese have a tradition of selecting young girls as "kumaris" -- living goddesses who supposedly have the power to protect Nepal's king. The word "kumari" means "virgin," and the moment a girl menstruates she is demoted from kumari goddess to mere mortal, and another toddler takes her place.

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The Kumari selection process is complex. According to this recent article from the BBC, kumaris are picked when they're between the ages of 2 and 4, are always from the same Buddhist clan and must hold 32 attributes, "including thighs like those of a deer and a neck like a conch shell."

What does it mean to have a neck like a conch shell? I'm not sure. But what is clear is that life as a Nepali goddess is not as fun as it sounds. Kumaris are separated from their actual parents, are forced to live in foster families and aren't allowed out of their palaces more than three or four times a year. According to the BBC, their feet must never touch the ground without a red carpet beneath them and they "must follow certain rules, such as being kept in a dark room without crying." And kumaris are denied formal education -- which is bad enough on its own but becomes even more of a problem when the kumaris lose their goddess titles and must learn to live as "normal," ungodly children.

Anyway, back to the news hook: As the BBC article mentioned above indicates, a Nepalese kumari named Sajani Shakya got in trouble for traveling to the United States to promote a documentary film. Elders started searching for a replacement kumari for Shakya, who was one of the top three kumaris in Nepal. But now Shakya's back in Nepal and has been allowed to keep her title as a kumari, since she's willing to undergo a "cleansing ceremony."

The practice of selecting prepubescent girls to serve as goddesses, then stripping them of their title the moment they're contaminated by menstruation, seems too messed up to warrant much discussion. But it'll be interesting to see what happens to the kumari tradition, since, as the Christian Science Monitor reports, Nepal's Supreme Court is investigating whether the tradition of kumaris has led to the exploitation of young girls. Maybe I'm missing something, but is that actually a question?


Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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