Preeti Shakya is a precocious looking four-year-old girl who is adjusting to life as Kathmandu's newest living goddess. Taken away from her parents, she still has to get used to living with the staff of the Kumari residence. She succeeded her predecessor on 10 July, chosen from among hundreds of little girls according to an age-old criterion that stipulates a perfect and fearless girl to be the virgin goddess.
Saturday is the beginning of the week-long festival Indra Jatra, the annual Newari carnival when the king of Nepal comes officially to pay his respects to the living goddess. This time it is not just a new Kumari, there is also a new king.
The Kumari will be dressed in resplendent red and gold, bedecked in a golden tiara and Sesh Naag around her neck as she rides her rath for the very first time. One her forehead is painted a vermilion third eye on a black backdrop of mustard oil and soot-this is the mythical divine eye which sees everything. She can see through every individual's mind, and fathom the dimensions beyond a common being's understanding.
When she rides the main chariot, she will be followed by two of her friendly deities-Bhairab and Ganesh, who are also chosen and made god the same way as the Kumari herself. But these incarnates have it slightly easier, they can stay in their parent's house. They can go out, and play, but the Kumari can't. On Saturday, the three will tour the city in their chariots and the streets come alive with the mask lakhe dance, music, and feasting.
Indra Jatra actually lasts a whole week, and it will be a whirlwind time for the new Kumari as she takes part in the rituals, with drums and dancing every day from the setting up of the Indradwaja pole at Basantapur on Thursday.
This is the annual festival dedicated to Indra, the god of rain. But it is also dedicated to Taleju Bhawani, the powerful goddess and protector of Kathmandu who will manifest herself in the Kumari to empower the king and his citizens with divine power. Interestingly, Taleju is supposed to be the family deity of Ravana, the demon king of mythic Lanka, and the Taleju of Kathmandu is said to have been brought from India in ancient times. King Gyanendra, accompanied by invited dignitaries, high officials and diplomats will observe the commencement of the Kumari Rath Yatra from the balcony of the Rana Victorian-style stucco Gaddi Baithak. The following Thursday the king will return to Basantapur to pay his respects to the Kumari at her own residence. He will take an auspicious tika on his forehead from the little Kumari who will also bless him by touching both his shoulders with the magic sword of Taleju. This action marks the end of the Indra Jatra festival and symbolises the transfer of the power Lord Vishnu to the reigning monarch so he can protect his citizens. The king, for his part will offer a gold coin, an asarfi, to the goddess.
In the courtyard of the Kumari house this week, we were taken to the living goddess. We offered her a basket of fruits and Newari sweets. The Kumari's nanny told us she had gone inside to take a nap, but she went in to get her anyway. The nanny carried her out, and put her on her cushion. Almost as a reflex action, the Kumari put forward her little legs so we could touch her feet. She pushed away the fruits, and looked sleepy.
The Kumari's parents are discouraged from visiting their daughter, and only come by a couple of times a week. But she has enough amusement, playing video games with the other children of the caretakers of the Kumari House.
Despite her young age, the present Kumari is alert and mature. When she was taken to the Taleju temple last week for her ritual visit, she admonished her caretakers: "Sabai almal almal.... ke ko almal?" (Why all this confusion?) Laxmi Prasad Rijal, the Hakim of the Kausi Tosh Khana who heard her say those words sensed deep symbolism. "She was speaking about the state of the nation," he whispered to us sagely. Rijal's office is where the existing and past Kumaris of Kathmandu get their monthly allowances from.
The previous Kumari, Amita Shakya, reached puberty earlier this year and had to give way to her successor. She is now back home with her parents and is attending grade six at a local school. The present Kumari will also reign until she gets her first period. Contrary to myth, ex-Kumaris are not prohibited from remarrying but there is a superstition that if they marry their husband will die after vomiting blood. There are seven recorded cases of husbands of ex-Kumaris from Kathmandu, Bhaktapur and Patan dying. But there is nothing to prove that they did not die of natural causes.
On Saturday, after the king and queen flag off the rath yatra from the Gaddi Baithak, the three chariots take an ancient route which on the first day will go to the southern part of Kathmandu, the "tallo tol"- Chikamugal, Gofala Tol, Bharma Tol, Hyumat, Jaisi Degal, Kohiti, Bhimsenthan. On the full moon, Sunday, the \'mathillo tol' people will get to see the chariot being pulled north through Pyafal, Yethka, Nardevi, Raktakali, Pyangal, Nyokha, Bangemuda, Ason, Balkumari, Macchendra baha, Indrachowk, Makkhan and back.
The chariot pullers and other revellers, when they arrive near the Akash Bhairab statue near Hanuman Dhoka, drink the Newari holy liquor streaming from the deity's mouth in the belief that it will wash away all sins. The thhon rice brew flows freely, there is feasting and general merriment.
On Thursday, 6 September, there is the brief Nanichya Rath Yatra when the Kumari chariot is taken up to Nardevi and turns east through Kilagal and then towards Bhedasingh and back to Darbar Square. This route has significance because it is said to have been startedby Malla king Jaya Prakash Malla, to let his girlfriend, named Nanichya, see the jatra from the comfort of her own home in Kilagal.
By this time, the novelty of being pulled all around town begins to wear off. And young new Kumaris usually doze off as the throngs shout and dance and pull the chariots through the narrow streets.
The Kumari house, a quadrangular Newari structure bearing the most exotic of all wood carvings in the area, is a 1757 construction from the regime of King Jaya Prakash Malla-the last of the Malla kings, who was actually deposed by the invading army of King Prithivi Narayan Shah during Indra Jatra festival itself.
History books tell us that Jaya Prakash Malla was pulling the Kumari chariot himself and enjoying every bit of it. But by the time the chariot had reached Lagan, Prithivi Narayan Shah had already captured the throne at Hanuman Dhoka. Jaya Prakash then fled across the swollen Bagmati river to seek refuge in the neighbouring kingdom of Patan.
Belief is that if she laughs or cries while one is vowing at her, the person will face bad omen. Photographing the Kumari is forbidden anywhere inside the courtyard. But it is possible to get an audience with her and for non-Nepalis get a glimpse of her, before 12 noon or after 3pm, she is brought to the window by one of the priestesses. "Ladies and gentlemen. She is the goddess Kumari. Please clap." and there is a clater of applause. Many guide books say the Kumari herself comes around to playfully romp in the courtyard, but this is not so. Her caretakers have full authority over who meets the Kumari and when. "She has to do puja, eat, sleep and play," says one of the caretaker's family members while waiting for the Kumari to be brought in to the visiting room.
Tour guides often mention of having to strike a deal with the caretakers to let their foreign guest have a glimpse of Kumari. There's a rumour around that fees are charged in dollars. It is true that the caretakers family openly asks visitors in the courtyard for donations.
All offerings go to the caretakers, and there is some disgruntlement on the part of the parents and families of the Kumaris about this.
"Kumaris are small children. They wouldn't know the value of money and offerings made. So they are least bothered about the offerings," says Amrit Shakya, father of the previous Kumari. Amrit says there should be more guarantees in place for the welfare of ex-Kumaris. "After all," he says, "even Kumaris have rights. And their welfare is the nation's welfare."
Amrit's daughter is a shy, quiet girl who likes science in school. "What can we say. Our daughter was away from us for nine long years. And she comes home, barely knowing us," says Amrit. He had to lobby hard with palace bureaucrats to secure an education allowance and a "pension" for his daughter. He is full praise for King Birendra who finally agreed to his request. Serving Kumaris now get a Rs 6000 allowance and Rs 1000 for a tutor every month. Retired Kumaris like Amrit's daughter get a Rs 3000 "pension" every month. Says Amrit: "At least that has given that the Kumaris to come will have a better future."
There are at present nine living ex-Kumaris from Kathmandu, and more from Patan and Bhaktapur. The Kumari of Kathamandu is selected from the 11 toles or communities of the Shakya gold and silversmiths, Newari Buddhists. The procedure in Patan is almost the same, with the Kumari being chosen from Shakya and Maharjan families. In Bhaktapur, the Kumari stays with her own parents is brought out in public only for the nine days of Dasain.