October 2010 –
“It is forbidden to photograph the Kumari inside the Kumari Ghar” my young guide repeated these words several times. I explained to him that my original guide Buddhi had been granted special permission through his contacts to allow me the privelege. A quick phone call by him confirmed that this was the case and we proceeded to the home of Samita Barjracharya, the Living Goddess of Patan. She was eight years old, and lived in the god-house Kumari Ghar, where the Living Goddess performs her daily rituals. The power of the Kumari is perceived to be so strong that even a glimpse of her is believed to bring good fortune. We proceeded up some stairs and were greeted by her mother. I was told to wait as the arrangements were relayed to her. She told my guide that Samita was not prepared but we could see her briefly. We were escorted into a small room about 3 m x 3 m, perhaps even smaller. A shaft of light penetrated the room from a small window next to the ceiling. A buzzing sound echoed through the small blue room from an overhead fluorescent light. Samita sat in a throne like chair her eyes fixed to the floor. I asked if I could take some photos and her mother Purna Shova Bajracharya said that she would prefer that I came back tomorrow as she did not have have her fully prepared. She allowed me to take a couple of frames to test the lighting and framing. Sitting on the floor my back was pressed against the wall while I tried to photograph her. We made arrangements to meet the following day.
The following day Samita was dressed more elaborately and her forehead was adorned with a different design. I waited patiently for her to look at her mother to allow the light to enter her eyes. When the session finished I asked how to repay her for this privilege. Her mother told me that it was up to me and would not suggest a price. I placed some money at her feet and it must have been appropriate as when I was about to leave her mother said that Samita had requested that she wanted to bless me, a very distinct honour, as this was the first time she had performed this on a foreigner. I knelt in front of her and looked into her huge eyes as she placed some tikka (red dot of vermilion paste which signifies the desire to open the third eye) on my forehead. she whispered a phrase, and I thanked her for the experience and privilege for allowing me to photograph her.
Under normal circumstances, her days in the god-house come to an end with her first menstruation, but if she turns out to be unlucky, as they say, even a minor scratch on her body that bleeds can make her invalid for worship. She then changes back to the status of normal mortal, and the search for a new Kumari begins. It is said to be unlucky to marry an ex-Kumari.
The selection of the Living Goddess is a highly elaborate tantric ritual. Upon passing the preliminary test, this is merely concerned with their 32 attributes of perfection, including the colour of her eyes, the shape of her teeth, and the sound of her voice. Her horoscope must also be appropriate. The 4 to 7 year-old poor girls, from the Sakya community, are made to confront a goddess in the darkened room. The sight of the Buffalo heads scattered around, the demon-like masked dancers, and the terrifying noises they encounter, scare some of these innocent young girls. The real goddess is unlikely to be frightened, so the one who is calm and collected throughout the tests is the only girl who is entitled to sit on the pedestal for worship as the Living Goddess. Then, as a final test similar to that of the Dalai Lama, the Kumari then chooses items of clothing and decoration worn by her predecessor.