An audience with the Kumari living goddess in Nepal

The goddesses are always children, with a notable living exception

Dhana Kumari Bajracharya, the Kumari who never stopped being a Kumari. Photo: Stuart Butler
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A thick red curtain is pulled back to reveal a long, and mostly empty, rose-pink room.

At the far end, beneath half-a-dozen paintings of Hindu gods and a single, time-faded photograph of a young girl heavily painted in make-up and garlanded in flowers, is a throne-like chair. Sitting silently on the chair with head bowed, is an elderly woman wrapped in a sari of deep royal red and gold. Her make-up-covered face might have been that of an elderly woman, but I immediately recognise her as the young girl in the photo hanging on the wall above her.

Shuffling into the room, I kneel down on the floor in front of the woman. She doesn't say a word and I’m not sure if she even raises her eyes to acknowledge me. She knows I am there though, because she lifts one hand and dabs some red tikka powder on to my forehead. And with that my audience with a Kumari – or a living goddess – is over. I never even get to ask her a question.

The Kumari is a young Newari girl who is believed to have been possessed by the Goddess Taleju (Durga); the Newari are the people of the Kathmandu Valley in Nepal. She is worshipped by Newari Buddhists and Hindus as a manifestation of divine female energy. Always a young girl, the selection process to become a Kumari is rigorous.

The girl must be unblemished and not yet have lost any of her milk teeth. As soon as she hits puberty, she is replaced with a new Kumari. The tradition goes back several hundred years and each of the three main towns of the Kathmandu Valley – Kathmandu itself, Patan and Bhaktapur – have their own Kumari. The Kathmandu one, who lives in a small, square, red brick palace at the centre of the historic Durbar Square, is the most important. Like so many visitors to Kathmandu, I stood for long periods in the courtyard of this building hoping for the merest glimmer of the divine girl, but she stayed firmly hidden from sight in the shadows of her palace.

This coyness is not unusual.

A Kumari very much keeps herself to herself. She rarely speaks to visitors and, normally, goes outside only during major festivals and at such times she is paraded on a palanquin through huge crowds; although today the Kumaris are permitted to attend school. For the entire duration of her time as Kumari, the girls' feet never touch the ground outside her place of residence. Instead, she is carried everywhere – whether that be on an ornate palanquin or just in her mothers arms. All these things make it clear to me that the chance of me ever actually meeting a Kumari on a one-to-one basis is close to zero.

But then, one day, as I walk around the old quarter of Patan, the second city of the Kathmandu valley, I look up and something catches my eye. Most of the buildings on this busy, noisy street are fairly nondescript affairs, but one stands out. It appears to be older than its neighbours, with windows set into beautiful, carved wooden frames. I point out the building to my Nepalese friend, who says, “Oh, yes. That’s the old Kumari’s home”.

Intrigued I stop in my tracks and ask him to elaborate.

“The lady who lives there used to be the living goddess of Patan. Many people here say that she is still the real Kumari. Her name is Dhana Kumari Bajracharya,” he says, before suggesting we try to visit her and rings the doorbell. Moments later a young woman leads us up the stairs to a doorway covered by a thick red curtain.

“Remember what I told you to do. Kneel down in front of her and don’t expect her to speak,” I am told.

“She’s my auntie,” says Chanira Bajracharya, the young woman who opens the door to us. “She was chosen to be the Kumari in 1952, when she was just two years old. She is unusual in that she has never bled and so has never officially stopped being a Kumari.

"But, once she reached her early thirties [the community] decided to retire her because tradition states that a Kumari is always supposed to be a young girl. But there are many in the Kathmandu Valley who believe that the Goddess Taleju still occupies her body and that she remains the one true Kumari.”

After our brief encounter with her aunt, Chanira invites us to stay for a cup of tea and, handing us our drinks, goes on to explain that Dhana Kumari Bajracharya still follows all the rules related to being a Kumari. This means that, since the age of two, her feet have touched the ground outside her house only once, when the 2015 Nepal earthquake struck, and that she has rarely spoken to anyone beyond immediate members of her family or advisers. “She has chosen to dedicate this life to the divine,” Chanira says.

Taking a sip of my tea, I ask Chanira if it was strange to live under the same roof as a Kumari.

“Oh no. Not at all. I’m completely used to it. You see, I used to be a Kumari as well,” she says. “Our family is very unusual in having produced two Kumaris. Between the ages of five and 15 I was the Kumari and my auntie helped me a lot in dealing with the special, privileged life of a Kumari.

“When my mother was pregnant with me she had dreams of lotus flowers falling from the sky and landing on her womb. Priests told her that it meant that the baby, me, would be a high person in society who would be visited by kings,” she says. “My mum thought I might be an important government official. She certainly didn’t think I would be the next Kumari.

“Some people say that the tradition of the Kumari is cruel to children. But I enjoyed it and I think I have been left with a higher spiritual knowledge than most people. Plus, I did very well at school because I was privately educated. It was a blessing to be chosen as the Kumari. Going outside during a big festival was one of my favourite memories. I was the centre of attention. And I always got the best view.”

How did it feel when the spirit of the goddess finally left her and she once again returned to being just an average person, I ask. “My mum tried to prepare me for life when I was no longer a goddess, but it was still a shock when it came,” she says.

“One day hundreds of people would come to see me for blessings. The next day I was just a normal child. It took me three to six months to get adjusted to the normal world.

"The first time I stepped outside of the house on my own my legs were trembling. My parents held my hands, because I had no idea how to walk in the street with all the people and traffic around. At first, I didn’t know how to buy anything. How to bargain. How to enter a shop.

"The one bit of advice I wish I had known is how different people would be when I was no longer a Kumari. When the goddess left me and I was a normal girl again I realised how hard people could be. How selfish we could be.”

I agree that this dramatic change must have been a shock and I wonder what – if anything – an ex-goddess does afterwards to earn a living? She chuckles as she replies. “I’m a credit analyst. I studied at the top university in Nepal and now I work for a company in Australia. When they hired me they didn’t know that I used to be a goddess. But one day, someone in the office saw my picture in a magazine or on the internet. When my bosses found out they were suddenly really nice to me.”

Having drained the last of our tea I get up to leave and ask Chanira if there is a way to contact her in case I had any further questions.

“Sure,” she says. “You can follow me on Instagram.”

A former goddess with a social media following who works in international finance.

“Well”, I think as I walk away, “The gods really do work in mysterious ways.” And with that I click the follow button on her Instagram page.

Updated: December 29, 2023, 6:02 PM