This interview by Malaysian Indian Classical Dancer, Kogilavani Krishnamorty, on Nepal’s former Kumari Devi (living goddess) Chanira Bajracharya originally appeared in Tamil in Vallinam Online Maganize in July 2023. It was translated into English and published in Apsara Arts on December 3, 2023.
I had the opportunity to meet Chanira Bajracharya during my recent visit to Nepal (June 2023). Chanira is the former Kumari Devi, having been chosen as the living goddess of Patan Durbar Square in April 2001 at the age of five. She resumed her life as a normal girl following puberty in 2010 at fifteen. Currently 27 years old (as of 2023), Chanira holds a master’s degree in Business Administration from Kathmandu University and works as a credit analyst in an Australian Mortgage company. Chanira is also a skilled practitioner of the classical dance form of Charya Nirthiya.
Even though there were many former Kumaris to choose from in Nepal, we chose Chanira because she stands out as a fluent English speaker who has received a higher education, even among former Kumaris. Additionally, her experiences and emotions are woven into the tumultuous history of Nepal.
Chanira lived near Patan Durbar Square. We went to her house to meet her. Chanira took us to her special room where she used to meet people who came for interviews and discussion. The entire room was filled with pictures of her as a former Kumari. Our conversation began casually.
Can you explain the method of choosing Kumari Devi? And is the tradition of Kumari Devi still practised in the modern world?
Chanira: There is a lot of misinformation on the internet and in newspapers about the methods of selecting Kumaris. Claims of keeping girls locked in dark rooms, sacrificing animals, and men wearing scary masks trying to scare the girl as part of the Kumari selection process are false. The selection of Kumari is done based on Tantric rituals. The chosen Kumari will be considered a living deity until the first menstruation comes. The Kumari of Patan is chosen from the ‘Bajracharya’ clan associated with Ratnakar Mahavihar. Only girls aged 2 to 6 from Ratnakar Mahavihar, a Buddhist community comprising about 150 affiliated families, are deemed qualified for the Kumari position. The selection process for eligible girls takes place within the enclosed courtyard of Ratnakar Mahavihar and is conducted by priests from the Taleju Temple. The selection team includes a group consisting of a numerology expert, the chief priest from Goddess Taleju Bhavani temple, our ethnic group leader, government officials, etc.
There are three main procedures to choose a girl. First, the chief priest would make the girls who applied for Kumari Devi stand in a queue. The priest begins to chant a special mantra in front of the girls. During this time, the goddess Taleju Bhavani is believed to have entered the body of the chosen girl, and the priest can recognise this by certain signs. As the chanting continues, the chosen girl will start to make mudra, hand gestures like the goddess Taleju Bhavani. Some girls start to stand like the goddess Taleju, while others’ faces begin to shine and their eyes light up. Based on these signs, the priest selects the first three girls, and then the chief priest’s wife conducts the second round. In this round, she takes each girl into a room, removes their clothes, and checks for any injuries or scarring. The girl will be deemed unfit to become Kumari Devi if any injuries are found.
You may have read online that the Kumari is expected to have a body structure resembling a lion’s chest, a deer’s thighs, and a cow’s eyelids. However, such claims are not based on reality, and expecting a human to have such features is unrealistic. The priest and his wife will choose the girl whose intimate physical features match their definition. The chosen girl will then perform certain rituals and follow certain formalities to become the representative and living Goddess of Taleju Bhavani for the next few years.
After the selection process, the new Kumari will be taken to the Goddess Taleju Bhavani temple for special pujas. Initiation ceremony various traditional rituals and events will then be held to welcome the new Kumari.
There are 12 Kumari Devi in Nepal, but the Kumari of Kathmandu holds a special status among them. is it true?
Chanira: Yes, it is true. Although there are 12 Kumari girls in Nepal, the Kumari of Kathmandu holds a special status known as the ‘Royal Kumari.’ She is given many privileges such as a palace, government subscriptions, and the power to swear in new government officials. However, the rules and traditions are the same for all the Kumari girls, and they all represent the one God. In addition, the Kathmandu Valley comprises three main cities, each with its own Kumari. The Kathmandu Kumari holds the utmost importance and enjoys widespread recognition. Following closely is the Patan Kumari, who also plays a vital full-time role. In contrast, the Bhaktapur Kumari assumes a more flexible position, fulfilling her duties as a goddess on a part-time basis while embracing a modern lifestyle. The remaining Kumaris are part-time goddesses, who lead a lifestyle similar to that of normal girls, dressing up in Kumari attire only for special occasions a few times a year. They are worshipped exclusively by a closed group within their respective communities.
The horoscope of Kumari Devi, or the Living Goddess, consists of 32 astrological aspects that are used to determine her eligibility for the role. Is the selection of the Kumari Devi closely tied to the royal family?
Chanira: Yes, the horoscope of the Kumari who will be chosen as the living goddess needs to be superior to the king. It should also be beneficial for the country. Only the Kumari with a better horoscope could be blessed with such good fortune. The National Pandit (a Hindu scholar who learned Sanskrit and Hindu philosophy and religion, typically also a practising priest) will come to predict Kumari’s horoscope.
Did your parents have the right to visit you when you were a living goddess?
Chanira: The Royal Kumari in Kathmandu does not have the right to meet or be with her parents. An ancient family serving as caretakers takes care of the Royal Kumari in the Kumari Palace. However, this is not the case for the Kumari in Patan. The Patan Kumari is allowed to stay at home with her parents. Since 2014, the Patan Kumaris have been given a palace where they can be with their parents in their embrace. I grew up that way.
Tell me about your life and your daily routine as a Kumari in the palace.
Chanira: I used to wake up every morning at 6 am and take a holy bath. After the bath, my mother would apply agni chakshu (fire eyes), a cultural marking on my forehead that belongs to the Kumari, symbolizing her special powers of perception. Then my dad would perform a special pooja for me, which lasted about 20 minutes. During the pooja, I was offered some flowers, fruits, and sweets. After that, some devotees came to seek my blessings. Many devotees used to come to worship me in the morning, seeking blessings for a new job, exams, or a child.
It is impossible to enter the royal Kumari’s room in Kathmandu. However, in Patan, devotees had the privilege of visiting Kumari in her own room. I spent most of my time blessing the devotees who visited me. After that, I used to have private tuition classes for 2 or 3 hours. Most evenings, I had free time, and I engaged in activities I enjoyed, such as playing with my brothers and watching TV. After that, there is an Arti session (a ritual performed in homes and temples with light) for me, and Kumari Ghar is closed after the Arti.
When you were a child, what kind of Education and any supplementary classes did you attend?
Chanira: Kumaris are not allowed to go to school or participate in other activities. According to tradition, people feared to teach the Kumari due to the belief that attempting to impart knowledge, surpassing the wisdom of the goddess herself, would be considered a sinful act.
Education is a significant challenge for all Kumaris. However, my mother was unique. She loves the culture of Kumari Devi and she’s on an important mission to protect it. She was also thrilled to be the mother of a living goddess. However, my mother worried about my future after my period as a living goddess was over. My parents also had a lot of confusion about how I would cope with the world without education.
When I became a Kumari, my mother visited several schools for about three months, meeting with teachers and appealing to them to give me an education. Luckily, a teacher came to the palace and agreed to teach me. She taught me everything I would have learned in school. I was the first Kumari Devi to take a government test (School Leaving Certificate exam; the concluding examination for students in the 10th grade) in Nepal. This news spread quickly around Nepal, even making headlines in newspapers. My achievement inspired other Kumaris as well. Many colleges and universities offered scholarships to support my studies.
Nowadays, there are more opportunities available to Kumaris than ever before. In addition to formal education, they also have the option to study fields such as dance, art, music, and sports.
When you were Kumari, how did your teacher teach you? Has she scolded or been strict with you?
Chanira: We all worship our gurus (teachers) and learn lessons from them. In our tradition, we all revere our gurus (teachers) and learn lessons from them. However, in my case, it was a reversal of roles. As a goddess, my teacher had to show respect and worship me before commencing any lesson. She had no authority to reprimand me, regardless of any wrongdoing on my part. No one, not even my parents, could adopt a stern demeanour with me.
As Kumari Devi, I held a divine status for everyone, including the king. Nonetheless, as a goddess, my inherent qualities were to remain calm, respectful, and polite. I cannot recall any instance where my parents or teacher were displeased with my behaviour; I was well-mannered as a child.
What kind of food did you eat when you were a Kumari? Are you vegetarian?
Chanira: Kumaris are prohibited from consuming chicken, chicken eggs, pork, or any food containing these items. However, buffalo meat, duck eggs, and fish hold significance as offerings to the tantric deity. Raksi, the traditional liquor is often offered as part of the Kumari Devi’s offering of food, and it is a common practice for Kumaris to drink this liquor. The family must ensure that the prepared food is pure and clean, and the Kumari must be served first.
Are you worried about losing your childhood? Have you ever regretted being a Kumari Devi?
Chanira: I don’t feel like I’ve lost anything at all because I deeply understand that I had a privilege that no one else had. I was a living goddess from the age of 5 to 15, for about 10 years. People would fall at my feet and worship me as a god. Now, I live as an ordinary woman. I have lived two very different lives, and both have taught me a lot of valuable experiences. As a living goddess, I learned to be patient and listen to others. Even after almost 11 years as an ordinary woman, people still come to me seeking blessings. People from all over the world come to discuss and share my experiences. Wherever I go, I still receive respect for my former role as Kumari Devi. The nature of being a god has not changed. I have never lost anything in my life, on the other hand, I have gained so much.
How did you feel on the day you left Kumari Ghar, the palace of the living goddess?
Chanira: My mom is a practical woman who always reminded me that this life is not permanent and that I would have to return to normal life one day. So, I was mentally prepared for it. However, the day I left my role as Kumari Devi was still gloomy. I was shocked, worried, and terrified of being an ordinary woman after living as a goddess for so long.
How did your relatives and friends react to you after you came back from Kumar Ghar and to know that you were no longer a living Goddess?
Chanira: As Patan Kumari lives with her family, I grew up in my own home (which was the Kumari House for the period I was Kumari). It wasn’t any different when I resumed my normal life after the end of my Kumari tenure.
Yet, during my time as the Kumari, my parents and friends were expected to treat me as a goddess, addressing me as Dyah Mehju (meaning goddess) instead of using my name. After retirement, as an ordinary person, there was some uncertainty about how they should interact with me. Despite this, they persisted in addressing me as a goddess and maintaining the same level of respect as before.
Reflecting on my first day at college, my classmates made an effort to be courteous and respectful. Some were curious, approaching me with questions about my past life. When I met new people, they would introduce themselves and start a conversation with me casually. But once they found out that I was a former Kumari, they would give me more respect and priority.
Was Kumari Devi expected to maintain a certain level of composure and not show emotions such as laughter, crying, or grief to others? Does this affect your ability to express emotions when you return to your normal life?
Chanira: Yes, it is the norm for Kumari Devi not to show emotions. When someone kneels before Kumari and worships her, if Kumari Devi suddenly weeps, the devotee may face consequences as her signs are interpreted as predictions of the devotee’s future.
There are even symbols for certain facial movements that Kumari Devi is expected to avoid. Therefore, when sitting on her throne and offering blessings, Kumari Devi should not show any emotion on her face. If she were to show any emotion, it could affect the nation and even the King.
All these restrictions solely pertained to the moments when I occupied the special throne, believed to possess unique powers, during ritualistic occasions and public appearances. Outside of those instances, I was simply a regular girl who could freely express laughter and emotions. As a child, I was able to express all of my emotions with my family.
There was an unforgettable incident that happened in the kingdom when you were newly chosen as Kumari Devi. It is still remembered in world history. Please share the incident with us.
Chanira: The primary duty of Kumari Devi is to protect the nation and the King. It had been merely three months since my designation as a Kumari when, out of the blue, I started crying and the tears persisted for three days without any apparent reason. The crying meant tears flowed without ceasing, and even during sleep, my cheeks remained wet. My mother thought I was crying because of the relocation and the lack of friends. I didn’t want to give up my passion for sports and entertainment. Some of the priests came to see me and said it wasn’t a good fortune. On the third day, I woke up from sleep at about 2 am and told my mum that my work was done. My mother was shocked. Within minutes, news of the massacre at the Narayanhiti palace reached my mother. It is a crime that will never be forgotten in the history of the world, and there have been many documentaries about it. On June 1, 2001, a banquet was held at the Narayanhiti Palace in Kathmandu. Prince Dipendra, heavily intoxicated, entered the party and shot the people present with a gun. Almost 10 people, including Prince Dipendra’s father King Birendra, and mother Queen Aishwarya, were killed in the attack, and five others were injured. After that, Prince Dipendra shot himself.
What religion do you follow?
Chanira: I was born into a Buddhist family, specifically the Bajracharya clan. Only those born into the Bajracharya clan can become Kumari Devi. Taleju Bhavani is a Hindu goddess from India, and Kumari Devis is believed to be the reincarnation of Goddess Taleju Bhavani. Thus, Kumari Devi is a cultural blend of these two religions, Hindu and Buddhist. I was born a Buddhist and lived as a Hindu Goddess, so I am very familiar with both religions. As a result, I follow both of these religions.
Can you tell us about the divine path of Goddess Taleju Bhavani?
Chanira: Goddess Taleju Bhavani is the primal deity of the Newari Hindus who inhabit the Kathmandu Valley. In Nepal, Goddess Durga is worshipped as Taleju Bhavani. Kumari Devi is considered the representative of Taleju Bhavani.
According to folklore, the final king of Kantipur (the old name of Kathmandu), King Jaya Prakash Malla used to secretly visit the Taleju Temple in Basantapur to meet the Goddess Taleju Bhawani every midnight. They used to play a game of dice every night. Towards the end of the Malla reign, there was inter-state political rivalry and warfare in Nepal. King Jaya Prakash Malla had realised that his reign might end soon. The king talked about kingship and the political dimensions of war with the goddess. The goddess told him what he had already predicted, his reign was coming to a tragic end.
In their meetings, the goddess often gave him advice and helped him with decision making but she had one condition that no one could know about their secret meetings. Unfortunately for the king, the queen was suspicious about the king’s whereabouts in the night.
One night, the curious queen followed the king. She covertly watched the king and the goddess playing dice inside the Taleju temple. The goddess saw the queen and became frantic. She told Malla that she would never meet him again and vanished into thin air. The king was distressed and begged the goddess to return and one night, she finally appeared in his dream.
The goddess told him that she would reside in the body of a girl child from the Buddhist Shakya (Bajracharya) clan. If the king worshipped her then she would protect him and he would be able to extend his rule for a decade. The king then built the Kumari Temple in the 18th century now known as the Kumari Ghar (house) for the living goddess Kumari. As predicted by the goddess, the king ruled for a further 12 more years.
What does the image of Goddess Taleju Bhavani look like?
Chanira: Taleju is lovely. She is almost like Goddess Mahishasuramardini.
Do you associate with other former Kumaris?
Chanira: Yes, I do. All the former Kumaris are often invited to the temple festivals and spiritual events. I used to talk to them at temple festivals and also keep in touch with them too.
Can you get involved in married life?
Chanira: Although there are no restrictions on who can become a Kumari, the horoscopes of the chosen one must be of the highest calibre. It is a challenging task to find the right person to fill the Kumari’s shoes. There is a lot of folklore surrounding the former Kumari’s marriage. It was once believed that if a man married a former Kumari, he would die soon, but this is a misconception. In Nepal, many former Kumaris are happily married and have children.
If you are married and have a daughter in the future, will you allow her to become a living God Kumari Devi?
Chanira: I would love to do it but that’s not feasible. As I mentioned earlier, only daughters from Ratnakar Mahavihar, which has approximately 150 affiliated families, are eligible candidates for the Kumari selection. However, being born in the same Mahabihar, we regard this community as one large family which I am also a part of, and our tradition prohibits marriage within the same community. I will be married to a different community, and unfortunately, that community is not eligible for the Kumari selection.
Tell us about the dance form that you’re currently involved.
Chanira: I didn’t get a chance to dance when I was a kid. After returning to normal life, I fell in love with the art of Charya Nirthya (dance) and wanted to learn it. In Nepal’s Newar Buddhist tradition, Charya is considered a sacred form of Buddhist art and is one of our classical and traditional dances. This dance is particularly special to me because I used to dress up like a God and perform it as a God. Although I am no longer a living goddess, I can satisfy my longing through this dance and keep our tradition alive.
Have you got any special offers from politicians since they used to get blessings from you when you were Kumari?
Chanira: I did not receive any special privileges during my time as Kumari Devi. I never even had the opportunity to request any help or support from anyone. I pursued my education at the university on my own initiative. However, after their term ends, all Kumari Devis are given a pension by the government. Although the amount is very small, former Kumaris are given a lifetime pension. The pension supports me as well.
If you have the opportunity, will you become a living God and Kumari Devi again? Are you ready to accept that life?
Chanira: I definitely look forward to it (laughing) almost every day I’m thinking of it. Ordinary life is full of challenges, such as fighting for money and jobs, and there are many protests mixed in with fake lifestyles. Living as a God was easy, as we were in a safe place and our needs were taken care of by others.
There are two major religions in Nepal, Hinduism and Buddhism. Both religions have a lot of female deities, such as Goddess Durga, Kumari Devi, Taleju Bhavani, Tara Devi, and Maya Devi, among others. However, it is important to note that although females are worshipped as deities in Nepal, they may sometimes receive different priorities and treatment in society. What is your opinion on it?
Chanira: Nepal is one of the countries with the highest rates of violence against women, despite claiming equal rights for both sexes. Among women aged 15 to 49, 22% have experienced physical violence at least once since the age of 15. The current government continues to spread awareness against such issues. There are also severe penalties for crimes against women. I am confident that this situation will change.
It will first occur through Kumari Devi, the representative of Goddess Taleju Bhavani. The reason is that Kumari Devi’s culture worships an ordinary girl as a goddess. And then the same Goddess turns the ordinary girl again. Even the highest-ranking monarch of the country bows to the Kumari. Not only Kumari Devi, but all women are admirable. Every woman has a Goddess in her. They are energetic. Powerful people. They are to be worshipped and respected by all. Kumari Devi’s culture gives the same positive message to this community and it could even be the will of Goddess Taleju Bhavani.
Cover image sourced from Chanira Bajracharya / Facebook.