The Living Goddess of Nepal

Isabella Tree explores the Kumaris, young girls chosen to be worshipped in Nepal by both Hindus and Buddhists as symbols of purity and makers of kings.

In a medieval building in the heart of old Kathmandu lives a young girl known to Nepalis as 'Kumari'. To foreigners she is the 'Living Goddess'. Her face features on the cover of guide books, postcards and souvenirs. Beneath a bejewelled crown and bedecked with gold snake necklaces and sacred amulets, she gazes at the world enigmatically, never smiling. If she smiles at you – so her worshippers believe – it is an invitation to heaven and you die. From the centre of her forehead, painted red and edged in gold, stares a third, 'all-seeing' eye, a black pupil set in bronze.

Her 18th-century residence – a traditional red-brick building with carved windows and dragon-scale roof tiles known as the 'Kumari Chen' or 'Kumari Ghar', just yards from the old royal palace and surrounded by exquisite pagoda-temples, is one of the 'must-sees' on the Himalayan tourist trail. Though foreigners are not allowed inside, anyone can enter her courtyard, an intimate space frequented by pigeons and surrounded by carvings of multi-armed goddesses. A glimpse of the child goddess at her window here, if she deigns to appear, is a highlight of a visit to this ancient capital.

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The Living Goddess of Nepal