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.