A British youngster in Nepal during her gap-year discovers an unlikely neighbour — a living goddess. A prepubescent girl child, a Kumari, venerated as a manifestation of the mother goddess, Devi. Intrigued, the youngster tries to learn more about an institution that traces its roots deep into the history and myths of Nepal. After fourteen years, she journeys many times to the valley with backpacks and questions — how did this practice originate, how are these girl goddesses chosen, what happens to them once they attain puberty, and what is the future of this tradition. The result is ‘The Living Goddess’, by UK-based journalist and author Isabella Tree, that is part myth, part personal journey, part history, and part travelogue. It leaves a complex aftertaste — a case of an adept chef in a different kitchen who respects the ingredients there without quite owning them.
Tree starts with what you would discover in a tourist guide — the Kumari is believed to have divine powers, she leaves her abode only to attend certain festivals such as the Indra Jatra, where the king of Nepal would bow at the feet of this little child. If she refused to bless the King, his reign was considered doomed. Not only was the Kumari vested with such power by the monarchy (recently abolished), but the tradition was also syncretic — the child chosen from a Buddhist family and worshipped by both Hindu and Buddhist priests.
Through interviews with former Kumaris, priests, and research, Tree unveils a fascinating portrait of this ancient tradition. Particularly poignant is her interview with Rashmila, a former Kumari, and her family, where the slow and often painful process of adjusting to a ‘normal’ life is revealed in touching detail.
If the book were just that, it would have been a straightforward journalistic exercise. Tree goes one step further. In the beginning of the book is a timeline, from 100,000 BCE to 2008, when the monarchy was abolished, and Tree masterfully tunes this clock and shows how the tradition of the Kumari is intertwined with the vagaries of Nepal’s journey and starts at a point when history is in the land of myth. She unspools stories of divinity that foreground the practice of goddess worship and in alternate chapters, you find tales that are like Amar Chitra Katha minus the illustrations. But Tree’s craft makes up for that. Her prose is like high-resolution photography; she brings to life image after image of Nepal, its architecture, the people, the atmosphere, and stories of divinity.
What is interesting is her way of dealing with terms in ancient languages you encounter in goddess lore. She doesn’t subscribe to the vada is a ‘salty doughnut’ class of explanations and instead chooses to trust her reader by providing meaningful context. You may quibble that by choosing narrative flow over lengthy expositions, some layered words remain unexplored, but it would be just that, a quibble.
Despite its ancient roots, what sets the Kumari tradition apart is that it continues to live and breathe today. Therefore, Tree’s effort in understanding the Kumari tradition does not only have archival value; its present and future are relevant to a crucial debate between old ways and new. Thus this debate is crucial in fusing different parts Tree arranges, and here she assumes a wishful stance, the role of a ‘respectful outsider’, one who sees value in the tradition and in preserving it. You see it when she talks about the son of a Vajracharya, a priest, whose economic pursuits occupy his time rather than acquisition of ancient wisdom. You see it in the way she speaks about a case in the Supreme Court of Nepal against the Kumari tradition — she registers it is unfairly clubbed with other heinous older practices. Her stance is wishful as it refuses to acknowledge the complexities and the polarising nature of this debate.
For instance, she supports modernisation of some aspects, such as providing more education to the Kumaris so that they are better equipped to deal with the world after their tenure. By doing so, ironically, Tree resorts to the same reductionist approach she rallies against initially, talking about the value of holistic traditions. Education is reduced to a commodity, something acquired so that one finds suitable employment, rather than something that is transformative. Would not an education that stands for open knowledge prove antithetical to a system where a certain caste determines knowledge access? Can these systems co-exist without fracturing those they reside within? Such questions are never dealt with and you finish a tad unsatiated, despite being treated to a feast.
THE LIVING GODDESS — A Journey into the Heart of Kathmandu: Isabella Tree; Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd., 11, Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-110001. Rs. 499.