In what will come across as a really stunning development, a very young girl is being worshiped as a living goddess.
On a bustling street in Patan in Nepal, a small hand-painted sign announces the residence of a living goddess.
A goddess who is only 7 years old.
Her name is Yunika. She is a Kumari — one in a centuries-old tradition of living, breathing child goddesses. It’s considered good luck to merely lay eyes on her.
“Nightline” was granted special access to see this Kumari prepare for a day of receiving worshipers.
“When my daughter was selected as a Kumari, I felt very happy,” her father, Ramesh Bajracharya, said through a translator. “It’s because Kumari is hugely regarded and respected living goddess in Nepal.”
The Kumari lives with her mother and father, who left their jobs to become her full-time caretakers. The Kumari is not allowed to leave her residence except for holy festivals, and her feet are never supposed to touch the ground. Even inside her home, she is carried everywhere. As for the meticulous customary makeup, her mother had to learn it through practice.
When asked about her daughter’s unusual childhood, her mother, Sabita Bajracharya, said through a translator,“I feel little sad that other children play outside, but her friends do come to play with her inside. Whatever she demands, dolls or any plaything, we fulfill her demands.”
The word “Kumari” means “unmarried girl” or “virgin.” She is worshipped by Hindus and Buddhists alike. To be chosen as a Kumari, a young girl, typically around 2 to 4 years old, must meet amazing specific standards.
First, her astrological chart must be considered favorable to the King of Nepal’s. Then, the girls are tested for 32 very specific physical attributes, including “eyelashes like a cow,” “thighs like a deer,” and a “voice as clear as a duck.” She is also put through a secret test for signs of fearlessness and serenity.
Once a girl is chosen, she is considered an incarnation of the Hindu goddess Durga.
Most people have heard of the Dalai Lama, the living deity of Tibet. It’s said that the Dalai Lama’s soul is reincarnated into a new male child at death. Similar to the Kumari, finding the new Dalai Lama involves extensive tests.
But there is a big difference between the Dalai Lama and the Kumari because the Kumari are not Kumaris for life. Once they hit puberty, the young girls are forced to return to life as a mere mortal.
Rashmila Shakya served as a Kumari from age 4 to 12. Now 32 years old, she said, “When I was a Kumari, [I was not] allowed to walk outside. So it was a little bit uncomfortable when, after I retired from the Kumari house, a little uncomfortable walking on the road.”
Along with the challenge of having to learn how to walk as a teenager, there is another hurtle for former Kumaris — an old Nepali superstition that says men who marry ex-Kumaris are destined to die young.
“This is only a superstition — that if the Kumari marries a guy, the guy will die. This is only a superstition,” Shakya said, laughing. “All of the ex-Kumari are married. And I just married six months ago. This is only a rumor.”
Some activists inside Nepal have criticized the Kumari tradition, calling it child labor. But in 2008, Nepal’s Supreme Court overruled a petition to end the practice, citing its cultural value.
In April 2015, Nepal was struck by a catastrophic 7.8 earthquake and 8,000 people were killed. Entire villages were destroyed and famous historical landmarks were flattened.
As a result, people in Nepal say that the Kumari became more important than ever and there has been an uptick in visitors seeking the luck of her blessings. At the recent Hindu festival of rain, thousands came out to pay respects to 7-year-old Yunika, including one major VIP: the Prime Minister of Nepal.
Life as a Kumari can seem surreal and strange, but according to those who have lived it, this extraordinary childhood is a privilege. Ex-Kumaris enjoy prestige their whole lives, as well as a lifelong pension from the Nepali government.
But former Kumari Rashmila Shakya said the greatest honor is continuing the ancient tradition — it is a sacred duty.
“Best thing about being a Kumari [is] I protect my culture,” she said. “Nepalis do [this] as a living goddess Kumari.”