Kumari festival of Nepal : worshipping the living goddess

Kumari tradition in Nepal


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The sounds of drum rolls reverberated through the Durbar square in Kathmandu as lakhs thronged to see the Kumari in her chariot. It was that time of the year, where the city came alive with the infectious energy of the Indra Jatra.

Kumari eyes

I feel a little lost. People perched on top of buildings, peeping out of crowded cafe windows and some precariously balancing themselves on edges of terraces. While this was the aerial view, the ground realities were a little different.

Groups of young boys and girls dressed in all finery, paraded through the crowds, making the atmosphere nothing short of a carnival.

There was action everywhere. Masked dancers known as Lakhay walked through the crowds, drummers blended in and men in white robes glided in and out.

Come September and Kathmandu gears up to celebrate the Indra Jatra, a street festival where the living goddess of Kathmandu known as the Kumari is worshipped and she is brought out in a chariot to bless the crowds.

Indra jatra Kathmandu Nepal
The crowds

Even a glimpse of her is said to bring good fortune, as she is rarely seen and lives an isolated life inside the ‘Kumari Ghar ‘.

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The Kumari tradition in Nepal: 

The tradition spans over centuries, where young girls are selected after a rigorous procedure ( 32 tests of perfection) from the Newari community and once selected, the living goddess takes the role of a Kumari till she attains puberty. After which, the girl returns to the ordinary life. She is believed to be a reincarnation of the Hindu goddess Durga and people believe she has a power inside her, as the goddess Taleju Bhawani  has entered her soul. The chosen Kumari is worshipped by both Buddhists and Hindus.

 

Kumari tradition in Nepal
The present Kumari : Manita Shakya

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We climb up the stairs of the Kumari Ghar ‘residence of the Present Kumari’ to see the current Kumari, 11 years old, Manita Shakya, before the Chariot processions begin in the city. Manita has been a Kumari since she was 3 and photographing her inside the Kumari Ghar is strictly prohibited. We join the line of devotees with offerings and finally get to see her. Clad in vibrant red and gold, she sits cross legged. There is a certain aura around her.

She doesn’t emote. Her face devoid of expressions. This isn’t what I imagined in my head, before I left for Nepal, to be honest. I had pictured the young goddess as a giggly, little girl. But as I bend down and bow down to this little princess, I feel an unimaginable power around her.

I cannot help but notice her delicate feet, almost cotton like, smeared with vermillion.

I never imagined I would be meeting a living Goddess in my life. It was a very private affair and even though there weren’t any emotions or expressions, it felt different, very very different.

Kumari living goddess
The living Goddess

 

8 Hours later: 

I am now standing in front of the decorated chariots, with vibrant hues of red and gold. The volunteers are gearing up for the procession and so is the local police. The Durbar square and the area around the Kumari Ghar  is brimming with activity. All waiting for a glimpse of the Kumari in her chariot.

As the crowds swell, the excitement levels sky rocket. While one part of me hunts for the comfort of a vantage point, another part wants to plunge into the crowds for close shots.

While I debate, there is an outcry. Bhairav (one of the gods in the procession) arrives in a palanquin. I see a hint of mischief in his eyes, like he is happy to revel in the glory, as he is whisked away on the shoulders into the Kumari Ghar.

Chariot festival Kathmandu
Bhairav : a manifestation of Shiva

The wait is almost over. In another hour, the three chariots would leave after gun shots are fired in the air.

They are brought out one after the other. First the Hindu god Ganesh, then Bhairav, a manifestation of Lord Shiva and then Kumari, the living Goddess. Ladies rush with offerings and garlands as they are taken to their respective chariots by their caretakers.

 

It is faith, royalty, celebration and zest all coupled into one moment as the crowd breaks into a cheer when they see the Kumari lifted by her caretaker Gautam Shakya and made to sit in the chariot.

kumari caretaker
The moment!

I snap the moment only to realise that this is indeed the time to run. The chariots would move any moment and so would the crowds. The chariot of the Kumari is slated to stop infront of the huge Bhairav mask and as soon as the Kumari greets the image, beer begins to flow out of the mask and locals believe it is good fortune to get a sip of this!

Chariot festival Kathmandu
The chariots move

Mr. Sagar’s (Owner of The Dwarika Chenn Hotel) words echo in my mind. “The chariots will stop outside the hotel”.

I know where to head next.

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Life of a Kumari:

Kumari of Kathmandu

It isn’t easy being a Kumari. The young Kumari is not allowed to step out except on special occasions and festivals and cannot talk to anyone apart from their parents and family members. She is brought up in an protective environment where her tutors come home for her lessons. They are mostly carried around everywhere by their caretakers, as their feet should never touch the ground, hence most Kumaris find it a hurdle to walk once they return to normal life.

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As I reach Dwarika Chhen, Mr. Sagar’s grin welcomes me. He asks me to hurry as I scramble up to a point where we can see all the action without any hurdle.

I stand trying to calm myself despite all the chaos around me, letting the festivities wash over me. The chariots approach, one after the other. I wait with bated breath like something magical is still left. The chariot with Ganesh is about to pass followed by Bhairav’s, living gods played by young boys : Sambeg Shakya and Rojan Shakya.

 

The mischievous Ganesh sits playfully in his chariot. I focus my lens on him and he turns. Looks at me straight in my eye and I gasp. The eyes say it all.

I frame it. Not just in my camera but in my heart.

The tradition of Living gods may or may not be believed by all , but there is no denying the fact that every little child in this universe has the divinity to melt hearts. Like this one just did.

Fact file: 

The Indra Jatra is an 8 day long festival celebrated by the Newari caste in Kathmandu. The festive kickstart in the Basantapur square with the erection of a wooden pole known as the ‘Lingam’ which bears the flag of Indra, the Hindu God of Rain.

The Indra Jatra festival pays homage to Indra and Dagini (mother of Indra) for the upcoming harvest season and honours the recently deceased. It is believed that Dagini is worshipped by the kin of the recently deceased so she takes their spirits with her.

All throughout the 8 days, the main square and the streets come alive with celebrations. There are enactments of the Dasha Avtar and temple brimming with people.

In the evening there is the main chariot procession that begins with the Kumari Ghar, where three chariots are taken to different parts of Kathmandu.

Tips:

It is best to stay in the middle of all the action to see the festivities up close. The best place to stay is Dwarika Chhen Welcome heritage Hotel which is at a 2 minute walking distance from the Kumari Ghar.

Kathmandu Kumari ghar
Kumari ghar entrance

Make sure you are aware of the route and the timings, so you do not miss the key events. Locals are helpful and will guide you to vantage points.  Do a recce of the place before the actual festival. It is best to do a tour of the Temples of Nepal before or after or during the Kumari festival or Indra Jatra.

Must visit places near Kathmandu are Patan Durbar Square and Bhaktapur. It is advisable that you visit both these when you visit Nepal for the Indra Jatra!

It is easier to snap the Living Gods: Bhairav and Ganesh . So do not miss out on these!

living gods nepal

Wear comfortable shoes that help you run and that you are ready to sacrifice! 🙂

 

Note: I was invited by the Nepal Tourism Board to witness the Kumari Festival held in Kathmandu from September 4 onwards, this year.

64 thoughts on “Kumari festival of Nepal : worshipping the living goddess

  1. The images are simply spectacular. Plus I noticed a slight difference in the writing style – intentional or .. . .?
    I’ve heard about this festival of the living goddess – but not read such a detailed coverage before 🙂

    1. Thanks so much Sid! 🙂 The writing style was intentionally different 😉 well observed. Needed the reader to flit between the facts and the narration 🙂

  2. This is probably the most colorfully vivid post on Quirkywanderer till date! Fabulous captures. A day in the life of a Kumari, not so easy is it?! A wonderful go to guide for the Kumari festival!

  3. I had goose bumps as I read this, your detailed write up and stunning pics made it that real for me. I have read a lot about the Kumari festival and have always wished to be part of one. Your post made that possible. Thank you for sharing, such a treat!:)

  4. Wonderful blog Divyakshi. You brought alive the real feel of the festival. We were blessed to be a part of this year’s festivities. You have shared some really interesting facts. I have told you this before. I love the expression of Ganesha in the picture you have clicked.

    1. Thanks so much Abhinav! 🙂 Was so happy to witness this with you. In all the chaos it was a treat to document it all! 🙂 Thanks for the appreciation and the great company!

  5. firstly, i applaud you on your writing and beautiful photography in this post! i have seen a documentary about this festival and its really cool you got to experience it. i love all the vibrant structures, decoration and spaces here.

  6. You have taken some incredible photos of Kumari festival of Nepal. Celebrating for 8 days on main square must be so great and lively. I really want to attend this kind of festival. I loved all chariots Bhairav. ganesha and others. Kumari Ghar entrance is stunning.

  7. Wow, this sounds like an interesting festival. The bright colours of festivals always cheer up any photographer and you have taken great pictures. You got me intrigued about this festival! Kudos.

  8. I love your narratives…makes the reader feel we are actually there in time..

    I had never heard of the Kumari festival..nice to hear about such interesting rituals at different parts of the world

  9. Thats a myriad of colors that we have now come to expect from the sub continent. It seems pretty similar to the Karpagam festival held in rural parts of Karnataka. Will post about that sometime and let you know. Eerily similar colours too!

    1. Absolutely! 🙂 The sub continent has so many flavours across different regions!:) Haven’t heard of the Karpagam festival. Will look forward to your post 🙂

  10. Nice post, I like how you’ve explained things. Don’t know much about Kumari tradition, but this post was an eye opener. Love how your photos brought out the atmosphere and that energy to life. Enjoyed it, thanks. 🙂

  11. Fantastic write up Divsi. I know how excited you were after you got that direct connect with Bhairav. It was just so meant to be! This is one moment you will never ever forget!

  12. Your post on the festival in Kathmandu certainly connected with me. I have a cousin whose name is Kumari. Now I can better understand the depth and significance of her name! Also, I can only imagine the pressure of being chosen to live up to this name in Nepal.

  13. I’ve never met a living god or goddess – it must be a mind blowing experience, especially in the context of this amazing festival. It’s interesting that every child potentially has the power within them – as adults many of us have mostly lost the innocence and wonder of life that would make a child pure and holy, although I wonder if the chosen ones would choose a different life if they could?

  14. Stunning! I want to visit Nepal next year, thanks for sharing! Is this festival every year at the same date or is it changing? I hope I will be able to see it!

  15. What an incredible street festival – so many colors, and I can tell just from the photos how lively the atmosphere is. The Kumari tradition sounds really interesting – how fascinating to have met, and been in the presence of a living goddess. It sounds like quite an isolated life for her though which is kind of sad for the child.

    Thanks for the insight into the tradition of Living gods and the 8 days that is the Indra Jatra festivities. Sounds like one of the most exciting and lively street festivals I’ve heard about!

  16. You got some great clicks. Indra Jatra or the Kumari festival definitely looks like a carnival. I love those masked dancers. Wish I could have joined in for the fest.
    Have heard many stories of this living goddess but I am sure the real experience of the whole thing would have been a different experience all together.

    Manjulika

  17. This is an incredible festival. I had not heard of it before , but then there are so many local festivals in the world that are really interesting. What a colourful event. It must be difficult for Manita not to show any emotion. Thanks for this great insight.

    1. It is indeed an incredible fest 🙂 You are right, there are so many vibrant local festivals that give a flavour of the region and its culture. I wonder why she doesn’t emote. Maybe a reason to that too.

  18. Just so wow, Divsi! And so true – every child has the divinity to melt hearts. Your pictures, all fabulous, especially those eyes of the Ganesh – certainly melted mine! Felt every word that you wrote, great coverage of the festival!

  19. Loved this post…. especially the pictures. I first read about this practice many years ago in some magazine. I think I was still in school. But this is the best photo feature I have seen on the topic. It is a difficult issue to offer an opinion on, considering the age of the girl. But that is only our perspective.

  20. Wonderful account of a fascinating tradition Divyakshi! I shared this on Twitter while travelling, but didn’t realise I hadn’ read the post. Your photos are as fabulous as always. Love the portraits of the little ‘living Gods’ in particular 🙂

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