A Kumari Contemplates Kathmandu Durbar Square
The tour guide seemed to hope greatly. An older man, he insisted on showing me his credentials as an authorised independent guide with quiet dignity. And he continued giving me his pitch on why I should see Kathmandu Durbar Square, with a guide.
I don't normally like guided tours. I prefer moving about sites on my own, left to my thoughts and taking my time with the strange and random things that often catch my fancy - but only my fancy.
It wasn't that I have never had tours that I liked, nor that I don't appreciate the insider information. It's just that, getting a guide that assists you to discover the place - preferably with humour - is very often a touch and go thing. I was lucky in Varanasi, where I was somehow sent one.
But usually it would be like the Sanctuary of Truth experience. You feel chained to the tour, struggling to stay interested through a long lecture of dates and facts. I found that this is especially the case in Asia, for some reason.
But I was in Nepal, on a trip that I tried to make as sustainable as possible. I was just at the booth for the UNESCO Heritage Site entrance fee, where I paid the 1000 rupees. Even though nothing stopped me from simply strolling into the open square gratis. People walked in and out, and I did not see very many - or any - who made a beeline to the booth.
Wouldn't it be the right thing to be shown around?
So, despite my misgivings, I stopped him in his monologue and asked him what the price was. "800 rupees," he said.
I decided to be a tourist, and agreed.
Kathmandu Durbar Square in 2017
I came to Kathmandu two years after the big earthquake that destroyed much of the country. Among the sites that suffered the most destruction, were the iconic Kathmandu Durbar Square.
Two years on, the surviving buildings were wrapped in scaffold, as restoration projects begun to be underway with Chinese funding. Within the square, there would be construction sites condoned off. Stockpiles of bricks and other building materials laid by here and there.
Funnily enough, though, one of the first buildings you encounter, was an all-white European-looking building which was apparently a palace.
But the next building we came to was much more interesting, and the reason why I decided to go to the square after all, even though I would not see it in its pre-quake glory. It was the dwelling of the Kumari, Nepal's resident child goddess.
The Kumari Ghar, the residence of the living incarnation of one of the goddess Kali's manifestations, bears many symbols and reliefs depicting and exalting her. The consort of Shiva (the incarnation as Parvati being one such role), she is perhaps among the most well known Hindu deities to non-Hindus, her many-armed form making her highly recognisable.
The entrance portals were crowned by elaborate carvings of the goddess, often surrounded by celestial beings. Lines of grinning skulls remind you of her bloodier aspects - Kali is not a goddess you mess with.
The entrances were invariably low-ceilinged - perhaps it was to ensure you bowed to enter. Altars bearing her symbols and images were in the courtyard, stained by the marks of worship offerings.
The casement of the Kumari was pointed out to me. It was a set of windows at the very top floor, within a facade of elaborately carved black wood. There were lengths of wood propped against the sides of all the inner courtyard walls. I wonder if the earthquake had impaired the stability of Kumari Ghar.
The guide told me that the child goddess is too holy to be normally seen in public. However, within a certain period in the afternoon, she might deign to look out into the courtyard from her casement window. She is not usually known to look out from the window at other times.
But it was not yet that time. So we moved on with the tour.
So many, many temples
I don't remember much from this part of the tour, other than that there were many, many little temples scattered all over Kathmandu Durbar Square.
The main reason for my poor retention of the experience, was precisely the reason I feared. The tour was in the lecture style. Sure, there was a lot of information, but the problem was, there was a LOT of information.
Which meant, the guide did not stop talking. He could not. One sight after another, all with their own facts. This temple, that statue. Go on, walk around that altar.
It was hard to enjoy the sights when there's never enough time and space to examine things, or do much more than snap quick photos. Never mind contemplating the sight of the ruined buildings.
For indeed, the destruction was clear.
There was a temple in particular, Kasthamandap temple, that was completely destroyed. It was a meeting place and a focal point for visitors of old to Kathmandu, the guide said. Now there was only rubble, and a picture displayed before it showing the structure in its past grandeur.
Sights from Kathmandu Durbar Square tour
Nonetheless, I do remember some things. Invariably the ones linked to sights I was already piqued by, or answers to questions I asked.
I remember a devotee rounding an altar - clockwise - passing his hand over lines of bells as he went by. The bells tinkling, tinkling in his wake.
I remember the garuda statue. Sacred to Lord Vishnu of the Hindu trinity, it had a less intimidating aspect than the more commonly encountered aesthetic of Lord Shiva - the patron deity of Nepal.
The guide drew my attention to the cows reposing before certain altars. One way of knowing who the temples were sacred to, was to observe the animal by its entrance. Each god had a favoured animal for his mount, and the cow was Shiva's.
I recall the row of souvenir shops selling Nepali crafts - from postcards and flags, to Buddhist thankas and puppets.
I walked up the steps of another temple, to gain a vantage of the square, wondering what it might have looked like, when it was complete and grand.
The tantric temple
And then there was the sex temple. (Ok, the accurate term is, 'tantric temple').
I would never have noticed it, if the carved reliefs hadn't been pointed out to me. They were carved on the eaves.
There were several depicting couples making love, even ones where the man appears to be cheating on one woman with another (or two?). My guide helpfully pointed out one in a corner, which depicts a cheated-upon woman catching him in the act, machete high in preparation to slice off the penis of the wayward man. Or possibly dismember the other woman. Maybe both - she looked fierce.
Legend has it that the women of the city were allowed to choose the scene for one of the reliefs of the temple. And that was what they instructed the sculptor to make. I rather liked that!
The shy god
An interesting thing about the tantric temple, was that it was basically completely intact. Hardly any damage was apparent from the earthquake.
"It's because of the explicit images," my guide said. I gave him a sceptical look. You have got to be pulling my leg.
"It's true," he insisted. Tantric temples do not need lightning protection, for example. And that's because the lightning god is a virgin god. He is too shy to look upon the erotic carvings in order to strike them with lightning.
He also pointed out the Hanuman statue, at the end of the path. "You see, how he is blindfolded?" Apparently, when the tantric temple was built, the statue's eyes were covered. So that the delicate sensibilities of the god would not be disturbed by the erotic tantric images.
I don't know whether it was my nonsense brain or my engineer brain that kicked in then. But I instantly wondered whether there were rooftop lightning rods around the area, and why tantric images were not therefore more common on local rooftops?
But there was no diplomatic way I could think of to ask these questions.
The swearing statue
There was another very arresting image in the square, which made an impression on me even when I was no longer taking in more information. It was on the other side of Kathmandu Durbar Square, and depicted Lord Shiva in his avenging incarnation.
In the old days, before the rise of detective work and evidence gathering, and people relied much more on testimony, disputes were settled before this terrifying image of Shiva. You would swear an oath that you speak the truth before the deity, and if you lied, his vengeance will fall upon you.
Indeed, it was a gruesome image. My guide informed me that Shiva is not just the lord of destruction. He is also the deity for justice, time, and retribution.
I guess, in summary, Shiva rules consequences. In a world where trending opinions all seem to imagine that consequences are not an essential part of the universe's workings, I feel I can get behind this.
The end of the tour - the usual drill
We still had a little bit of time until the window when the Kumari was known to look upon her courtyard. My guide asked what I would like to do - perhaps have tea in one of the rooftop restaurants?
But I was quite tired of being bombarded with information, and really just wanted to roam the square on my own for a little while. You see, the square wasn't all history. There was bustle, as people used it as a thoroughfare. There were leaf plates being made right by one of the Shiva shrines - something I'd never seen before. Fruits being sold, laid out on the ground at the edge of the ruined Kasthamandap.
I was also interested in these things, that typical tours do not cover.
He nodded, and reminded me of the Kumari's visiting time. But he remained, enquiring after a tip, 'for some tea'. So, even though the tour wasn't great for me, I gave him a little tip. I wish I knew how to tell him, he'd have done a better job, if he did less.
Calling on the Child Goddess of Nepal
I did not have much time to wander about before it was time to return to Kumari Ghar. I went early, as I did not want to risk missing the few seconds she would look out of her window.
There were already a few tourists in the small courtyard idling on the steps and by the altar, but no one else. So I busied myself examining the Kali reliefs more closely as I waited. I wasn't sure if the Kumari might decide to indulge us that day, but I've come this far.
There were rules to observe when calling on the child goddess in her residence. For one thing, there shall be no photography when she appears. The Kumari is not a spectacle. One needs to be mindful that for the Nepali Hindus, she is literally the living incarnation of the goddess Taleju, and consequently accorded the dignity of a deity. Hence, visitors to her courtyard should not create disturbance or be noisy, and must respectfully await her appearance (not lounging about).
That last part is actually quite hard while you're waiting uncertainly. Before long, we began to sit down. Every so often I glanced up at the latticed casement window, wondering how you would know when to get ready for the Kumari's appearance. Would she even look out today?
Becoming the Kumari
There are several myths around the origin of Kumari worship. Generally they involve a King who had angered the goddess Taleju, one of the forms of Kali. The goddess later specified the rite as a means for the repentant King to get back in her good graces. A girl child was chosen, to ensoul the goddess into her person. For the goddess would never directly appear to the King as herself again.
Why not a grown woman? A pre-pubescent virgin girl was considered a purer vessel for divinity, due to the implied chastity. Indeed, the goddess is believed to leave the girl once she menstruates, or otherwise sheds blood, and then the search for a new vessel for her incarnation begins again.
It's a pretty tight set of requirements. Aside from a lengthy list of physical attributes ("eyelashes of a cow, thighs of a deer...") and in perfect condition (i.e. never been sick or injured, etc.), the candidate child goddess must show that she has the spirit of the fierce, blood-loving goddess. The child (who can be as young as 4 years old) undergoes a test whereby she is taken into a dark room and spends the night by candlelight surrounded by dismembered animal heads. If she is truly the chosen one, she will not be afraid.
Once the remaining tests are satisfied, the girl undergoes tantric rites by priests to transform her body from mortal to divine, ready to ensoul the goddess Taleju.
Contemplating the child goddess life
It is obviously a great honour for parents whose daughter is selected as the Kumari. Being a non-believer, I would not understand.
Sitting there, waiting, thinking back to what I've read of the Kumari before coming, I wonder if hypothetically I would let my daughter be tested for Kumari potential, if she should actually fit the bill.
The Kumari is holy and divine, secluded from ordinary mortals, typically coming out for ceremonies only. Her feet are holy and must not be allowed to touch the ground. She has no need for education, as the goddess is omniscient. All around her does her bidding, and she is never denied. Her serenity blesses the devotees coming to see her, whereas her ill temper is a portent of bad things to come. As befits a deity.
But if I were her mother, could I see my daughter as anything other than my daughter? Could I let her go, in her childhood years, to be confined close, unable to walk with feet on the earth - never mind run - until she's a teenager? Never able to show any emotion but reserve. Subsequently unable to marry forever - what mortal man shall dare to wed the dread goddess? Superstition has it that such a man will die young.
Alone on a pedestal with no equal friends, expected to know everything. I knew something of that. The cloak of divinity does not sit well upon mortals.
Women's lot past and present
Perhaps in ages past, the guaranteed security and prestige of the child goddess was the best deal you could get as a female. I mean, that's one way to be venerated as a princess, and attain lifelong security and respect - without even the inconvenience of having to marry a prince.
Fortunately, in the present age, the beliefs are less rigid. Ex-Kumaris go on to get an education, albeit with a late start. I understand that former Kumaris do marry now, perhaps suggesting either a weaker or less superstitious belief, or a more daring and smart population of Nepali males.
I mean, think about it - a former child goddess has been pre-vetted for outstanding physical qualities, even-temperedness, and fearlessness. We're not talking Bambi here, we're talking Kali. The Nepali men who dare to choose women so demonstrably superior - those might be the most woke men in the world right now!
The Kumari appears
Someone was calling at me. I turned to see an authoritative Nepali motioning at me. Confused at his sudden appearance, it took me moments to realise he was ordering me to stand, and move into the courtyard proper.
Ah! He must be checking that the crowd is sufficiently respectful. Perhaps the Kumari would not look upon us, if we weren't.
I stood. I wasn't sure if I was supposed to gaze at the casement or if it was better to lower my gaze. We waited moments more.
Then the others lifted their heads to the window. I glanced up. There was the Kumari, with her distinctive kohl-lined eyes. She passed her gaze over us, silent and regal. And moved away.
The sight is supposed to be auspicious.