Nine-year-old Jeebika Bajracharya, the current living goddess of Bhaktapur, enjoyed all the attention she got during Dasain dressed as the Kumari. Clothed in dark red, with vermillion covering her forehead and her eyes accentuated by gajal stretching to her temples, she makes a dramatic statement — especially as she is walking.
In contrast to the living goddesses of Kathmandu and Lalitpur, the Kumari in Bhaktapur has much more freedom. In Kathmandu, she is rarely allowed to leave the Kumari Chen sacred house for the living goddess, and when she does, her feet are not supposed to touch the ground.
Bhaktapur’s Kumari however, casually strolls around the city to meet friends and family. She lives with her parents, goes to school, studies in the fourth grade and plays outdoors with other children in the area, like any other regular girl child.
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Only during Dasain, when her devotees came to seek her blessings, did she have to sit for hours in the Kumari Chen. Throughout the festival, she stayed with the family of Rukmani and Nhuchhe Ratna Shakya, the hereditary caretakers of the living goddess in Bhaktapur.
A city enveloped in tranquillity and traditional cultural values, Bhaktapur embarked on this unique tradition of worshipping the Kumari during Nepal’s Malla dynasty. The practice of picking a Buddhist girl child as an incarnation of Hindu goddess Taleju is still considered an important one in Kathmandu Valley.
When asked if the freedom given to the Kumari has diminished the value of the living goddess in Bhaktapur, Nhuchhe says,
“We never had restrictions like that for the Kumari in Bhaktapur in the first place. We cannot preserve our tradition and the goddess’ strength by confining her within a house or keeping her away from her parents.”
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“Even on usual days, when she is not staying with us or is walking to school and playing outside with other kids of her age, our respect towards her is consistent. By giving her access to school and education, we are preparing her so that she will not find it difficult to return to normal life after the end of her tenure as a Kumari,” he adds.
Pushpa Ratna Shakya, a professor at the Central Department of Buddhist Studies in Tribhuvan University, lives next door to the Kumari Chen in Bhaktapur. He explains some other ways that the city’s worshipping of the living goddess differs.
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“The everyday worship of Kumari is done at her home by her parents. The important rituals during Dasain were performed by priests in the Taleju Temple in the Mul Chok in Darbar Square, which is home to Goddess Taleju.”
“On Navami (the ninth day of Dasain) we worshipped our Kumari with 9 to 15 other girls who are also worshipped as temporary Kumaris during the length of the festival.
We worship them as the nine manifestations of Goddess Durga, as the Navadurga Gana,” Shakya says.
“It is our ritual and tradition that makes the Kumari of Bhaktapur special. I do not think these rituals are performed elsewhere to the living goddesses in Kathmandu or Lalitpur,” he adds. “Our traditional rituals are more sophisticated, but left in the shadows.”