It was only in 2014 that a new book by Isabella Tree shone a startling light on the hidden practices that had successfully been obfuscated and concealed for generations. For uninitiated readers such as myself, it was a revelation. Unimaginatively titled The Living Goddess, it reads like a historical thriller, exploring the tangled politics of the Shakyas and explaining the origins of their Tantric traditions. Over many visits from Britain, Issy digs deep to expose the complexities of Newar heritage, religious beliefs and Kumari worship. For me, Valley customs would never seem the same ever again.
First visiting Freak Street on a university holiday with her childhood sweetheart and future husband Charlie, Issy became obsessed with uncovering the details of Kumari lives. It took her 13 years to win the trust of their custodians and caretakers, and to coax them to reveal their judiciously kept secrets. The timing was right, the social upheavals caused by the royal massacre, new regimes and millennial change were challenging the relevance of hidden Newar religious practices judiciously kept secret over many centuries. With perfect pitch she was there with her notebook at the right moment to receive their confidences, interview the protagonists, and ‘journey into the heart of Kathmandu’.