The broader picture: A tiny goddess

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The Independent Culture
CHANDRA Shila Bajracharya is only seven years old, but she is a goddess. She is the Royal Kumari ("Virgin") of Patan in the Kathmandu valley, where the worship of living goddesses has been practised since the 8th century. Living near each of the valley's seven main towns is a Kumari, all from families originating from the upper-caste, Buddhist Bajracharyas. The girls are worshipped by everyone in the country; the people of Patan, for example, will come to Chandra to be blessed after marriage or initiation rites. Children will be brought to her on reaching puberty, and the sick will come to her rather than go to the doctor. The most powerful of the seven virgins is the Royal Kumari of Kathmandu, the King of Nepal's personal goddess, and the only person before whom he will prostrate himself.

In each of the seven Bajracharya families, the Kumari is the eldest girl who meets 32 conditions of purity, the most important being that she is a virgin and has never shed any blood. She must have "cheeks like a lion", a "body like a banyan tree" and a "neck like a conch shell", as well as being unblemished and in perfect health.

The Kumari of Patan was chosen at the age of two, when a tree began to grow along the top-floor window of her house: a good omen. Five years on, she sits in her fantastically bedecked throne room in the humble family home. Her feet are dyed red, her eyes lined in kohl. On her forehead is painted a third eye (the "agni chakchhu", or "fire eye"), which is believed to see beyond the physical world. Worshippers will often ask the Kumari to predict the future.

It's a strange childhood. Chandra has never been allowed to leave her family home, except to be paraded through the streets. A tutor teaches her, and apart from her brothers and sisters she has only one friend. Few people will look her in the eye, since texts say that to do so will cause them to vomit or bleed. Every day, her father or grandfather performs for her an elaborate purification ritual involving fire, water, rice and dried buffalo meat. But at least hers is not a lifetime state. As soon as Chandra sheds a drop of blood (simply by scratching herself, or by losing a baby tooth), her divinity will be gone, and a new Kumari will have to be chosen.