By Rashmila Shakya (Trans: Scott Berry) | ISBN 9789937623063 | Vajra Books | £14.99 Paperback
In Nepal, shamanic and pagan beliefs dating back thousands of years continue to thrive, subsumed within an ostensibly Buddhist religious framework. From Goddess to Mortal is the astonishing story, in her own words, of Rashmila Shakya, a ‘Royal Kumari’ from Nepal who as a child between 1984 and 1991 was widely worshipped as a living goddess.
How To Become A Living Goddess
In case you are tempted by the job title, here’s how a living goddess is chosen in Nepal. Firstly it depends where you live if you qualify or not. The living goddess tradition is – or at least was – widely practised throughout Nepal. In some areas a goddess could be chosen from any eligible female in the population, including peasants. In Kathmandu, however, the goddess was supposed to be a relative of the king. Rashmila herself, born in Kathmandu in 1978, was daughter of a minor cadet branch of the Nepalese Royal family.
A shortlist of goddesses is compiled by a Kumari Caretaker based on desirable astrological characteristics. The candidates are then examined to ensure they meet a list of ‘32 perfections’. These include having:
- Eyelashes like a cow
- A voice as clear as a duck
- Thighs like a deer
The Kumari are selected at the age of four and groomed for their role to begin at the age of six or seven.
The Life Of A Royal Kumari
Once selected, Rashmiri was whisked off to a life of opulent seclusion at a temple/palace in Kathmandu. She was waited on by eight servants, dressed exclusively in gold brocade and served her food alone on a raised platform. She spent the entire year indoors apart from religious festivals, when she was paraded in public before worshippers in ceremonial attire. Her feet were never allowed to touch the ground.
This ceremonial life persists only until puberty. When Rashmiri hit puberty in 1991 she was ‘retired’ and returned to her family.
Life After Divinity
The life of a living goddess, coming as it does at a crucial formative time in a child’s development, will affect a person’s life in a number of ways. Rashmiri recalls being spoilt, precocious and socially maladjusted, having almost no contact with other children beyond those of the caretaker.
She was also completely devoid of an education. As a divinity supposed to be all-knowing, it was not considered necessary to educate the child in reading, writing or mathematical skills, not to mention the practical life skills of cooking, cleaning and washing!
Rashmiri Shakya grew to adulthood at a time of great change in Nepal. The monarchy came under increasing attack and the country was undermined by a series of Maoist insurgencies and natural disasters. In 2008 the monarchy was abolished and many of the old traditions began to fall by the wayside. Determined to make a success of her life, Rashmiri took herself to school, learning to read and write alongside a class of five-year-olds. She went on to become the first Kumari to graduate college and travel abroad.
Now aged 39, Rashmiri lives in Kathmandu with her own family and works as a software developer for an American company. While she is an outspoken voice for reform and is not slow to point out the human difficulties of the Kumari tradition, she is nevertheless concerned by its decline. She sees the Kumari as an important part of Nepalese culture, and actively campaigns for its continuation in a reformed tradition that respects the rights and needs of the children involved.
What Readers Would Enjoy From Goddess To Mortal?
From Goddess to Mortal will appeal to readers interested in the social and religious landscape of Nepal, India and Tibet. The Royal Kumari are an example of a tradition of ‘sacred kingship’ that has been found in dozens of historic cultures across Europe, Africa, the Middle East, America and Asia. Rashmiri Shakya’s eminently readable and informative autobiography will therefore also appeal to students of anthropology and history. The story also has strong bearing on the present position of women in Nepal and other developing societies, with lessons to be drawn both about improving access to education and opportunities, and preserving ancient traditions to meet the needs of a changing society.
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