Girls First, Goddesses Later
On August 18, when Pushpa Kamal Dahal 'Prachanda' - the chief of Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), Nepal's former guerrilla party - was sworn in as the young Himalayan republic's new prime minister, the event was hailed internationally as the climax to an amazing revolution that had ended the reign of the 239-year-old dynasty of the Shah kings, once regarded as incarnations of Vishnu (Hindu god).
Along with that momentous event, Pundevi Maharjan, 30, also quietly ushered in another revolution in a country that has been ruled by tradition and strong religious beliefs. The young lawyer has won a battle against Nepal's famous Kumari tradition, setting in motion a change that will in future end the myth of virgin goddesses.
"I come from the Shakya Bajracharya clan," Maharjan says. "They are Buddhists who were also the first inhabitants of the Kathmandu valley. Though Buddhists, it is the priests of this community who choose the Kumaris - Nepal's living goddesses."
After the Mt Everest, the highest peak in the world; the Buddhist shrines of Swayambhunath and Boudhanath; and the Hindu temple of Pashupati; the Kumari is probably the best known image of Nepal. The young girl wearing a crown and with a third eye painted on her forehead, who gazes out impassively from an intricately carved wooden window, draws tens of thousands of tourists as well as devotees every year.
Regarded as an incarnation of Taleju Bhawani, the goddess of power, as well as the protector of the royal family, the Kumari was believed to have divine powers. She is also the only living being before whom the kings of Nepal bowed in obeisance.
Nepal boasts of 11 Kumaris, who are chosen by priests from the Bajracharya community on the basis of certain criteria. The chosen one's horoscope has to be compatible with the reigning king's and she has to be free from any physical blemishes. The Kumari also has to be a prepubescent girl who loses her divine status once she begins menstruation. She is then succeeded by a new Kumari.
Once selected, the Kumari leaves her family to go and reside in the Kumari Ghar - the palace designated for her in Kathmandu - where she has her own retinue. She is not allowed to leave the palace on her own and she must not walk on the ground. The most important of the 11 Kumaris is taken out in a chariot and has a red carpet placed before her so that her feet doesn't touch the ground.
"When I was in college, I began to marvel at the Kumaris," says Maharjan, who had filed a public interest litigation in the Supreme Court three years ago, saying that the Kumaris' rights as children had been grossly violated. "Once they lost their divine status and had to leave the palace, most found it hard to assimilate. Some had no education and had to start school at the age of 11 when they were placed in the same class with five- or six-year-olds. They were also the victims of superstitions, like the belief that if a man married a Kumari he would die. But no one ever thought of the trauma a former Kumari undergoes."
Maharjan challenged the tradition, saying that the Kumaris were deprived of the rights granted to every child under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (an international convention that sets out the civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights of children). She also argued that the Kumaris were not allowed the right to move or speak freely. They could not even eat the food they wanted to.
A glaring example of the restrictions the Kumaris suffered is, Maharjan says, the case of Sajani Shakya, who until recently was the Kumari of Bhaktapur town. In an unprecedented move, her priests sacked the nine-year-old after she went to the US to attend a documentary festival that also screened a film on the Kumaris, including herself. Sajani's priests said she had lost her holiness by going abroad and eating "impure" food.
After fighting the suit for two years, Maharjan got a shot in the arm when she joined the Forum for Women, Law and Development (FWLD), a leading NGO in Nepal that has been fighting for the abolition of anti-women laws and for protection of women. On August 18, Nepal's apex court ordered the government to protect the rights of the Kumaris.
"Though the Convention of Child Rights and interim constitution of Nepal have guaranteed minor girls the right to education and health, only some Kumaris enjoy these rights," judges Balaram K.C. and Top Bahadur Magar said. "There should be no bar on Kumaris going to school and enjoying health-related rights... They should not be treated as bonded labourers and there should be no restriction on their free movement."
The judges have ordered the government to form a five-member committee from related ministries that would study the condition of the Kumaris and submit its report within a year. In addition, they have asked the Ministry for Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation to draw up a second committee to recommend schemes for providing former Kumaris with social security.
Maharjan says she faced ostracism and harassment from her community when she filed the suit. She was accused of trying to humiliate her own people and of destroying a tradition that was the backbone of national culture. "I did not seek to have the Kumari tradition abolished," she says spiritedly. "I only want it to be modernised and freed from harmful practices. Instead of being treated like divine beings, the Kumaris should be seen as cultural icons that are unique to Nepal."
Sapana Pradhan Malla, one of the founders of FWLD and currently a Member of Parliament (MP), who has been entrusted with the task of drafting a new constitution for Nepal, says the community should be asked to modernise the Kumari tradition.
"There are other traditions related to women and religion that are harmful to women," she says. "Like Deuki (akin to India's 'devdasi' tradition in which a young girl is offered to a god and who finally ends up as a sex worker) and Jhuma (the tradition of a Buddhist family offering at least one girl child to become a nun without considering her wishes). While the Kumari is not like that, yet, it has to be viewed with different eyes."
"Nepalis decided to abolish monarchy," says Janardan Sharma, one of the deputy commanders of the People's Liberation Army, the Maoists' guerrilla army, who is now a legislator. "We need to abolish all institutions associated with the crown. There is no need for Kumaris, Jhumas or Deukis."
But the moderates in the party have decided to skirt the issue for now, fearing a public outcry. "The Kumari is not just associated with the king as his protective deity," says Dinanath Sharma, another Maoist lawmaker. "She is also a cultural symbol."
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