The Living Goddess of Bhaktapur Loses Her Job



By Nick Gier, Professor Emeritus,
University of Idaho (


The Royal Kumari Amita Shakya

To see all images go to


          In 1999 I took eight students to Nepal for a one-month
intensive study of Hinduism and Buddhism.  We spent the first night in the
sacred city of Bhatkapur just outside Kathmandu.  Because of jetlag, we were all
up before dawn and we had breakfast overlooking the main city square. 


We sat there in awe and wonder as
the city’s residents�women, big sisters carrying a sibling, gangs of boys, and
men in both western and native dress�all paid their respects at the temples on
the square.  (All bets that the men in suits would not perform puja were
lost.) They touched their heads, their most sacred areas, and then placed the
same hand at the foot of the goddess temple.


Sajani Shakya, the recently dismissed Kumari of Bhaktapur, Nepal. Photographed by Andy Carvin during her June 2007 visit to the United States.
Sajani Shakya, the living embodiment of that goddess, visited Washington, D.C.
this month to promote a British film on the living goddesses of Nepal.  Because
of their belief that foreign travel makes one impure, some Hindu and Buddhist
priests in Bhatkapur have declared that Sajani can no longer hold the office of
living goddess.  (Photo by Andy Carvin)


our 1999 study tour a local guide made arrangements for us to visit Amita
Shakya, royal kumari of Kathmandu. (Kumari means virgin girl.) We stood
for the longest time in the courtyard of her palace as the guide pleaded with
the goddess’ guardian standing on the balcony.  We could hear some serious
children’s play in the background. Suddenly, the goddess appeared for a very
brief wave and quickly rejoined her boisterous playmates.


The royal goddess’ feet never touch the ground, and she is
allowed to go outside her palace only once a year.  At that time she tours the
city in a grand procession that includes her royal attendants and members of her
extended family.


I returned to Nepal in the fall of l999 just in time to document
this spectacle. It was difficult to get any good pictures of Amita Shakya
because men covered her chariot like a swarm of bees.  Interestingly enough, no
women were participating and male priests control everything dealing with the
goddess cult.


Goddess worship in South Asia goes back at least 2,500 years, but
the cult of the royal goddess of Kathmandu
was initiated by Hindu King Jaya Prakash Malla in the 18th Century. 
The goddess was so intimate with the king that they played a game of dice every
evening.  One night the king made some sexual advances, and as punishment the
goddesses withdrew and declared that she would now appear only as a Buddhist
virgin girl.


Each year the Hindu kings of
Nepal, considered to be incarnations of the Hindu God Vishnu, must visit the
goddess’ palace and receive her blessing, because the sovereignty of the nation
lies with her and not with the king.  One year the goddess placed the tika,
a sacred mark just above the middle of the eyebrows, on the crown prince rather
than the king himself.  The kumari’s act proved prophetic because the king died
later than year.


The living goddesses of Nepal
come from the Buddha’s own clan, the Shakyas, so all the kumaris have the
surname Shakya. They are chosen by a procedure very similar to that of the Dalai
Lama.  The real kumari must have signs of physical and spiritual perfection, and
she must pass a terrifying test of mental and emotional endurance.


A new royal kumari, Preeti Shakya,
was chosen in 2001, and she is currently withholding her services over a dispute
over distribution of substantial tourist contributions that flow into her palace
every day. The goddess did give the traditional blessing to King Gayanendra when
he ascended the throne after the crown prince shot his father and six other
family members in 2001.


Gayanendra, however, is now
disgraced because he abolished Parliament and shut down the press in response to
the threat of a Maoist insurgency.  A new prime minister now takes his place at
religious festivals and that means that Gayanendra will not get his annual
blessing this year.  Indeed, an upcoming vote on a new constitution may abolish
the monarchy and many royal properties have already been expropriated.


When I was first in Kathmandu in
1992, I experienced the congestion caused by tens of thousands of Nepalis
standing in line to have a personal audience with then King Birendra on his
birthday.  This year only 1,000 people were present to celebrate Gayanendra’s
birthday, Birendra’s brother.


The end of the monarchy may also
mean the demise of the kumari tradition. Women’s rights activists have also
petitioned Nepal’s Supreme Court to abolish this sacred office, but
conservatives have filed a counter claim stating that living goddesses are an
integral part of Nepal’s religious tradition and that it is a matter of
religious freedom.


Each goddess’ tenure ends when
she has her period, or becomes impure by any other means. Former kumaris receive
about $80 per month from the government.  There is a legend that any man who
marries a kumari will experience a premature death, but of the 12 royal kumaris
since 1932, nine of them have married and have had a total of 23 children.


Rashmilla Shakya ruled as the
royal kumari from 1984-1991, and after a difficult transition, she now has a
degree in information technology.  She was put off by another royal kumari whom
she visited briefly: "I saw her sitting in her room, quietly, all made-up the
way we used to be at the Kumari House. She still believed she was a goddess,"
she says. "I told myself this is not the way I am going to spend the rest of my
life."  You go, former goddess!


The conflict between human rights
and traditional religion is one of the most serious problems in our world
today.  It will be very interesting to see how the Nepalis solve this dilemma.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *