The world is full of fascinating traditions. The dominating religion of our country alone has 330 million gods & deities, so we aren't new to different rituals or types of worship. But there's so much the world has to offer that we often come to hear of traditions that leave us baffled.
This particular story comes from a neighbouring country, the small land-locked nation of Nepal. But it's much more than just another story of idol worship. It's about young girls in Nepal being treated as living goddesses called 'Kumaris' or 'Kumari Devis'.
This tradition of Kumari-Puja or virgin worship began some 2,300 years ago. However, the reverence of Kumari Devis started only in the 17th century. As the story goes, a Nepalese king of the Malla Dynasty -Jayaprakash Malla - used to play a dice game with goddess Taleju.
Their meetings were to be kept a secret, while they played the game and discussed affairs of the kingdom. But one night, the king's wife followed him and spotted Taleju. Furious, the goddess told the king that if he wanted her protection or the welfare of his land, he must search for her amongst the Newari (Shakya) community of Ratnawali, claiming that she would be reincarnated among them as a young girl.
And that's how it all began.
The tradition is still followed with fervour. The Kumari must be from the Newari Shakya caste of silver and goldsmiths. There are a total of 32 perfections the girl is examined for. Some of them being - A neck like a conch shell, body like a banyan tree, thighs like a deer, chest like a lion, etc.
Along with this, at least 20 teeth and pure black eyes & hair are a prerequisite.
There are other tests as well, the authenticity of which have been disputed. Like asking the Kumari candidates to spend a night in a room with the severed heads of dead animals or being released in the courtyard of the Taleju temple where there are masked men dancing amongst severed heads of 108 buffaloes & goats.
Both these tasks are required to be performed without any sign of fear.
But former Kumari Rashmila Shakya writes in her autobiography that this isn't true. She also mentions that there's a ritual that involves them staying in a room once a year with a maximum of 12 severed heads but it isn't a part of the selection process.
Once the selection is complete, the to-be Kumari is taken by the priests who perform secret rituals to cleanse her body & spirit, to rid her of past experiences.
From there, she is carried to the Kumari Ghar where she is to dwell as long as she reigns as the Kumari and only leaves for occasions & ceremonies.
Her walk across the darbar square is the last with her feet touching the floor before she assumes the life of a Royal Kumari.
From then on, she's always dressed in red and only allowed to talk to her immediate family. People visit frequently to seek her blessings and touch her feet. Something even the king must honour if he wants her blessings.
If the Kumari remains silent while someone seeks her blessings, they are considered lucky. If she cries or weeps or rubs her hand, bad fortune is said to be imminent.
There are people called the Kumarimi, who look after her every need. Nowadays, the Kumari even receives education, something which was not practiced before.
In fact, former Kumari Sumika Boyrachasya is now about to complete her Masters.
The current Kumari is also receiving her education and her father believes that she will be equipped enough for life after she's done being a Kumari - a stage that comes when a Kumari first gets her period.
It is believed that the goddess Taleju then leaves her body and manifests herself in a new girl, who the community then has to look for.