The day I saw a living goddess

Posted on October 5, 2010

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How many people can say they’ve seen a living goddess? In Nepal, quite a few.

Kumari

A Kumari (Courtesy of visitNepal.com).

Some Fulbright folks (and me, their resident tag-along) got the chance to see one a few weekends ago at Indra Jathra, a Nepali festival celebrating the end of the monsoon season. Some Hindus and Buddhists believe the Kumari is a goddess reincarnated as a little girl. She is a virgin child, and the process of finding her is intense. But once the Kumari is found, she lives in a palace as a divine being until the time she menstruates, when it is believed that the goddess vacates the body and moves to a different little girl. There are, I think, quite a few Kumaris living throughout Nepal. It’s fascinating stuff.

So we went to this festival in the middle of Kathmandu and were seated in the special “tourist” section outside a temple. We were way up high so we could see a wide-angle view of all the celebrations taking place in the square below us. Taylor was a little unhappy with this situation because he prefers to be down at ground zero, engaging rather than watching, but in light of the frenetic, crowded craziness that was happening below us, I didn’t mind being up and away from the action.

There was a sea of people milling around until the festival’s procession came through. Nepali music, heavy on the cymbals, drums, and flute, accompanied all the action. First, dancers dressed like Hindu icons came, flanked by guys with flaming torches. Then a huge multi-person puppet of a bull rushed through the crowds, also led by a guy with flaming a torch.

Bull

boys with drums

Boy virtuosos on drums helped supply the live music.

Then, there was a military marching band. And after it got dark, the first of a series of palanquins rolled through the square. It was pulled entirely by men. I’m not sure who was in it, but the crowd went totally nuts and a zillion cameras flashed and bowls of food were offered and officials threw stuff (rice? coins?) at the crowd. Then another palanquin, then, finally, the Kumari’s huge—HUGE—golden palanquin rolled through town. Her ride put the others to shame. The cymbals crashed, the crowd went wild, and soldiers shot muskets into the air. (That made me very uncomfortable.)

First palanquin

First palanquin.

Kumari arrives

The Kumari arrives.

I tried to zoom my camera in to see the Kumari’s face, but I was too far to get a good look. However, I did discern her little body swathed in red silks, swaddled by pillows, surrounded by fawning people, and being fanned by hand while—this is the best part—she ate potato chips.

Or something that looked a whole lot like potato chips. She was just munching away, sticking her little hand into a bag and popping chip-like things into her mouth. She may be a goddess, but apparently she likes snacking just as much as any other human.

By the time the procession was over, we had been sitting and watching the to-do for over four hours, and it was time to for us to eat too. We headed to a good thakali place and ate our fill of dhal, gi, rice, potatoes, and pickles. A fitting end to a festive day.

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Posted in: Festivals, Hinduism