Nepal's living goddess who still has to do homework
Samita Bajracharya is a 12-year-old Nepalese girl who lives with her family, studies hard, and enjoys playing a Nepali version of the lute. But until recently she was also worshipped by people who believed she was a reincarnated goddess.
Along a busy thoroughfare in Lalitpur, near Kathmandu, a passageway leads into a large, open-air courtyard. In the back corner, there's a modest home, with a red sign outside that simply reads, "Living Goddess".
A narrow wooden staircase leads up to the second floor, where the goddess spends much of her childhood. She's called a Kumari, which means "young, unmarried girl".
She's worshipped by both Hindus and Buddhists in Nepal, who believe she's a reincarnation of the Hindu goddess Durga.
I got to know the mother of this Kumari - Nepal has a few of them - after several visits to her house.
How did it feel when her daughter, Samita, was chosen to be a Kumari, I asked?
"I felt both happy and sad," she says. "On one hand, I felt happy because when your daughter becomes god, having a god in the home is a delightful thing. But I also got scared because I wasn't sure if we would be able to follow all the rules."
There are many rules. For one, Samita's mother has to apply special makeup to her daughter's face in intricate designs. The girl isn't allowed to go outside except for festivals. On those occasions, her feet must not touch the ground. That means someone has to carry the young goddess.
Furthermore, the Kumari is not permitted to speak to anyone besides her family and close friends.
The best way to find out what life is like for a child goddess is to talk to a former Kumari. I call Samita's predecessor, Chanira Bajracharya (no relation), and she agrees to an interview in her home.
We sit on the floor of the dark chamber where she spent a decade praying and blessing visitors.
I expect we'll do the interview in Nepali, but when I ask her a question, she starts speaking fluently in English. She tells me that she learned the language by reading newspapers during her Kumari days.
"When I was a goddess, I used to peek through the holes of windows," Chanira says.
She's now a 19-year-old business student, and looks like any ordinary teenager in her fashionable green T-shirt and black trousers. She became a Kumari when she was just five years old.
"Being a goddess is just like being a princess and you get everything at home," she says. "I never missed going outside, but rather enjoyed staying at home and being part of the divine life."
This divine life ended abruptly when Chanira was 15, on the day she first menstruated. Suddenly she was no longer the Kumari. She says the transition was difficult.
"When I had to step out of my house for the first time, I didn't know how to walk properly," she says. "My mom and dad, they used to hold my hands and teach me how to walk."
During her Kumari years, private tutors taught her at home. All of a sudden, she started going to school with other children.
"It was a big challenge for me," Chanira says. "All of the classmates were so afraid to talk to me because I was an ex-goddess and I was treated a little bit differently.
"They even used to say that I'm an alien. They said that to me."
Believers no longer bowed down to her or touched her feet as they'd done for years.
"I lost that respect," she says. "I never imagined that my life would be so changed in such a sudden way."
As soon as Chanira's tenure ended, local priests chose a new Kumari. Her successor, Samita, happened to be a close friend, almost like a younger sister.
"When I was a goddess, she used to come here and we were friends so she knows about the Kumari life," Chanira says.
The Kumari's life of prayer also includes homework. When I go back to the current Kumari's home, her mother allows me to enter her room and watch a private tutoring session.
For the first time, I see her as a normal girl as she sits quietly at her desk, and carefully takes notes.
"There wasn't a tradition to educate the Kumaris in the past," her teacher Rachna Upreti says. "Their world was in the four corners of their rooms."Kumari
- Kumari Devi are pre-pubescent girls, believed to be the reincarnation of the Hindu goddess Durga - also called Taleju in Nepal
- They are chosen based on several physical characteristics, but also have to pass a series of tests
- There are several Kumaris in Nepal - the most important, in Kathmandu, lives in a royal dwelling called the Kumari Bahal
- The goddess is believed to vacate the Kumari's body when she first menstruates
- The Kumari is selected from the Shakya or Bajracharya clan of Kathmandu's Newari community
But things have changed for modern-day Kumaris.
"She is really interested in the outside world," Upreti says. "Not just Nepal, but the whole world."
The Kumari's mother invites me to attend a special festival a few days later. I arrive as she's carefully applying make-up to her daughter's forehead.
She takes out ornate necklaces and armbands from a mahogany cabinet full of accessories. The Kumari grimaces as her mother fastens the heavy jewellery on her.
Soon, Shobha lifts her daughter and carries her down the steps on to a throne at the centre of the courtyard.
Hundreds of people have lined up to offer the Kumari flowers and donations, and to touch her feet. They begin inching towards her to receive her blessing and she applies a bright red dot to each visitor's forehead. Later, she sits completely still, but her eyes dart left and right as onlookers photograph her.
After it's all over, she goes back to the privacy of her own room. She picks up her favourite musical instrument, a sarod, and begins to practise.
As she plays the stringed instrument, she looks completely relaxed. She seems to forget about all the pressures of being a living goddess.
A few months after I visited the Kumari, I learned that her term as a living goddess had ended, and a new girl had been selected.
"From the very first day she had her period, she was locked in a dark room where no sunlight could enter," Chanira wrote to me. "No men were allowed. But she could have plenty of female friends and relatives."
Chanira stayed with her friend Samita in those days to help her adjust to a new life. On the 12th day, no longer a goddess, Samita could finally walk outside her home.
She's now making new friends at school.
"She is free to go outside," Chanira says.
"I think she is happier nowadays."