Sunday, January 6, 2008

The Kumari

From The Times of India JUGULAR VEIN Divine rites 6 Jan 2008, 0000 hrs IST,Jug Suraiya Modi’s victory and Benazir’s assassination obscured perhaps an even more historic event in the neighbourhood: the ending of Nepal’s 250-year-old Shah dynasty. The constitutional change turning the mountain kingdom into a republic has been made and now only requires ratification by the new parliament. Few will shed tears for Gyanendra, who ascended the throne in dubious circumstances after the 2001 royal massacre and whose criminally inept handling of the Maoist insurgency in Nepal pushed the country to the brink of chaos. Gyanendra’s unpopularity was compounded by that of his loutish son, crown prince Paras, whose idea of an evening’s entertainment was to beat up innocent citizens with the help of his goons. The constitutional boot to royalty came just a couple of days before Paras’s 36th birthday, an apt nativity present. Serves the yob right. Well-wishers of Nepal can now only hope that that long-embattled, desperately poor country will finally get the democracy it deserves. As both a staunch republican and a long-time friend of Nepal, I had ambivalent feelings about the monarchy even before the egregious Gyanendra came to the throne. Did kings - even constitutional kings like Gyanendra’s murdered predecessor, Birendra - really have a place in the 21st century? But Nepal’s monarchy had a divine dimension beyond the day-to-day devices of democracy: the Hindu kingdom’s ruler was traditionally venerated as the ‘living Vishnu’, preserver of the country and its people. During Dussehra, long lines of devotees, many from the remote reaches of the land, would form outside the Narayanhity Royal Palace in Kathmandu to receive the tika from their god-king. I’d seen the worship in their eyes, glowing with the unwavering flame of faith. Faced with such belief, my republicanism felt like an interloper, a gatecrasher at a devout gathering. The news of the palace killings came as a bolt from the black, literally. It was 2 a.m. when the phone call from Dubby, my friend in Kathmandu, woke me. Could I somehow get the news into the following morning’s papers? Impossible. Well, at least you’re the first journalist in India to know what’s happened, said Dubby, a bitter knowledge that brought no solace. That night was the beginning of the slippery slope that would eventually lead to the downfall of the monarchy. I do not know how, if at all, the toppling of Nepal’s throne will affect another divine tradition of that country: the institution of the Kumari, the living goddess who complemented the god-king, on whom she would bestow her blessings once every year, ensuring his rule for another 12 months. Actually there’s not one, but three living goddesses; one in Kathmandu, and one each in Bhaktapur and Patan. But for all touristy purposes the Kathmandu Kumari represents the sacred sorority. The Kumaris - selected from the caste of silversmiths after having passed a series of spiritual tests (including the terrifying one of spending a night alone in a dark room with the severed head of a buffalo) - are anointed in early childhood and demit their divine office at the first sign of puberty. Earlier, it was believed that whoever married a former Kumari would die before the year was out, a cruel superstition which forced many ex-goddesses into prostitution. Thankfully, that taboo has been exorcised, and Kumaris can now safely make the transition to everyday housewives. But the Kumari remains a poignant parable of goddess, interrupted. I remember years ago going to see the then Kumari in Kathmandu. The living goddess, draped in gilded robes, sat on her throne, her heavily made-up face an ageless and inscrutable mask. In the dim light I saw that in one, tiny hand was a small, plastic toy helicopter, symbol of a lost childhood. With the monarch gone, will the living goddess be even more isolate in her sacrificial divinity? *********************************************************************************** It was believed that whoever married a former Kumari would die before the year was out... This belief seems to be right in line with ancient myths in the West about the "king" being sacrificed after six months or a year's blissful marriage to the sacred priestess. In some legends, the king would be torn to bits by frenzied female acolytes in a sacred grove, his heart pulled out and offered up for sacrifice on a sacred stone (altar) in the middle of the grove. In the Celtic tradition, I recall reading that in some instances the deceased "king's" head was preserved (I do not know in what manner) and used as an oracle by local elders - giving new meaning to Shakespeare's hommage in Hamlet "Alas, poor Yorick..."

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