"The Living Goddess"

"It is forbidden to photograph the Kumari inside the Kumari Ghar ." My young guide repeated these words several times. I explained to him that my original guide, Buddhi, had been granted special permission through his contacts to allow me the privilege. A quick phone call from him confirmed that this was the case, and we proceeded to the home of Samita Barjracharya, the "Living Goddess of Patan". She was eight years old and lived in the god-house Kumari Ghar, where the Living Goddess performs her daily rituals. The power of the Kumari is perceived to be so strong that even a glimpse of her is believed to bring good fortune. We proceeded up some stairs and were greeted by her mother. I was told to wait as the arrangements were relayed to her. She told my guide that Samita was not prepared, but we could see her briefly. We were escorted into a small room about 3 m x 3 m, perhaps even smaller. A shaft of light penetrated the room from a small window next to the ceiling. A buzzing sound echoed through the small blue room from an overhead fluorescent light. Samita sat in a throne-like chair her eyes fixed to the floor.  I asked if I could take some photos, and her mother Purna Shova Bajracharya said that she would prefer that I came back tomorrow as she did not have her fully prepared. She allowed me to take a couple of frames, to test the lighting and framing.  Sitting on the floor, my back was pressed against the blue-painted wall while I tried to photograph her. We made arrangements to meet the following day.  

©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved


                       Day One - The Kumari's feet must not touch the ground, it is considered to be impure

The following day, Samita was dressed more elaborately, and her forehead was adorned with a different design. I waited patiently for her to look at her mother, to allow the light to enter her eyes. When the session finished, I asked how to repay her for this privilege. Her mother told me that it was up to me, and would not suggest a price. I placed some money at her feet, and it must have been appropriate as when I was about to leave, her mother said that Samita had requested that she wanted to bless me, a very distinct honour, as this was the first time she had performed this on a foreigner. I knelt in front of her, and looked into her huge dark eyes, as she placed some tikka (red dot of vermilion paste which signifies the desire to open the third eye) on my forehead; she whispered a phrase, and I thanked her for the experience and privilege of allowing me to photograph her. It was explained to me afterwards I should watch closely for her reactions to gifts. If she receives them in silence devotees believe their wishes have been granted. If she cries or laughs loudly it is believed to indicate serious illness or death, while if she weeps or rubs her eyes they fear imminent death. 

©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved ©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved


Under normal circumstances, her days in the god-house come to an end with her first menstruation, but if she turns out to be unlucky, as they say, even a minor scratch on her body that bleeds can make her invalid for worship. She then changes back to the status of a normal mortal, and the search for a new Kumari begins.

©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved  
Small roomSmall roomI am using a 24-70 mm lens and my back is against the wall, sitting on the floor and trying to hold a reflector.


The selection of the Living Goddess is a highly elaborate tantric ritual. Upon passing the preliminary test, this is concerning their 32 attributes of perfection, including the colour of her eyes, the shape of her teeth, and the sound of her voice. Her Horoscope must also be appropriate. The 4-to-7-year-old poor girls, from the Sakya community, are made to confront a goddess in the darkened room. The sight of the Buffalo heads scattered around, the demon-like masked dancers, and the terrifying noises they encounter, scare some of these innocent young girls. The real goddess is unlikely to be frightened, so the one who is calm and collected throughout the tests is the only girl who is entitled to sit on the pedestal for worship as the Living Goddess. Then, as a final test similar to that of the Dalai Lama, the Kumari then chooses items of clothing and decoration worn by her predecessor.

©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved
                                                     She lifted her eyes and stared directly into mine!                                   

The transition to life as an ordinary mortal can be hard, and a former Kumari may have difficulty finding a husband. Tradition has it that the man who marries an ex-Kumari will die young, but it's more likely a natural belief that taking on a spoilt ex-goddess is likely to be hard work.

Update: I have been informed by a contact in Nepal that Samita survived the deadly earthquake of April 25-2015. When she was a goddess, she never went outside, except during festivals. One could have never imagined that the former child goddesses, once confined to their homes, would be camping outside due to this tragic act of fate.  



Priya Balan(non-registered)
When I look at her eyes it makes me to think may be she is really a goddess but then reality sets in but her intensity of her eyes is really hard to avoid. I like this narrative. interesting to follow.!!
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