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The goddess of all things

Shivam Saini 

Isabella Tree
Penguin (Viking); 367 pages; Rs 599

On June 1, 2001, around 20 members of the royal family of gathered at the Narayanhiti Palace in for their customary soiree. After drinks had been served in the billiard room, the host, 29-year-old Crown Prince Dipendra, appeared from his bedroom in battledress uniform and went on a shooting spree, killing 11 people, including his parents, King Birendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev and Queen Aishwarya. Next, shot himself in the head; he died three days later.

To outside observers, the royal rampage was the stuff of Greek tragedy. Dipendra, who was believed to have a fondness for women and firearms, was unwavering in his desire to marry Devyani Rana. His parents were equally determined in their objection to his girlfriend, a descendent of the Ranas who had once wrested power from the Shah dynasty. A furious, indecisive sorted out the matter by wiping out almost his entire clan. According to traditional Nepalese, however, what unfolded that fateful evening had deeper origins.

Twenty-four days before the massacre, an 11-year-old girl in had developed a rash on her face. Twelve days later, she had her first period. It was, in fact, the change in her physical condition that is believed to have presaged disaster for the kingdom - for this was no ordinary child. She was a Kumari, one of the many strictly prepubescent girls across the country who are chosen to embody Taleju, Nepal's presiding deity. They are, indeed, the living goddesses, the subject of a revealing new book by the UK-based journalist

The Living weaves intricate strands of the history of with riveting elements of the country's mythology; the is the thread that holds it all together. Ms Tree's painstaking research - conducted over several trips to from 2001 onwards - is a sincere attempt to unravel the enigma that is the

Drawn from the Buddhist Shakya clan of Nepal's community, a is chosen at the tender age of three or four - provided she meets certain exacting criteria. She is then worshipped every single day of her life until she bleeds - either naturally when she attains puberty or accidentally, which is when the is thought to have left the child's body.

Ms Tree primarily interviews the royal Kumaris, the official child goddesses in the former Malla capitals of Kathmandu, Bhaktapur and Patan who are on the government payroll. The meetings, along with the interaction with priests, religious scholars and the Kumaris' caretakers, yield telling details.

The interview with Rashmila Shakya, the Kumari of from 1984 to 1991, is noteworthy. Ms Tree, amazed at the characteristic tranquil demeanour of the child goddess during her public darshans and chariot parades, finally learns from Ms Shakya's parents: "She had felt like a Goddess. Whenever she put on the naga mala-her serpent necklace … she had felt different. She had felt stronger, bigger. She never felt like smiling then, or talking...."

Ms Tree wonders at the tradition with an almost endearing, child-like curiosity - why, for instance, the Kumari - a virgin goddess - wears red and not white; why the Kumari, a Buddhist, is revered by Hindus and Buddhists alike; or how she copes with life after her dismissal.

All the while, the first-person narrative - that tricky beast for nonfiction writers - glides subtly in her skilled hands. She, in fact, handholds the reader even as she walks the streets of Kathmandu, taking in the regal opulence of the city's magnificent temples; visits decrepit buildings that once served as the houses of the living goddesses; and marvels - somewhat nauseatingly - at the grandeur of Dasain, a spectacular festival in Nepal when fountains of blood jetting from the veins of thousands of slaughtered animals shower down on numerous shrines.

Somewhere along the way, however, the narrative sheds its unassuming, inquisitive tone. Suddenly, it seems Ms Tree is labouring to defend the custom. For instance, in response to two United Nations reports that bracket the Kumari custom with "harmful traditional practices", she wonders why the studies "...had included the Kumari tradition alongside the most brutal examples of child abuse and sex discrimination in the country when evidence [emphasis added] existed suggesting that, far from constituting child abuse, the tradition actively protected and championed the rights of women and children; and that ex-Kumaris themselves supported the practice. Sloppy research must be partly to blame".

Ms Tree, however, does not cite the "evidence", which sadly takes away from this otherwise immensely readable book. No minor quibble, considering Ms Tree had, in an earlier chapter, described how Rashmila Shakya had found it taxing after her dismissal to walk in shoes, since she had not worn any for eight years - outside her house, she was always carried in her caretakers' arms or in her palanquin. Or how, for that matter, Ms Shakya had lagged in education owing to her stint as the Kumari - at age 12, she was still in Class 2.

is not without howlers, either. In her single-minded pursuit to demonstrate how the lives of the Nepalese are entwined with the living goddess, Ms Tree reveals that apart from worshipping the royal Kumaris, the locals also practise the household version of the Kumari puja. In other words, family members worship the youngest girl in the house at important events such as birth and marriage. She then goes on to say: "It [the Kumari worship in Nepal] was a deliberate inversion of the orthodox Hindu custom that had women and children bowing to the feet of their husband and father every day." It is surprising that, in Ms Tree's eyes, the glorification of girls as goddesses is not as "orthodox" as the "inverted Hindu custom".

suffers not so much from the aforementioned stumbles as it does from the absence of - brace yourself - an index. Kings, deities, mythical heroes and demons wander the pages in an alternating pattern of myth and reality. If you aren't watching closely enough, they may just pass you by - and therein lies the rub. The Living Goddess could have been an altogether different book if it had an index.

First Published: Wed, February 26 2014. 21:25 IST