7 March 2016

Little Goddesses

Today I attended the Pashupati temple with about a million and a half other people for the festival of Maha Shivaratri. I met a former goddess yesterday. 
She was my first.
Former Goddess.
I have been to Maha Shivarati once before.
Both were brilliant.
I’m back in Nepal.
It is excellent.
The Maha Shivaratri festival is a celebration of the Hindu God Shiva who on this day saved the universe from darkness and ignorance and he married the goddess Parvati.
Shiva is considered to be the god of all gods. He is the oldest of all religious deities and he apparently appeared long before Hinduism began. 2300 years before the Christian God was written about he appeared in India as a Lord named Pashupati.
The name of the very temple where the festival is conducted.
Pashupati is the main temple in Kathmandu where the Hindu dead are cremated. Their ashes are cast into the Bagmati river which eventually flows into the holy Ganga river. 
Here in the Himalaya there are a number of girl-child goddesses who are revered by both the Hindi and the Buddhist populations. These girls are handpicked from birth and are known as kumari. They are believed to be incarnations of the Hindu Goddess Kali.
 I caught a glimpse once of the Patan kumari a few years ago when there was a festival on and I was quite shocked at how little the girl was.
This was back in 2011.
2066 in Nepali time.
I have explained the 55-year discrepancy between western and Nepali time before and I am not Wikipedia.
Look up the reason why for yourself.
I didn’t know anything about the kumari at the time but I have learned much since.
The little girl’s name at the Patan Durbar was Samita Bajracharya.
She was nine years old when I saw her.
Samita was chosen as the new kumari of Patan after former kumari, Chanira Bajracharya, reached puberty.
I have been back in Nepal for a while now and I have settled back into the rhythm of the place.
Life is still tough.
Not for me - for the Nepalese.
My purpose here is to assist with the rebuilding after the earthquakes of last year.
I was here for the second one and I thought then that my number was up.
Mercifully it wasn’t.
The record low price of oil is inconsequential to most Nepalese.
It has been hard to get since the blockade of fuel at the India border commenced 8 months ago.
It is a political protest by an Indian ethnic minority group against Nepal’s constitution in the Terai region. This region abuts the border with India and through which nearly all goods to Nepal flow. The constitution was only formed last year after a decade of dispute.
There are more than 100 different ethnic groups here in Nepal and a caste system prevails. Many are fearful that their already diminished rights will cease to exist.
The majority and the most needy are of course the ones who suffer the most. There is little cooking gas to be had so fires must be used and the cost of everything has doubled or trebled. There are still lines of cars and motorcycles that are three miles and a two-day wait long.
With the earthquakes and then the fuel blockade 2015 (or 2071 for the Nepalese) was a very tough year.
It ain’t easy being Nepalese
From the moment they are chosen for their role, and they pass a rigorous 32-stage test administered by a panel of monks, these living goddesses are propelled to an immortal-like status.
Despite being the tiny children that they are - they are deemed to be protectors from evil by hundreds of thousands of adoring Hindus and Buddhists – particularly from the Newar community.
The kumari - which literally means both ‘virgin’ and ‘princess” in Nepalese - are taken from their homes and they are secreted away in temples. They are regarded as a living deity and they are only able to leave the temple when they are required to attend festivals and processions.
They are subjects of abject worship.
These kumari are considered too special to walk and they are instead carried around by hand or in mobile thrones. Their divinity is such that their feet must not touch the ground and often these girls do not learn to walk until they retire.
They retire as soon as they start to menstruate.
It is mandatory.
Whilst they are kumari the girls do not attend school or interact with any other children at all and they only appear in public thirteen times a year.
Once the kumari reach puberty and menstruation starts, the girls are put through a 12-day ritual known as 'Gufa', after which their life as a kumari suddenly ends. They are then returned to their families where they are expected to return to an ‘ordinary’ life that they have never before experienced.
It must be very difficult.
“Purpose” appears to be the latest buzzword for the New Year.
There will be plenty more.
A purpose is not a cute marine animal that resembles a small dolphin.
That is a porpoise.
I mention this because I had the great misfortune to be seated next to a hyperactive and incredibly annoying “Purpose Consultant” on the longest leg of my flight to Kathmandu.
His name was Dwayne.
Dwayne was a twenty something hipster American and when he told me he was a “Purpose Consultant” - I first thought he said “Porpoise Consultant”.
That would have been far more interesting.
Although I chatted with the hipster purpose dude for a couple of hours – they were amongst the longest of my life. 
He was loud and boring and he had an accumulation of foodstuff in his incredibly annoying hipster beard.
The desire to set the consultant on fire was as powerful as it was compelling.
I resisted.
Dwayne told me that a clearly defined corporate purpose is now essential for all organisations. He told me that there are three that are essential for any brand.
He was very passionate.
The three purposes that are now fundamental are apparently financial, customer and social.
The concise version of the Oxford dictionary defines Purpose as being: “The reason for which something is done or created or for which something exists”
Financial survival is of course a necessity for any business but it is very heartening to now hear that the “Purpose” that is being talked about in the corporate world is a lot deeper.
I told the consultant thus.
He grinned manically and flashed his perfect and pure white teeth at me and told me that he lives now to assist companies improving the lives of their customers and being of benefit to society as a whole.
Dwayne said that Companies are beginning to determine what really matters to their employees, customers and stakeholders and they are developing business models based on a concept and platform of actual care.
Nice huh?
I told Dwayne that I though that the concept of balancing profit with purpose was a very fine thing that has no downside at all and plenty of upside.
I told him that I used to work for an Investment Bank whose purpose I think was to dominate the world.
By any means possible.
“What about mission statements?” I asked of the hipster.
“Separate and redundant” he retorted.
I have been out of corporate life for a while now.
Dwayne told me that there are many companies and organisations around the world that operate with a very defined purpose.
He mentioned the Body Shop and told me that they have operated with a mission of “Enrichment” as their purpose for many years. The hipster told me that the mission of the Body Shop is to manufacture products and packaging in such a manner that they not harm the environment. Their purpose is the intent to regenerate 75 million meters of land and build bio-bridges for at-risk communities by the year 2020. He told me that the company also instills its values on its substantial supply chain.
I asked Dwayne if the Body Shop were a client of his and he told me they were not.
I didn't write any of these facts about the Body Shop down. 
I Googled them a few minutes ago.
Quite annoyingly the automatic spell check function of LinkedIn is changing some words to the American way of mis-spelling. Interestingly though it has accepted the word "Googled". 
I told Dwayne that the Body Shop was an Australian company.
It’s not.
I felt a sudden rush of patriotism.
I don't know why.
The Founder – Anita Roddick – is British.
Most Americans don’t know the difference.
Dwayne didn’t.
The British Chef Jamie Oliver’s purpose for his “15” brand of restaurants is to provide opportunity – through cooking and Food & Beverage services – to assist disadvantaged youth. I would think that most NGO's have a very clearly defined purpose.
When I asked what might the purpose of a company like Phillip Morris be – Dwayne told me that they might declare that they produce tobacco in an environmentally sustainable manner and they provide employment, education and healthcare in the countries they operate. Phillip Morris is an enormous multi-national cigarette-manufacturing organisation
Their products have killed millions.
When I asked the purpose of an armament manufacturer might be Dwayne started down the road of providing materials to ‘Fight for Liberty”.
I avoided the diatribe by going to the bathroom then on return to my seat I immediately lay back the seat and feigned sleep.
I have asked many Nepalese friends what would they think if their daughter was selected as a kumari and whether this was considered to be a great honour.
Most didn’t think there was any honour involved.
In a manner that is typically Nepalese – they told me that they would just accept that was the way things are.
Things are changing though.
Knowing my interest in the kumari and my curiosity about happens to the little girls when their life as kumari ends - one of my friends sent me some articles about Samita.
A Nepalese photojournalist followed her life since she was first identified and gave the world the first ever glimpse into the life of the kumari.
Samita returned to her family and went to school for the first time aged fourteen. The transition period was described as being ‘very difficult” however Samita is reported to be doing very well now and she has learned to play the sarod – a guitar-like Indian stringed instrument.
She is devoted to her music and she does not talk much about her time as kumari.
Other to say that she felt she lost her childhood but it was worth it in service to her faith.
She thought that being kumari was her purpose in life.
That’s kind of sad but very beautiful.
The first kumari to speak out was a girl named Rashmila Shakya, who is now 38-years-old.
She is the lady I met yesterday.
I have met her several times before and I like her a lot.
Shakya was a kumari more than 20 years ago and in 2005 she wrote and published a memoir that I have read several times over.
It is called “From Goddess to Mortal”
It is enthralling reading.
Shakya describes being selected when she was four years old.
"I don't remember much from the beginning because I was so young,"
"By the time you're around 6 or 7, you start realizing you're the living goddess and you get used to being worshiped."
Once selected Shakya was whisked off to a palace-temple where eight attendants waited upon her for the next eight years.
She stayed indoors except for 13 annual festivals when she appeared in public on a chariot.
The feet of a kumari must never touch the ground.
I may have mentioned this before.
I often repeat myself.
I often repeat myself.
Like all kumari before her, Shakya was fed specially prepared meals that she ate while seated alone on a raised platform.
She received almost no education.
A goddess already knows everything.
"I was left with nothing but a gold brocade dress and my memories," she wrote in her memoir.
"I was virtually illiterate."
“When I look back it was a very lonely existence but I knew nothing else at the time. All the wise and devout around me believed I was a goddess – so I was a goddess.”
“I knew nothing else”
Even though Shakya’s parents and siblings were able to visit her freely at the temple, they could do so only during the day and living together again was a difficult transition for everyone.
Shakya jokes that they "worshiped" her for a few days but she was soon required to help out with the cooking and cleaning ad other housework - skills she had never before learned.
I could tell by the way that she looked as she reflected on these times - that there was great difficulty in the adjustment.
I could see some despair in her eyes.
Shakya told me that she recalled the shock of sharing a bedroom with her sisters, coping without attendants, and being out in public. She had difficulty even walking at first and she had not shared anything with anyone before. As Kumari her attendants catered to her every whim.
She told me that she had absolutely no social skills and no idea how to even make friends.
It is to her absolute credit that Shakya was determined not to waste her life and she commenced her school sitting with 5-year-olds learning everything from scratch.
She caught up rapidly though and she went on to not only became the first former kumari to travel abroad and to graduate from college, but she was also instrumental in endeavouring to ‘modernize’ the kumari process to make sure that future kumari received a proper education. Now the kumari receive tutoring in their temple life to prepare them for life as mere mortals.
Shakya is now a software developer who still lives in the family home. She likes shopping and watching Bollywood movies in her spare time.
There is some obscurity as to when the kumari system commenced with some scholars believing it commenced in the year 769 however others believe it may have been as late as 1768.
There is agreement though that the kumari are a link between god and king and they are undoubtedly revered now as much as they have been in the past.
Keep in mind that Nepal has only been a democracy for less than 30 years following thousands of years as a monarchy where there has always been a connection between royalty and deities.
To a beef-eating outsider such as me it would appear that Nepali society has not fully resolved how to handle the royal kumari system in this Maoist post-royal age.
This is a country steeped in tradition and some Ministers in Nepalese parliament today still solicit the kumari for her blessing for successful rule - despite them representing a secular state.
As the twenty first century has seeped into the mountain kingdom there are a few more younger people who are questioning the institution's viability and fewer parents are offering up their daughters for this life. I understand there has been refusals in some cases.
The Maoists have publicly condemned it as a “relic of feudalism”, the former defense minister for the country termed it “child exploitation”, and in 2014 Nepal's Supreme Court ordered the government to safeguard kumari health and human rights.
The Kumari Ghar, or palace-temple in central Katmandu is a spectacular five-story red brick courtyard building with dark wood inlay. It was built in 1757 and mercifully survived last year’s earthquakes mostly intact.
The building has high walls surrounding it with signs warning we foreigners not to enter the kumari's living quarters or to take pictures of her if she peeks out.
We eaters of beef are considered to be unclean.
Perhaps due in part to the age of the institution or the child goddess' colorful presence at Nepal's many festivals, the kumari tradition remains popular amid residual belief that she does connect Nepal's leadership and the gods.
“What is the purpose?” I’m sure someone like Dwayne might ask.
"There's a belief the kumari gives the state more legitimacy," says Suresh Dhakal, an anthropologist with Katmandu's Tribhuvan University.
"So even under a republic, it will continue for some time."
Other Nepalese, like sociologist Sanjeev Pokhrel, expect the kumari to gradually lose its meaning and eventually evolving into little more than a cultural sideshow and tourist attraction.
"Like the panda for China" is his comparison.
Shakya told me that she doesn’t remember being unhappy when she was kumari but she said that she feels happy now.
She hopes to one day design environmentally friendly houses for Nepalese villages.
Like most past kumari she remains a minor celebrity around Kathmandu. People stopped and stared at her and some came over and smiled and touched her as we talked.
"People still recognize me on the street, which is a good feeling," she told me.
"They don't ever ask me about 'descending from heaven,' but they are curious."
The possibly still ignorant pessimist in me might ask if the whole kumari process is one of child exploitation.
A ritualistic function to placate devotees.
I don’t think so but who am I though to make such a judgment?
The child goddesses may in fact be divine and the reverence in which they are held may be warranted and they don’t need any other purpose.

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