x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Beauty under scrutiny in Nepal

Girls thought to be incarnations of deity and hopeful modern-day contestants might be swept out along with the monarchy.

Devotees throng to worship a Kumari in Katmandu in April. Kumaris are young girls believed to be the incarnations of a Hindu deity.
Devotees throng to worship a Kumari in Katmandu in April. Kumaris are young girls believed to be the incarnations of a Hindu deity.

NEW DELHI // The selection process could not be more different - while one must have a "voice as soft and clear as a duck's, eyelashes of a cow and the chest of a lion" and endure a night with the severed heads of cattle, the other has to look good in a bikini.

The guidelines for choosing a new Kumari "living goddess" and a Miss Nepal winner may have been written 300 years apart, but to the country's new Maoist government both are equally antiquated. Now the government is seeking to ban both institutions, saying they are incompatible with the Himalayan country's new status as a secular socialist republic. "Kumaris should not exist in the 21st century," said Janardan Sharma, a Maoist member of parliament. "We will try to get rid of the practice."

Earlier, female Maoist lawmakers dismissed the beauty pageant - which should have taken place in Kathmandu on Saturday - as an "anti-women" event inspired by "capitalist" elements. Maoists, who fought a decade-long guerrilla war ending in 2006, emerged as the single largest party in an election in April vowing to end "feudal practices". One of their first acts was to abolish Nepal's 240-year old Hindu monarchy, the head of which was revered as a living god.

Last week, the country's Supreme Court ruled that the Kumaris - young girls believed to be the incarnation of a Hindu deity - are being deprived of their basic human rights. The girls, who number about a dozen throughout the Himalayan kingdom, are prevented from receiving an education, basic medical care and living a normal family life, said Hemanta Rawal, a spokesman for the court. "We have issued an order to the Nepali government to secure the Kumaris' rights as children. These rights should not be ignored in the name of culture," Mr Rawal said.

Many believe the new government - which was finally sworn in last week - will use the ruling to ban the practice, which Maoists see as "evil symbols" linked to the rigid Hindu caste system. Selected between the ages of two and four from the caste of gold and silversmiths, the Kumari - which means virgin in Nepali - are worshipped as the embodiment of Durga, the goddess of power, until they reach puberty.

Once chosen, a Kumari is confined to a temple and raised by attendants. She must not be exposed to direct sunlight and can only walk on pieces of red silk that are laid in her path. A Kumari can meet with female siblings once a week, but her parents must attend a daily blessing along with the other devotees to catch a glimpse of their daughter. "It is to keep the girl pure," said Deepak Bahadur Pandey, a senior official of the state-run Trust Corporation that oversees the country's cultural matters. "Other than the restrictions, she is like any normal child."

But after spending 10 years or more being worshipped and waited upon, the girls are forced to re-enter the real world before they hit puberty - often without any formal skills or ability to care for themselves. "They haven't lived with their families for 10 years, they have social problems and no education," said Pun Devi Maharjan, a human rights lawyer who petitioned the Supreme Court to examine the issue.

Rashmila Shakya, 24, a former Kumari, said she had a hard time adjusting to her freedom and beginning her education at the age of 12. "It was very difficult," said Ms Shakya, who has just completed a degree in information technology. In addition to being behind in their education, Kumaris can be stigmatised in later life, as many Nepali men believe marrying a former Kumari is fatal. While the ruling does not outlaw the tradition of Kumaris, if implemented, it is hard to see how the Kumaris' aura - which is dependent to a large degree on her total isolation from the outside world - would not suffer.

The decision could not have come at a worse time for those who want the tradition to endure in the face of change. This month, staff at the Kathmandu's Taleju temple, home to the most sacred of all Kumaris - the Royal Kumari - launched a search for a girl to replace Preeti Shakya, who is just about to turn 12. But in recent years, parents have been less keen to put their daughters forward for consideration - seven years ago, in a house-to-house search, only five families offered, compared with hundreds a generation ago.

To become a Kumari, a girl must exhibit all "32 perfections", have all of her milk teeth and must never have fallen ill or lost a drop of blood. During the final test - for bravery - the candidate is led in to a dark courtyard where she is shown the severed heads of cattle by candlelight. While the requirements to win the Miss Nepal contest are not nearly so arcane, they have still provoked the ire of the country's All Nepal Women's Federation (Revolutionary), which threatened to boycott the event's main sponsor and blockade Kathmandu if it went ahead.

Organisers are in talks to reschedule the event, but Prachanda, the Communist party leader who was sworn in as prime minister on Aug 15,supports the boycott. If the beauty pageant is not held, Nepal will be without a representative at the Miss World Finals, to be held in South Africa in December, said Girendra Man Rajbanshi, the event's managing director. "We are hopeful it will go ahead, we have agreed to remove the swimsuit section."

Meanwhile, Mr Pandey is optimistic the Kumari tradition will survive the cultural upheaval his country is going through. "We will not see the end of Kumaris in 10 or even 20 years, they will continue for a long time." @email:hgardner@thenational.ae