Isabella Tree’s The Living Goddess narrates a fascinating and unique part of Nepali–or, more accurately, Kathmandu Valley–culture: the tradition of the Kumari, the worship of a prepubescent girl as the physical home of the female mother goddess. Despite living in Kathmandu (Patan, to be precise) I have seen or heard little of this tradition since I’ve been here. Isabella Tree’s personal history, then, of not just the Kumari of Kathmandu, but of surrounding areas (such as Patan, Bhaktapur, and other places that were perhaps once separate kingdoms or entities, but are now suburbs of Kathmandu) was an enlightening read. Tree first came to Kathmandu in the 1980s as an eighteen year old, living in a house on Kathmandu’s Durbar Square, opposite the Kumari Chen, or house. She became fascinated by the tradition then, and made it her mission in subsequent visits to Kathmandu to find out more about it.
After buying my copy in Jaipur in January, I have noticed that this book has sprouted everywhere in Kathmandu, the type of book that will likely sell well among tourists. And it should, it’s an interesting book, but it did have its problems. I have written before that the contemporary re-telling of mythological or religious tales have a tendency to take a stale narrative form. Roughly every second chapter of The Living Goddess is on the religious tales and traditions of the Nepali people, of relevance to understanding the Kumari tradition. But I found myself skimming through these chapters, bored by the unimaginative style. OK, these are tales that have been told again and again, and deviation from the understood narrative could risk offending the sentiments (god forbid that anyone should do that in India) of those belonging to the religion whose stories are being told. But I don’t see why this should be an excuse for bland telling-not-showing. Tree could have done much more with these sections of the book, considering they take up so much of it.
There was also a rather forced defense on Tree’s part of the Kumari tradition against its detractors. In the past decade or so, questions have been raised from various quarters on the dubious nature of the tradition in terms of the human rights of young girl children. Kumaris, particularly the Kathmandu Kumari, are not treated like normal children, so are often prevented from attending school and from playing and interacting with others of their age. Ex-Kumaris themselves have come out in defense of the tradition, saying that they gained much more than they lost from the experience, and do not feel that any human or child rights were violated. Assessing both sides of the debate was essential for Tree, and while some semblance of a balanced discussion is presented, she at times falls rather too easily back on the side of the defenders. This is her opinion, but I found this particularly problematic when she reiterated the empowering aspects of Hinduism on women because of the importance placed on the divine feminine forces. Such an easy equation between female worship and the actual condition of women is dangerous and usually very misleading. Take the following passage, for instance:
“The question remained as to why UN reports had included the Kumari tradition alongside the most brutal examples of child abuse and sex discrimination in the country when evidence 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. Like most journalists it seems the UN reporters had also been persuaded by the prevailing rumours and had failed to examine the tradition closely, including the Newar beliefs and intentions behind it. But then, perhaps the answer was simpler than that. Perhaps no one, let alone the UN, could conceive of a tradition anywhere in the world where a little girl was genuinely worshipped as a Goddess.” (p. 229)
I don’t doubt that the UN’s research can be sloppy, or that it may have been inadequate in this case. But I (and a great many other feminists) do not equate any type of religious rituals around the worship of female deities, humans, spirits, or energies with the actual well-being of women in general. Tree seems to make this equation far too uncritically.
For anyone interested in Nepal, this is an interesting book, though certainly not the definitive one on the Kumari tradition.