In Kathmandu, Newar Buddhist girls as young as two years old are selected to become living incarnations of the Hindu goddess Taleju. Called 'Kumaris', the children are worshiped daily by both priests and laity and until some sign of imperfection appears, most commonly with the onset of menstruation, they are required to live in accordance with a rigorous code of purity maintenance. In this book
Dr. Allen provides a detailed ethnographic account of all of the principal manifestations of this remarkable form of worship. The book is a substantially revised and enlarged edition of a monograph first published in 1975 by the Institute of Nepal and Asian Studies, Tribhuvan University, Kathmandu, Nepal. The then Dean of the Institute, Dr. Prayag Raj Sharma, described the book as "the most comprehensive study yet undertaken on the cult of the Kumari.
Dr. Allen has ... succeeded not only in compiling much data on the subject for the first time, but has also tried to show the deep significance of the cult for the socio- religious life of the people of the Kathmandu Valley". The book has been out of print for many years and Dr. Allen has in this new edition included much additional contemporary material, including 46 beautiful plates. The Cult of Kumari provides material of great interest to scholars of South Asian religion and society, to students of gender and women's studies and to all those who have visited Nepal and wondered greatly at the strange lives of these young girls worshiped as living goddesses.
Michael Allen was born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1928. He received his B.A. degree in Philosophy from Trinity College, Dublin in 1950 and his Ph.D. in Social Anthropology from the Australian National University in 1965. He was appointed to a lectureship in Anthropology at Sydney University in 1964 and retired as Professor in 1993. In 1978 he was an Overseas Fellow at Churchill College, Cambridge; in 1982 Visiting Professor at the University of California, San Diego; in 1990 Visiting Professor at St. Patrick's College, Maynooth (Dublin); and in 1994/95 Visiting Professor at James Cook University (Townsville). In addition to his extensive fieldwork on Newar society and religion, conducted mainly between 1966 and 1978, Professor Allen has also carried out anthropological research in Vanuatu (1958-82) and in Ireland (1988-96).
He established an international reputation with his first book Male Cults and Secret Initiations in Melanesia (1967). Other important publications include his edited collections Vanuatu;
Politics, Economic and Politics in Island Melanesia (1981), Women in India and Nepal (1982) and Anthropology of Nepal: Peoples, Problems and Processes (1994).
Dr. Michael Allen (Department of Anthropology, University of Sydney) was affiliated to the Institute of Nepal and Asian Studies, Tribhuvan University, between Septemberl973 and January 1974 for the purpose of conducting research on 'Society and Religion amongst the Newars of Nepal'. The present monograph is the outcome of this research. Under the rules of affiliation with Tribhuvan University research reports submitted to this Institute may be published if they are deemed useful. Since this is the most comprehensive study yet undertaken on the cult of the Kumari or the 'Virgin Goddess', the value of this monograph for readers of Nepalese cultural history is quite evident. Dr. Allen has, in this work, succeeded not only in compiling much data on the subject for the first time, but also has tried to show the deep significance of the cult for the socio-religious life of the people of the Kathmandu Valley. The material of the book has also been presented from a sociological angle which gives a fresh approach to the subject. It is hoped that the publication of this work may further the objective of planning future similar studies on the 'living' Nepalese culture. At the end, I would like to express my sincere thanks to Dr. Allen for making his excellent study available to the Institute for publication.
The worship of specifically female powers and potencies has for long played an important part in religious belief and practice. In the ancient civilisations of the Mediterranean, Asia Minor and the Middle East mother goddesses (Bhattacharya 1971) were the focus of a great deal of ritual attention, whilst in many contemporary tribal societies the chief cults focus on the powers, both positive and negative, attributed to child-bearing and menstruating women. A recurrent, perhaps universal them, is that the kind of powers attributed to both female deities and ritually potent women are deemed especially relevant for the attainment of worldly goals and ambitions-such as the accumulation of wealth, the exercise of power, the maintenance of health, the acquisition of projeny etc. By contrast, specifically male powers and potencies, whether embodied in divine or human form, are more commonly deemed relevant for the attainment of transcendental or 'spiritual' goals-such as immortality, entry into the kingdom of god, the attainment of ancestral status or escape from the wheel of life and death.
Whilst the worship of female deities undoubtedly loomed large in the ritual repertoire of many ancient civilisations, it is most especially on the Indian sub-continent that the practice has sustained its importance from the very earliest period up to the present day. Archaeological evidence indicates that mother goddesses occupied a central position in the religious beliefs and practices of the people of Mohenjo-daro and Harappa (Marshall, 1931, Vol.1:57) as long ago as the third millenium B.C., whilst the ancient Samkhya philosophical tradition, which subsequently evolved into Saktism, focussed on the importance of the female principle (prakrti-Skt). Saktism is still today a popular cult found allover India/Nepal and its chief distinguishing feature is the worship of female energy (1aktl) as the supreme deity (Devi).
Though the Devi is often referred to in the literature as a 'mother goddess', she is in fact a multi-faceted divinity who contains within herself all of the powers or potencies of a specifically feminine kind. When appealed to in worship she is invoked with a name or title associated with that particular form of female power deemed appropriate for the occasion. In addition to the popularity of such benign forms of the goddess as Sarasvati (goddess of learning), Laksmi (goddess of wealth) and Parvati (the devoted wife of Siva), many Hindus, especially those influenced by Tantricism, devote a great deal of their ritual activity to the worship of the Devi in her many dangerous, destructive and blood-lusting forms (Kali, Durga, Ajima, Bhairavi, Taleju etc.). But the Devi may also be worshipped in human form and when that occurs it is her purity as a young virgin woman that is most likely to be stressed. The girl who becomes a living form of the Devi must be herself literally a kumari, i.e. a young virgin girl uncontaminated by any kind of impurity, whilst as the Devi she is formally addressed as Kumari, the daughter of Siva and half- brother to Ganesa. It is most especially amongst the Newar people of Kathmandu valley that Kumari worship has been elevated to the level of a national cult of major importance, and in this book I provide an outline account of its main features.
Kumari worship in India
Kumari-puja, or 'virgin worship', is a feature of Hinduism of the greatest antiquity dating back at least to the late Vedic period. Throughout the long history of her worship the goddess has displayed qualities of a seemingly ambiguous kind; on the one hand, she is literally by name 'virgin girl' or 'chaste young girl', on the other hand, she is classed as one of a group of mother goddesses (the asta matrka eight mothers, or navadurgd nine Durga) who are also the sexual partners of leading male deities. For example, in the Taittiriya Aranyaka, a third or fourth century B.C. text, Rudra's spouse Ambika (literally 'little mother') is addressed as Kanyakumari (Muir 1873, iv:426-27 and Chattopadhyaya 1970: 153-55). Kanya is a word that occurs most commonly in the phrase kanyadan ('the virgin-girl gift') in the context of an orthodox Hindu wedding ceremony-hence a goddess who is both married and a mother is also accorded a title that doubly stresses pre-marital virginity.
The word kumari is translated by Monier-Williams as 'a young girl, one from ten to twelve years old, maiden, daughter; or (in the Tantras) any virgin up to the age of sixteen or before menstruation has commenced' (1899:292). Monier-Williams also noted that kumari is the female form of kumara, 'a child, boy, youth, son (Rgveda; Atharvaveda); a prince, heir-apparent associated in the kingdom with the reigning monarch (especially in theatrical language)' . Just as Kumari is listed in the Mahabharata and other early texts as one of the many epithets of Durga, the mature destroyer of male demons, so is Kumara commonly identified with Skanda ('the spurt of semen') or Kartikeya (the god of war or combat). Skanda is called Kumara because he remains forever young and single. Though Kumara and Kumari are half-siblings through their common father, the great god Siva, Kumara is also commonly listed as Kumari's consort in the various lists of the of the sapta (seven) or asta (eight) matrkd, Indeed, Kumari, despite her formal definition as a pure young girl who has not yet menstruated, is most commonly represented in the early texts as one of these mature, weapon-wielding and powerful mother goddesses. Likewise, Kumara, though commonly represented in the mythology as an eternal bachelor youth, is also the divine spouse who is symbolically married to all high-caste Newar girls in the ihi (New.) ceremony (see Chapter 6). In secular literature, as in Newar iconography, he is sometimes depicted as a mischievous and well-fed child (pal 1975:133).
Despite Kumari's antiquity and literary prominence, the only Indian temples that I know of specifically dedicated to her worship are those of Kanyakumari at Cape Comorin (a corruption of Kumari) at the southernmost tip of the sub-continent, Kanya Devi in the Kangra valley in the north-east Punjab and Karani Mata of Bikaner state in Rajasthan. The antiquity and importance of the Kanyakumari temple is evident in that a Greek sea captain noted in about 60 A.D. that 'Beyond this there is another place called Comari, at which are the Cape of Comari and a harbour; hither come those men who wish to consecrate themselves for the rest of their lives, and bathe and dwell in celibacy; and women also do the same; for it is told that a goddess once dwelt here and bathed' (Schoff 1912:46). About 70 years later the geographer Ptolemy referred to the cape as 'Comaria Akron'. Yule (1903:382-83), writing in 1871, noted that 'the monthly bathing in her honour. is still continued, though now the pilgrims are few'. He also noted that at the beginning of the Portuguese era in India, there was a small kingdom in the area called Comari. Today, the temple is still a place of pilgrimage with devotees coming from all over India to seek the prasad of this powerful and Brahman-controlled goddess.
With reference to the Kangra temple Rose noted that 'there is a temple [in Lagpata] to Kaniya Devi, the virgin goddess, whose fair is held on 9th Har. Her Brahman pujari is a Bhojki and bhog is only offered and a lamp lit in the evening' (Rose 1919, i:320).
The worship of Kumari was, and still is, of much greater importance than the paucity of her shrines and temples might suggest. In many parts of India, but most especially in Bengal, the Punjab and parts of the south, kumari puja acquired much popularity amongst the followers of Tantra. In this ritual the aim is not so much to worship either a virgin goddess or a pure young virgin girl, but rather to utilise the purity of such girls in order to invoke the presence of such powerful and mature goddesses as Durga, Kali, Sarasvati etc. Bharati (1965:160, fit. 95) gives the following brief description of kumari puja:
a lovely and impressive ceremony current all over Bengal and in other parts of India, though with lesser frequency; a girl of twelve, of a Brahman family, is installed on the pitha like the image of Sakti, and is worshipped accordingly after the pratistha or installation ceremony; in this particular puja, the virgin represents the goddess Sarasvati. However, most Brahmins regard the presentation of their daughter for this ceremony as inauspicious (akusala).
Macdonald (1902:41-2) made the following more detailed statement:
The Kumari puja is well known in Calcutta. A house holder, intent on thus worshipping the Sakti, gets (from outside the membership of his own house) a girl, sets her up as a goddess on a small board or platform surrounded with ten or twelve other females (men not excluded), places a plate under one of her feet, and to that foot makes the usual offerings of flowers, water etc. A Brahman gentleman who has himself been present at one or more of these Kumari Pujas, tells me that in Calcutta they are not uncommon.
In many parts of India, though again especially in Bengal, orthodox twice-born Hindus annually worship the unmarried girls of the household as living forms of Durga during the ten-day period devoted to the worship of this goddess. For this brief period the girls are Durga, but at the end they are again ordinary mortals.
Rose made a number of references to somewhat longer-lasting cults that sporadically develop around the worship of young unmarried girls as living forms of the Devi in the Kangra valley:
Devi is personified in a girl under ten years of age twice a year and offerings are made to her as if to the goddess on these occasions. The worship of Devi is always cropping up. Some years ago some enterprising people of the Kapurthala state got two or three young unmarried girls and gave out that they had they had the power of Devi. The ignorant accepted this belief and worshipped them as goddesses. They visited parts of the Jullundhur District and were looked up to with great reverence everywhere, but as good results did not follow, the worship died. (1919, i:327-329)
All of the Indian instances of kumari puja thus far referred to differ from their Nepalese counterparts in that though living girls are recognised as virginal forms of the Devi, such recognition is usually of short duration and does not result in any major or enduring transformation of the girl. There is, however, one striking exception, the recognition of a young girl as a Kumari in the Rajasthan state of Bikaner in the early 16th century, and her subsequent establishment as the resident deity of a state-sponsored temple. As in Nepal, the link between the religious power of the goddess and the political power of the state was central to the growth and popularity of the cult. But, whereas in the Nepalese tradition the idea of living Kumaris became institutionalised, in Bikaner, after the orginal Karani Mata died, the cult has been perpetuated solely through the worship of an image of the goddess housed in a temple (Paul 1984).
Kumari worship in Nepal
In Nepal the girls who are worshipped as Kumaris are Newars, the indigenous people of Kathmandu valley who today constitute about 50 per cent of the valley population. There are about half-a-million Newars in the valley and a similar number scattered elsewhere in Nepal. They are, and have been for many hundreds of years, an essentially urban people, though with an economy in large measure based on rice cultivation. Prior to the Gorkha conquest of the valley in 1768 the three neighbouring cities of Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur were the capitals of autonomous Newar kingdoms, each with its own divine king.
Newar culture is very ancient, and for over two thousand years both Hinduism and Buddhism have been important religions. At the centre of each kingdom was the city, at the centre of the city was the palace, at the centre of the palace was the divine king and his peacock throne, and immediately adjacent to each palace was the residence of the royal living Kumari, There were also, and indeed still are, a number of other non-royal and locally worshipped Kumaris (see Chapter 3).
Though little is as yet known concerning the early development of Newar culture and society, there are good grounds for believing that the earliest immigrants into the valley were predominantly tribal in social structure and shamanistic in religion. The fertility of the valley and its strategic position for trade between India and Tibet led to the growth of urban centres and substantial political units by at least as early as the first century A.D. and probably a good deal earlier. It also seems likely that Buddhism, which began in the 5th century B.C. only some sixty miles south, was well established in the valley by the beginning of the Christian era. But from at least as early as the third century A.D. immigrant Hindu dynasties with their attendant Brahman priests and untouchable service castes, have encapsulated the indigenous farmers, traders and artisans in an ever-increasingly complex social system. As in most parts of South Asia, the inevitable result of such a historic process was the emergence of a highly stratified caste-type social structure. While the immigrant groups became increasingly Newar in language and culture, the Newars themselves became increasingly Hindu in religion and internally stratified in conformity with caste principles. Newar Buddhism, though it has undoubtedly suffered a steady decline in popularity through almost 2,000 years of Hindu political domination, especially during the last two hundred years of alien Gorkha rule, has nevertheless continued to be a major component in the complex-religious beliefs and practices of the people.
The chief distinguishing feature of the Newar version of Vajrayana Buddhism is the total replacement of the usual Buddhist monastic and celibate religious virtuosi with an hereditary married priesthood. That such a transformation was an historic event seems likely in that the contemporary priests and their families still own and mostly live in buildings which were clearly designed for monastic occupancy and are still known as vihdra (or bahah and bahi in Newari). These priests have been accurately described by Greenwold (1974) as Buddhist Brahmans. Though they use Buddhist texts and symbols and refer almost exclusively to Buddhist deities, they nevertheless are like Brahmans in three important respects-they constitute an hereditary and endogamous community whose members regard themselves as purer than all other Newar Buddhists, they have hereditary clients (jajman) for whom they perform a wide range of ritual services, mostly of a purificatory kind, and they are the only Newars eligible for initiation into the most powerful Tantric Buddhist cults.
The historic importance of Buddhism in Newar society is evident in that even today there are about ten times as many Buddhist priests (Gubhaju) as there are Brahmans. The classification of the members of other castes as either Buddhist or Hindu has little meaning other than by reference to what kind of priest is employed for domestic purificatory rites. Traditionally, the numerically preponderant (some 50 per cent of the total Newar population) caste category of agriculturists known as Jyapu have been regarded as Buddhists, although today many of them employ Brahman priests.
The first, and in some ways the simplest anomaly concerning the Newar girls who are worshipped as living Kumaris is that though Kumari is, without any ambiguity at all, a classic Hindu deity, the girls themselves are all members of orthodox Buddhist Newar castes. Indeed most of them, including the three royal Kumaris, are members of the two highest-ranking Buddist castes, the Gabhaju and the Sakya. The Gubhaju are, as noted above, the Buddhist priests, while the Sakya who are mostly metal workers and temple custodians, claim direct descent from the ancient Sakya clan that gave birth to Sakyamuni Buddha over 2,500 years ago. I shall return to this seeming conundrum shortly, but first I would like to outline an even more important anomaly concerning these girls.
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