KATHMANDU, NEPAL – Anita Shakya, 39, silently descends the wooden staircase in her parents’ house and glides like a deer into the living room. Her movements are so delicate and peaceful that no one is aware of her presence.
She takes a seat, far from the others sitting in the room. She dons a flowery kurta surwal, traditional attire worn by women in Nepal, and her hair rests neatly in a bun. Dark kohl outlines her eyes, cast down underneath perfectly arched brows.
A breeze blows in from the open window, and she looks up for the first time to gently wipe dust from her eye with a perfectly manicured nail painted the same deep shade of red as her lips.
Pictures of Shakya as a “Kumari” cover the walls of the living room. A Kumari, which means “virgin” in Nepali, is a living goddess believed to be an incarnation of the Hindu goddess Taleju. The photos reveal Shakya at different ages when she served as a Kumari, from the tender age of 5 to 11.
She wears the same rich red and gold attire and traditional gold and silver jewelry in every photo. An ornate, jeweled headdress covers her hair, which is tied in a topknot.
Red lipstick coats her youthful lips, and dark kohl outlines her innocent eyes. The kohl extends all the way to her hairline, and red paint coats her forehead to depict the third eye of the goddess. Devotees waiting to receive blessings from the child goddess kneel before her in the pictures.
Of the 12 Kumaris appointed throughout Nepal, the Kumari from Basantapur, the old city of the Malla Dynasty, is considered the most powerful. She is also known as the Royal Kumari, as she protects the rulers of the country. This is the title Shakya held.
Shakya became the 10 th Royal Kumari in 1978 at the age of 5 and moved away from her family’s home into the Kumari house in the Basantapur area of Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital. She says she was too young to remember the Kumari selection process.
She soon got used to wearing only red and being cared for by Indra Maya Shakya, her “chitaidar,” a female caretaker responsible for looking after a Kumari. Her daily routine included performing rituals in the morning and attending to devotees who came for blessings. Other times, she played with her chitaidar’s children.
“I don’t remember much, but I used to be excited on Indra Jatra because they would take me out of the Kumari house for the festival,” she says of the annual festival where the public gets to see the Kumari carried around in a chariot.
Hindus and Buddhists worship the prepubescent girls chosen to serve as the Kumari goddess until her first menstruation. But former Kumaris say they struggle to return to normal life, having never attended formal school or walked outside. Although the government has introduced some schooling for Kumaris, education advocates demand more so that the young women can