Crumbling Monasteries and a Child Goddess: Notes from Newari Patan

Crumbling Monasteries and a Child Goddess: Notes from Newari Patan



In
the heart of Patan, two men in black Nepali topis (caps) sit
on a raised wooden platform just inside Hakha Bahal, the courtyard
of a three-tiered monastery. Playing a game that appears to be
draughts, they initially eye me suspiciously but warm up when I ask
if this is the residence of the Patan Living Goddess.

“Yes, indeed. Would you like to meet her?” I didn’t expect it to
be this easy to make contact with the young girl who is worshipped
as a goddess. Apprehensive, I say I’ll come back tomorrow and slink
back to the anonymity of the city’s lanes. “She’s here every day!”
they call after me cheerfully.


Black topis are traditionally worn by the Newars, a group said
to be descended from the Kirat, the legendary people of the
Himalayas. Living on the crossroads of ancient trading routes in
the Kathmandu Valley, a wide range of influences have mingled to
create their unique culture – one that is shaped by worship of both
Hindu and Buddhists deities, complicated tantric rituals and the
promotion of female power. It is also one of Kumari worship, where
prepubescent girls are revered as living embodiments of the divine
feminine.

Both Hindu and Buddhist Newars believe that feminine power
created the Kathmandu Valley itself. It is said that the valley lay
under a great lake in ancient times. A lotus seed appeared and
embedded itself deep in the ground at the source of a spring, from
which the power of the great goddess flowed. The lotus flower grew
and soon attracted the attention of a passing bodhisattva
(enlightened being) who drained the lake so that everyone could
visit the source of the goddess. Thus the Kathmandu Valley was
revealed.


The bodhisattva trained local inhabitants in many new skills,
most importantly, how to sculpt splendid mahaviharas (monasteries)
and cast metal images of the gods. These people were the Newars,
and the clanging of metalwork can be heard in the backstreets of
Patan today.

During my six weeks in Nepal, I remain firmly lodged in
old-town Patan. It predates neighbouring Kathmandu by around 10
centuries and is a more relaxed place to explore Newari culture.
Historically, it has had a large Buddhist influence with four
impressive stupas, dating from around 250 BCE, guarding the limits
of the city. Despite suffering damage in the 2015 earthquake, the
temples and palaces of Patan’s Durbar Square remain an
architectural delight that is central to local life. Residents
young and old congregate daily on the benches outside the old Royal
Palace to chit chat, while Bihari children circle the square
selling candy floss and balloons.



In the mornings, I open my shutters to see women with Hindu
tikkas on their foreheads lighting butter lamps on the four sides
of small Buddhist chortens (shrines). I watch as they pad down the
narrow lanes, carrying golden plates filled with plums, incense,
flowers, rice and vermillion to offer at the shrines of both
Buddhist and Hindu deities. Early one morning, as I sit observing
the worshippers in the beautiful Golden Temple, I realise that I
have always thought of different religions as separate. Here they
have blended together; as the local saying goes, Newars are 60%
Hindu and 60% Buddhist.

The Newari belief systems are set apart from their mainstream
forms by their worship of the creative power of divine feminine,
shakti. The Kumari tradition, practised by both Hindus and
Buddhists, is the clearest example of this. Coming from a Buddhist
priest caste, a Kumari must have certain physical features, no
scars, and most importantly, not have lost any blood. She is
selected by astrologers, usually at a very young age, and is
replaced by another before she reaches puberty. Any loss of blood
releases her shakti and renders her powerless.

It is during my exploration of the Patan Royal Palace that I
first hear of the Patan Kumari. Elderly Ramesh is sitting in a
doorway in Mul Chowk, an inner courtyard of the palace, selling
garlands of orange flowers. He is next to a grand set of golden
doors and explains this is Taleju’s shrine of which he is the
keeper. Taleju, he says, is the wrathful form of the mother goddess
that Hindus believe to be embodied in the Kumari. “Only Newars
allowed,” he says, gesturing to the golden doors. “But you can meet
our Kumari, she lives five minutes from here.” Intrigued, I set off
to investigate.

I had heard about the tightly guarded Royal Kumari who resides
in Kathmandu’s Durbar Square. Observing her behaviour, they say,
can predict significant events that affect the entire nation. But
the presence of a living goddess in a dilapidated monastery nearby
is quite a surprise.


It is on my second visit to Hakha Bahal that I summon the guts
to climb the stairs to her chambers. I arrive in the dingy waiting
room just as she comes rushing through a door, thinking she is
alone. My first thought is how small she is. Nihira Bajracharya has
become a Kumari only a few months before, at the age of five, and
my natural reaction is to smile at a child of this age. But the
spirit of the mother goddess is inside her, and that is not the
done thing.

Dressed in sparkles and red, with heavy kohl dramatically
flicking up at the outer corners of her eyes, she quickly becomes
solemn and returns to her throne. Puja paraphernalia: water jugs,
vermilion, flowers and candles are scattered on the floor beside
her. I am asked to wash my hands, so as not to pollute her. Sitting
in front of her, I’m a little bit uncomfortable – both because she
is a goddess and because she is so young. She looks at me,
thankfully emoting nothing, as her tears signify your imminent
illness or death. I lean forward for my tikka and nervously grapple
in my bag for an offering of rupees.



I later return to her monastery to photograph the courtyard, and
I see her, hanging out the window on the second floor. This time I
smile, but it is met with a foreboding widening of the eyes before
she vanishes suddenly. I gulp, hoping I hadn’t undone my earlier
blessing.


My encounters with the Patan Kumari remain with me as I creep
through the low tunnels linking the bahals of the city, and I know
I have only scratched the surface of this complex culture in which
the eclectic belief systems challenge our monogamous relationships
with religion, while the dominance of a mother goddess and hidden
tantra traditions add intrigue and, of course, some concern. Tantra
imagery in the cities’ temples hints to secrets that I will never
be privy to understanding. Nevertheless, the architecture and
stories of Patan make a deep impression on me which endures long
after I have returned home.

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