As the world observes Women's Day to celebrate the emancipation and empowerment of women, Rashmila Shakya has a special reason to rejoice. In addition to the distinction of being a goddess, she now has the additional laurel of becoming Nepal's only graduate goddess.
From 1987, when she was only four, Rashmila, now 24, was worshipped and revered throughout Nepal for eight years as Kumari, the kingdom's living goddess.
AdvertisementThe tradition of the Kumari is one of the oldest and best loved in Nepal.
According to legend, Kathmandu Valley's presiding deity goddess Taleju Bhavani decided to forsake the king when he made overtures at her, or, some say, when a jealous queen suspected her of a liaison with the king.
However, the king, whose fortunes ebbed with her disappearance, managed to pacify her and she agreed to reappear as Kumari, an unblemished young virgin.
Every eight years or so, a four-year-old girl from the Shakya community, the Buddhist clan from which Gautama Buddha came, is chosen to be Kumari on the basis of certain secret signs and a horoscope compatible with the king's.
The four-year-old lives in her own palace, never walks on the ground and is worshipped by all, including the king, who never bows before another human being.
The little goddess, however, turns mortal when she reaches puberty and a new four-year-old is chosen to replace her.
Though the state pays former Kumaris a pension, it is still a traumatic experience for the teenagers having to learn to start living as a human being, no longer entitled to unquestioning obedience and reverence of all.
Most of the Kumaris before Rashmila had a difficult time making adjustments to their new status. Also, most were barely literate, the exception being Nani Maya Shakya in the 60s, who completed school.
Rashmila remembers one former Kumari she visited, who spent most of her time sitting in front of her mirror, making up her face.
The sight, she says, shocked her into realising that she would have to start adjusting to her new life quickly or be fated to an equally fruitless existence.
Rashmila thanks her parents for deciding she would go to school and learn to stand on her own feet, and her siblings, who when she returned home from her palace, treated her as a fellow human being and not a goddess.
'When I went to school, I was 12 and doing Grade II with five- or six-year-olds,' she reminisces.
'Other students knew I was a former Kumari and would come to gape at me. But when I was in high school, people no longer remembered me as Kumari and I realised it was nice being known as Rashmila.
'I am proud to be doing things on my own, without trying to get any advantage from my stint as Kumari.'
Rashmila has several firsts to her credit.
She is the only Kumari to be a graduate, with a degree in IT. She is also the only Kumari to have travelled abroad.
And now, she is also the only Kumari to become an author.
She relieves her extraordinary life in the bestselling book 'From Goddess to Mortal', written in collaboration with author Scott Berry.
What made her write the book?
The sea of lurid and appalling stories about the Kumaris, Rashmila says.
'There are incredible stories, like the four-year-old has to see the sacrifice of 108 buffaloes and goats and walk over their heads.
'And that the Kumari is too powerful to have a normal married life. People would often ask me, When you marry, will your husband die?
'I wanted to set the record straight.'