| Xinhua | 2013-11-28 15:11:50
One of Nepal's most popular former living goddesses is now 16 years old and is slowly finding her way to the life of mortals.
"I want to become a Thangka artist just like my dad," Preeti Shakya told Xinhua in a recent exclusive interview.
Chosen when she was only three years old, Preeti Shakya has been revered as the incarnation of the Hindu mother goddess Durga in centuries-old tradition.
She was worshipped until her first menstruation, after which she was back to ordinary life, leaving the throne to a new living goddess or Kumari.
Venerated and simultaneously alienated for years, Preeti now enjoys a normal teenage life. Her room is full of her pictures with the enigmatic smile that made her so popular during her reign as Nepal's living goddess.
During the interview, the introverted and soft-spoken Preeti introduced us to the rest of her family. Like her predecessors, she was separated from her biological parents and lived a confined life. With her eyelashes blackened thick with mascara and a red and gold costume, she could get out of her palace only 13 times a year.
Suddenly raised to a pedestal, a Kumari is a major tourist attraction in Nepal. Every day hundreds of tourists and local devotees come to visit her palace just to catch a glimpse of a living goddess.
The Kumari is always chosen from the same Buddhist clan, and when the committee approached Preeti's mother, Reena Shakya, she was undecided whether she should let her daughter participate in the selection, or not.
Reena was afraid that her daughter would have difficulties rejoining a family that she would hardly know because of the long separation.
"I would visit Preeti once a week. I would go to the Kumari House in the shoes of a devotee, thinking of her as a goddess rather than as my daughter. Only Preeti's older sister was allowed to play with her on Saturdays," Reena Shakya told Xinhua while browsing old photo albums.
Living together again was a difficult transition for everyone. Preeti recalled the initial shock of coping without attendants after years of having been pampered as a living goddess. She also found it difficult to make new friends.
Now most of Preeti's days are spent between books and her schoolmates.
"I don't have much free time as I have to study a lot but I am happy nowadays when I think that I can get out of my house anytime I want," Preeti said.
She said that when she first stepped out of the Kumari House, she was afraid of cars and had the impression that everyone was staring at her.
Preeti confided that she still has no boyfriend. Although there is no rule that prevents a former goddess to marry, superstition holds that husbands of ex-Kumari die early.
Being a Kumari has allowed Preeti to experience a double life, halfway between traditional values and the wave of modernization affecting Nepal. Her schoolmates and teachers describe her as a " shy but kind" teenager.
"She is simple, helpful, she never argues with others; these are her major characteristics and probably the effects of her Kumari life," Ram Mani Bagale, one of Preeti's teachers, said.
Although Preeti seems to be doing well among mortals, several human rights groups have called, on a number of occasions, for the abolition of the Kumari tradition on the grounds of exploitation and psychological damage suffered by the girls selected as living goddesses.
But Chunda Bajracharya, a researcher on Newar culture, believes that the tradition has not affected Kumaris' individual rights. In fact, it has elevated their status in society as "someone divine, someone who is above the rest."
In a year, Preeti will finish school and begin her quest for freedom and independence.
Will she remain to be seen as a former living goddess or get along with her new identity and move around unnoticed in the streets of Kathmandu just like any other teenagers? This is yet to be seen.
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