Women are, by and large, second-class citizens in Nepal. In some families, they rank more on the level of third-class citizens, as they are valued below both the men and the livestock. Simply being female here seems to mean that you are supposed to give up your seat on the bus to any man who wants it, keep your legs crossed, your eyes downcast, and your behavior in check in order to avoid stirring up male lust, demurely apologize should you dare to voice an opinion (or even to state a proven fact) that goes against the beliefs of any man in authority, and dutifully pray every morning for the blessing of sons and the long life of your husband. Teej, the largest annual celebration for Nepali women, quite paradoxically celebrates not the women themselves, but instead their husbands. An estimated 10,000-15,000 Nepali girls and women are trafficked each year, sold into illegal factory labor, sex work, or domestic servitude as kamlaris, indentured female slaves purchased by high-caste Nepali families. A woman truly only earns her place in society after accomplishing the two most important life achievements for a Nepali woman: getting married and bearing a son. Sons (or, more accurately, the daughters-in-law who marry and move in with sons) take care of parents in old age, and traditionally, only a son can cremate his mother or father after death. Since girls live in their husbands’ households after marriage, becoming the responsibilities of their mothers-in-law and caring for the needs of their in-laws, many Nepali families view daughters as a burden, an unlucky investment that requires at least fourteen to eighteen years of food, clothes, and education without offering any hope of return profits. The Nepali proverb “Raising a girl is like watering your neighbor’s garden” precisely sums up the attitude that many people, men and women alike, have towards daughters. Given all of this prejudice against baby girls, women, and the female gender in general, it is rather surprising that Nepal’s Hindu and Buddhist communities believe that the well-being of individuals, families, and the nation as a whole rests in the tiny, vermilion-stained hands of the Kumari, a Living Goddess worshipped in the form of a pre-pubescent girl whose feet never touch the ground.

The Kumari tradition fascinated me even before I came to Nepal. I remember reading about Living Goddesses in my well-worn Lonely Planet, and wondering what it must be like for these little girls, some barely even toddlers, to suddenly find themselves declared a manifestation of Devi, the all-encompassing Goddess who embodies the Divine Feminine, and moved away from their families to live in the Kumari Chen, where they must maintain a condition of strict ritual purity, free from illness and blood loss. Did the girls know they were Goddesses before being selected? Did they miss their parents? What was it like to, at the tender age of four or five, be worshipped by an entire nation, including its political leaders? During my time in Nepal, the only nation that currently practices Living Goddess worship, I have had the chance to learn more about this unique practice, and while I cannot pretend to remotely understand all of the complex Tantric beliefs and esoteric philosophies that give the Kumari her power, I have come to recognize the subversive, even radical, nature of Kumari worship in a country that, at least on the surface, prioritizes all that is male, adult, and, increasingly, capitalistic and secular.

Kumari worship seems to be cloaked in secrecy; indeed, the stories that my various Nepali friends have told me regarding the Kumari frequently contradict each other and appear to compete for the title of Most Implausible. Rumors run rampant – that the Kumari must undergo a series of terrifying initiation rituals in order to prove that she has been accepted as an appropriate host for the Goddess; that the little Kumaris remain motionless, unsmiling, and serene during long hours of festivals and worship only through the influence of hypnotism, alcohol, or some sort of stupefying drug; that no one wants to marry ex-Kumaris, as snakes crawl out of their vaginas and their husbands frequently meet early and bloody demises; that the decline of Nepal’s monarchy may have been due, at least in part, to the fact that the Kumari had sickened – a sign that the Goddess inside her had withdrawn Her power – before the terrible massacre of the royal family by the Crown Prince in 2001. A small collection of books and films regarding the Kumari exists, all of which categorically negate the darker rumors regarding the Kumari and insist that the majority of ex-Kumaris are in fact comfortably married, with the more modern, younger ones happily pursuing careers such as nursing, pharmacy, and information technology. I have poured eagerly through these sources, attempting to learn as much as I can about the Living Goddess whose presence pervades daily life in the Kathmandu Valley.

Many tourists and visitors to Nepal believe that there is only one Kumari, the Royal Kumari whose seat is located in a palace in Kathmandu’s Durbar Square, but in fact, certain towns scattered throughout the valley have their own permanent Kumaris, while in other areas, little girls are chosen by the Goddess to serve as Kumaris for only a day, during specific festivals. Each Kumari wears ritual clothing (all colored brilliant red, the hue of energy and fertility), a topknot, customary bridal jewelry, and a red headdress during ceremonies, and is heavily made-up, her eyes lined in thick black collyrium that extends all the way to her temples and her entire forehead encompassed by a golden drishti, or third eye, surrounded by a giant red tika. Before the abolition of the monarchy, the Nepali king would kneel before the Kumari during the festival of Indra Jatra, seeking her blessing in order to rule the nation. The Kumari demonstrated her pleasure by placing a red tika on the king’s forehead; without bestowing this mark, the king’s reign was said to be in peril, and the Kumari’s disregard could even portend his death. In a fascinating reversal of cultural norms, an upending of orthodoxy common to esoteric Tantric practices, the little girl whom Nepal’s devoutly Hindu kings bowed down to must hail from the Shakya caste of Buddhists, and in a beautiful blend of beliefs, the Kumari is worshipped by both Buddhists and Hindus throughout the nation.

The Kumari is said to be the physical embodiment of Devi, who also manifests as Durga and Taleju, the universal, omnipotent Goddess from whose creative energy, or shakti, all life springs. The Kumari is seen as a remover of obstacles, and is intimately linked to blood, the life force that contains the Goddess’s shakti. To most mainstream Hindus, blood is seen as polluting, to the point that, amongst many castes, menstruating women are prohibited from touching men, and in certain remote regions, chaupadi, or the solitary confinement of women in mud huts outside their villages during menstruation, is still practiced. Some providers in the hospitals and birthing centers refuse to examine women who are bleeding, and the belief that blood is impure sits front and center of many postpartum hemorrhage cases, as providers’ obsession with not getting blood on their scrubs, instruments, and gloves interferes with their ability to quickly and appropriately manage the emergency. In the case of the Kumari, however, her blood is not tainted at all, but rather contains within it the power of life itself. Isabella Tree’s captivating book The Living Goddess explains the relationship between blood, the Kumari, and her status as a pre-menstrual virgin: “The reason the Kumari herself could not bleed was not because blood would contaminate her, but because the Kumari contained all the power of life inside her. All her blood had to remain inside her body; not a drop of it should be spilled. Though she was a child, the Kumari contained the full potential of a woman. The forces of female creativity and sexual energy were fully present inside her. The fact that she had not yet menstruated or lost so much as a drop of blood by any other means concentrated that creative power within her…The virginity of the Living Goddess did not make her neutral or passive. It was what gave her power. Her relationship with blood, and particularly the blood of sacrifice and menstrual blood, made her part of this world, identified her as the vital, dynamic force within it.”

The Kumari tradition, like so much of Tantra, flips inside-out many of the beliefs that are institutionalized in traditional Nepali culture. The Kumari’s intimate association with blood as the source of her power. The worship of a Buddhist girl from the Shakya caste, who were goldsmiths, a traditionally polluting occupation, by a high-caste Hindu king and his predominantly Hindu subjects. The fact that the Kumari’s left hand, traditionally seen as the polluted hand utilized for toileting, is the hand that is tantrically vested with the power to bless her worshipers and bestow the Goddess’s favor on supplicants.  The wordless declaration, made so obvious by the king’s (and now the President’s and Prime Minister’s) subservience to the Kumari’s shakti, that the life-giving energy of the country resides in the feminine. The very worship of a little girl, standing in stark opposition to the institutionalized patriarchy of Nepal and the nearly absolute power that adults everywhere wield over children.

To the Newars, the indigenous Nepali ethnic group that appears to have introduced Kumari worship to Nepal’s Malla kings, every young girl contains the Goddess’s shakti. Every pre-pubescent girl could possibly be a Kumari, and thus should be respected and honored as such. During birthdays, weddings, and other holidays, the youngest Newari girl in each family dresses like the Living Goddess, and her family members kneel in front of her to receive her blessing, gently reminding the men – the ostensible heads of the household – of the need to be humble, generous, and deferential towards their women and children. The worship of virginal young girls in whom the Goddess has chosen to take up residence also serves as a key reminder of the crucial need to revere the Divine Feminine, the creative, procreative, and regenerative force without which birth, life, and renewal would be impossible. In Nepal, unobtrusive reminders of the central importance of the Goddess can be found everywhere – in Kumari worship, in the yonis, or vagina shapes, that provide welcoming seats for the phallic lingas that decorate temples and dot the countryside, in morning offerings of flowers and incense to Parvati and White Tara and in blood-soaked shrines to Kali and Durga. Isabella Tree eloquently describes the centricity of the Goddess in the belief systems of Nepal: “Here, it seemed, was the root of the survival of Goddess worship – in stories that chart the dominance and sublimation, the ebb and flow, of the divine feminine. Like so many myths in Nepal, they revel in the subversion of stereotypes and demonstrate how the Goddess herself, in her myriad, ubiquitous forms, keeps religion fluid, breaking boundaries and preventing ideas from solidifying into dogma. The Goddess’s realm is indefinable, her playground the unfathomed expanses of the unconscious, seat of wild and transgressive notions. Throughout [Kathmandu] Valley history she had defied those elements of human nature that tended towards hegemony and control, and orthodox, reductive ways of thinking – aspects that were more associated with masculinity and the patriarchal religions. It is these certainties that the goddess continued to break down.”

Sadly, the majority of Nepalis, uninitiated in Tantric practices and, particularly with regards to the younger generation, more interested in selfies, American hip-hop, and shopping than spiritual knowledge and Tantric empowerment, do not necessarily understand the intricacies behind the little Goddesses whose faces grace everything from postcards and paintings to souvenir mugs and key chains. That does not render the Kumari any less powerful, however. All Nepali people appear to revere her, at least at the exoteric level. And those who know, those who truly see the tradition for what it is - the subtly subversive propagation of the millennia-old practice of worshipping the Divine Feminine, a practice that has largely been stamped out by the dogmatic patriarchies of modern religious institutions – recognize the inherent power of the ritual that is Kumari worship. They see the beauty of humbling oneself before a child, and the growth that can come only through surrendering to that which cannot be understood by the rational mind alone.

While I, with my extremely limited knowledge of Tantra, cannot hope to understand the spiritual transformation that is possible through the worship of the Living Goddess, my experiences with the adorable, quick-witted young girls of Nepal have given me a glimpse of the shakti within women all around the world – the creative energy that drives them to learn and to love, to paint and to dance, to harvest and to cook, to climb mountains and run marathons, to earn degrees and win promotions, to speak out, sing out, march out, and shout out against the myriad forces that endeavor to keep them down. It is this very life-force that they pass on to their own offspring when they labor for hours to bring forth a baby, then sacrifice so much of themselves to the mother that child, even if she happens to be a daughter, to the best of their abilities. And when I walk down the dusty streets on my way home from the hospital, passing plump female babies dressed in little red Kumari outfits of their own, laughing Newari toddlers with braids in their hair racing to keep up with their older siblings, and schoolgirls in pleated skirts reviewing their lessons on the steps of an ancient temple, I cannot help but feel that I am seeing not merely girls, but rather, little goddesses in their own rights.