KATMANDU, Nepal -- The little girl became Nepal's official living goddess the day before she turned 4, a grandly ceremonial event that made her parents enormously proud, for a divine spirit was about to enter their daughter and she would be worshiped by the nation, carried around on a gilded chariot and bowed down to, even by the king.
But now, seven years later, her parents, Amrit and Namita Shakya, are sorry they allowed their girl to be plucked from obscurity and turned into the pampered goddess, the royal kumari.
By custom, the child has lived away from her family in a famous 18th-century house in central Katmandu, leaving this cocoon only 13 times a year, during festivals.
Approaching puberty, she will soon begin to menstruate, which is believed to be a sign that her godly power is departing and her time as the kumari is over.
Her parents expect that upon returning home she will be an unhappy, uneducated and unappreciative adolescent ex-deity.
"Knowing what we know now, we would never have agreed to give her away," Amrit Shakya, an unemployed driver, said. "She cannot properly read or write. She will have to start school far behind her grade level.
"She is a very distant child now, like a stranger to her own family. A child should not be raised away from her parents, even the royal kumari."
Adoration of the kumari is a tradition in this mountainous nation of 21 million. The girl is believed to be the embodiment of Taleju, a Hindu goddess who befriended an ancient Nepalese king.
In the most common version of the story, the king once looked lustfully at the beautiful goddess. She took great offense and vanished, vowing to reappear only in the less seductive body of a virgin child from a lower-caste family.
By practice, the kumari has always been chosen from the Shakya caste, whose members customarily labored as goldsmiths and often use the caste name as their surname. Families eagerly tendered their daughters, and the priests from the royal palace and the Taleju temple had their pick of girls ages 3 to 5.
The selectors want a child in perfect health with unblemished skin, big eyes and a full set of teeth. At the same time, the royal astrologer consults the stars to see which child's horoscope is in harmony with the king's.
Then, in one final trial, the chosen girl's composure is tested as she is made to walk on bloody ground between recently severed buffalo heads, their eye sockets lighted with candles.
In recent years, however, Shakya families have not been so willing to come forward with their daughters. The parents of the past two kumaris say the selection committee came to their homes, more to search for volunteers than to sift among aspirants.
"They tried very hard to convince me," Shakya said. "They said my daughter would be looked after and this was a good thing. It was an honor for me. And for my daughter it meant she would be a goddess to all."
But he began doubting his decision as soon as he took the child into Kumari Ghar, a three-story red-brick house built around a courtyard near the old palace.
Elaborate wood carvings -- peacocks, serpents, gods -- adorn the doorways and windows. The entrance is flanked by statues of two white lions with bared teeth.
"Obviously, when I left her I could see she was unhappy, but she shed no tears until after I was gone," said Shakya, 37, looking as if he had been ambushed by an unwelcome memory.
"They told us she wept for hours afterward. I had such mixed feelings. I had to keep reminding myself that my daughter was being made a goddess."
A man named Juju Bhai oversees the young goddess' life. For generations, members of his wife's family have been the custodians of Kumari Ghar. They support themselves and maintain the property with donations left in a courtyard collection box or at the kumari's slippered feet.
The girl's daily routine is quite restricted.
She is allowed playmates, but no games can take her outside or risk the opening of a wound -- a show of blood that would prematurely empty her of divine power. Her diet is spared anything that might upset her stomach.
For a few hours daily, the kumari's forehead is painted in red and her eyes are surrounded by black circles that tail off toward her ears like calligraphy.
Supplicants are permitted to visit her, beseeching a silent blessing. Tourists gather in the courtyard, hoping to glimpse her from a designated window. Her custodians see to it that she makes an occasional appearance.
The Shakyas, who have two other children, are allowed to call on their daughter occasionally. Shakya tries to go once a week.
But his wife finds the meetings too painful: "We are parents in name only, and this will be true until our daughter comes back home."
They have quarreled with Juju Bhai about the girl's education. Nepal is a constitutional monarchy, and though King Birendra has limited power, the oversight of Kumari Ghar is still a matter handled by the palace.
At a festival in May, as her daughter sat in a throne on her chariot, Namita Shakya squeezed through the guards and handed the king a petition, asking that the goddess be given more tutoring. A royal secretary has pledged to look into the situation.
"There is no arrangement for proper schooling," said Pragya Devi, the mother of the previous kumari. "My daughter, Rashmila, was not prepared to have a life after her time as a goddess was over.
"She had to sit by the side of her younger brother, enrolled in the second grade at the age of 12. This was a very painful thing."
Until recently education for any girl, including a goddess, was not much of an issue here. But Nepal, however much it clings to familiar rituals, is modernizing. In an urban capital like Katmandu, most parents want their daughters to have careers.
"As long as Rashmila was a goddess, people respected her, but once she retired, it was like being discarded," Pragya Devi said. "No one cared what became of her."
Rashmila, now 18, is studying for exams that might win her a place in college. She is a shy, serious young woman who at times has complained of depression.
The adjustment to post-Kumari life has been demanding, but unlike her mother she has few regrets. She recalls how strong she felt with the divine power within her.
"I never sneezed," she said. "I never once had a fever. I was truly someone special. I met the king, and the king bowed down. It was a good time for me.
"I can remember playing with my dolls and toys in a spacious room. The caretakers were like a second set of parents. They gave me all I needed and restrained me in only one way.
"I could never leave."
Pub Date: 12/20/98