In Hindu mythology the goddess Taleju, or Taleju Bhavani, is considered to be the tutelary and wrathful form of the Goddess Durga. Durga is known to be the embodiment of all powers and to be the source of and contain all other goddesses within her (Monaghan 88). The creation of the goddess Durga was actually by the gods themselves. While the gods were resting after fighting with demons, a particular demon, named Mahishasura, took advantage of the god’s absence and declared himself Lord of Heaven and Ruler of the Universe (Harding 53). Upon hearing this declaration Visnu was outraged and “shot forth a terrible light from his forehead” (Harding 53). All the other mighty gods were similarly angry and also shot forth beams of light in the same direction of Visnu’s. The beam of lights eventually converged and from the blazing eruption of light the Goddess Durga emerged. In some scripts Taleju has also been referred to as Kali, another form of the goddess Durga known for her destructive nature. Taleju is also known by many different names such as Tulja, Turja, Tava, Tamva, Talamonde, Talesvari, as well as Manesvari (Slusser 316).
In the Kathmandu Valley the goddess Durga in the form of Taleju has a special place of worship among the Newar society. Three major cities lie within the valley Kathmandu, Patan, Bhaktapu. It has been estimated that about 5 percent of Nepal’s people live in the Kathmandu Valley which is around 600,000 people and it is thought that half of the population is comprised of Newars (Levy 35). The Newars are a people whose nation ruled long before Nepal was established. Their borders are generally accepted as having included the slopes of the hills that surrounded the Kathmandu Valley.
In this society the goddess Taleju is extremely important; she represents the political aspect of the society in Kathmandu Valley, she is the most important deity, and is the goddess to which all other goddesses pay homage. She is the tutelary goddess to the Nepalese or Malla kings and the success, greatness, and prosperity of the kingdom is controlled by her. The Malla Kings often used the Goddess Taleju in order to legitimize their rule and succession in the Kathmandu Valley. The mantra of Taleju is a mark of the ruler’s succession and is very important to receive. It is thought that if a ruler failed to receive the mantra, he was liable to lose his kingdom (Allen 15). Even when the Malla kingdom was conquered during the Shah dynasty, the new king adopted Taleju as his new royal deity, in order to prove and cement his legitimacy to the throne.
The Kumari are another form of the Goddess Taleju and are young girls considered to be the human manifestation of the Goddess Taleju. The origin of using the Kumari to worship the goddess is explained in Nepalese mythology. There are several different versions of the myth, but they all point to a Malla king upsetting the Goddess so greatly that she refuses to appear to him in her true form. One myth claims that the Goddess Taleju agreed to appear before the king Trailokyamalla of Bhaktapur and in return he had to secretly establish a symbol of the goddess and allow no one to see it. However, one day while he was worshipping, the King’s daughter walked in and saw the symbol. Taleju revoked her agreement with the King and refused to appear to him unless she was in the body of a young high-caste girl (Slusser 316). Another account implicates the King Ratnamalla and his sister Gangi as the intruder (Slusser 316). Other versions say that the King Trailokymall used to play games of dice with Durga at night and she would give him advice on the affairs of the state. Unfortunately the King became so overwhelmed by her beauty and her sexuality that he started to have impure thoughts, making it too difficult to concentrate on his actions. The Goddess perceived the thoughts of the King and was offended; consequently the goddess informed the King that he would no longer hold the privilege of seeing her in her goddess form, and instead she would appear in the body of a young virgin girl (Amazzone 72). Yet another description explains that it was the jealousy of the Queen that angered the Goddess. Not knowing that the beautiful women playing dice was indeed the Goddess Durga the Queen burst into the King’s chambers and accused him of infidelity. Outraged, the Goddess furiously stood up waving her ten arms and several of her other enraged faces came forth showing her multi-headed manifestation of the Goddess Taleju declaring that she will no longer give him her help (Amazzone 72). The King was devastated and for days he performed pujas to win back the affection of Taleju, but again she will only return to him in the body of young girl so as not to cause anymore outbreaks of jealousy (Amazzone 72).
The worshipping of the Goddess Taleju in the form of a young virgin girl, or Kumari, became a tradition in the Newar society and has continued to this day. Usually young girls between the ages of two and four are selected to take on the role of a living Kumari, but they can be even younger. Many different girls can be worshipped as living Kumaris at the same time and there are three principal Kumaris in the three cities of Bhadgaon, Kathmandu, and Patan. These girls are chosen on a measure of purity, to which there is specific criteria. In the case of the Royal Kumari of Kathmandu, physical and psychological testing is done in a rigorous examination that is carried out by a committee appointed by the King’s priest (Allen 20). A group of eligible girls is brought before the committee on an auspicious day to be examined using a list of 32 perfections thought to be found in goddesses. The young girls must be in perfect health, suffering no serious illness especially an illness that may have caused a physical imperfection, no bad body smells, black hair and eyes and most importantly the girls must not have lost any blood from things like losing teeth or the start of menarche (Allen 20). The committee is also expected to take into account the reputation of the young girl’s family and her personality. If the committee is unable to find a young girl without an imperfection, they will choose the girl who most closely portrays the ideal (Allen 20). Once there has been a selection the young girl is brought to the palace of the king where he offers her a coin. She then returns to her home until the installation rites can be formed making her the new living Kumari (Allen 20). During the wait for the installation rites the spirit of the Kumari is thought to already be entering the body of the young girl, so if she shows any negative bodily symptoms she is considered to be unworthy of the role (Allen 20).
Once the girl is officially inducted into the role of the Kumari she is taken from her parents and family, and lives separately for the remainder of her term. The young girl is given attendants and caretakers to see to her needs (Allen 24, 25). Because the Kumari is a goddess, she is allowed to behave however she wishes, and she cannot be given instruction. However, if the Kumari was to consistently behave in a manner that was unbecoming, she would not be considered fit to continue her duty (Allen 27). The Kumari is an important part of religion and events in the Kathmandu Valley and is worshipped by the inhabitants of the Nepal; she is expected to appear in various rituals and participate in the many important festivals (Allen 28).
The young girl will continue her role as a Kumari until she shows signs of being human. The two biggest signs are the loss of teeth resulting in blood, or the beginning of the girl’s menstrual cycle. Once these signs appear the young girl is disqualified and a new Kumari is chosen (Allen 22). The now ex-Kumari must give back all of the valuable garments and jewellery she possessed during her reign and proceed through the life-cycle rituals and the rituals that will lead to her marriage (Allen 22).
References and Further Recommended Reading
Allen, Michael R. (1975) The Cult of Kumari: Virgin Worship in Nepal. New Delhi: Siddhartha Press.
Amazzone, L. (2010) Goddess Durga and Sacred Female Power. Plymouth: Hamilton Books.
Anderson, Mary M. (1971). The Festivals of Nepal. London: Allen and Unwin.
Glowski, Janice M. (1995). Living Goddess as Incarnate Image: The Kumari Cult of Nepal. Retrieved from http://etd.ohiolink.edu/view.cgi?acc_num=osu1105391104
Harding, E. (1993). Kali: The Black Goddess of Dakshineswar. Delhi: Shri Jainendra Press.
Hoek, Bert van den, Shrestha, Balgopal. (1992) Guardians of the Royal Goddess: Daitya and Kumar as the Protectors of Taleju Bhavani of Kathmandu. Retrieved from http://himalaya.socanth.cam.ac.uk/collections/journals/contributions/pdf/CNAS_19_02_03.pdf
Levy, Robert I., Rajopadhya, Kedar Raj. Mesocosm: Hinduism and the Organization of a Traditional Newar City. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Slusser, Mary S. (1998) Nepal Mandala: A cultural Study of the Kathmandu Valley. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
Vergati, Anne. (2002) Gods, Men, and Territory: Society and Culture in Kathmandu Valley. Delhi: Rajkamal Electric Press.
White, David G. (2001) Tantra in Practice. Delhi: Shri Jainendea Press.
Related Topics for Further Investigation
Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic
[Article written by Ashley Bust (March 2013) who is solely responsible for its content.]