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A Nepalese Story by Kore Kamino

In the monsoon month of August 2001, Maya and Anna’s parents made their first return visit to Kathmandu in about 15 years. They had lived there for several years in the 80s with their two young daughters, then had moved to Japan, and later to England to enable the girls to complete their educations. Although Nepal was always beckoning, they had somehow never made it back. Then finally, with the two girls grown up, the opportunities to return began to present themselves for Scott and Naoko. Most of the first trip back was taken up by finding their many old friends and becoming re-acquainted. One person they had hoped to look up had been a child at the time, and they had no idea of her real identity. She had been a friend of Maya and Anna but they did not know her name or where she lived because at the time they had only known her as “Kumari”, the Living Goddess. Maya and Anna had become fascinated by this girl a little younger than they were who lived such a different life from their own, or in fact from most Nepali children. Since they were living only about five minutes away from the Living Goddess’s house and temple, they began making daily visits as a reward for concentrating hard on their home schooling. The little girl in red, for that was the colour she always wore, noticed that they came every day, and one day asked them if they would like to play ball. They were not allowed inside, and she was not allowed out, but they could go to the bottom of the stairs and she could come to the top. And so began an unusual friendship... 1

* morning pujas

or maroon school uniforms, others in rags. RASHMILA

There were two in particular that I was looking for. My view was limited since I was not supposed to

“After my morning pujas


and my lessons, I did not

stick my head right out. I could see only three temples

have much to do until my playmates (for I was not

and the white Ghadi Bhaitak

the only child in the house) came home from school.

where the King and his family waited for me on the

Of course I did not go to school myself but had lessons

first day of the biggest festival of the year, Indra Jatra.

inside my temple.

But it was really the people who interested me.

While I waited for my playmates to come back. I used to enjoy looking out the front windows into


part of the Palace,

Then I heard one of the women of the house call, “Dyo Meiju, some foreign visitors.”

Durbar Square 1a and the people passing by. There

It was not an order, for no one orders a goddess

were rickshaw drivers hoping to get a foreign tourist,

around, but I knew very well that because they would

ragged, bare-legged porters smoking a cigarette after

leave an offering on a small pillar in the courtyard,

carrying a heavy load, another staggering under the

I had a duty to show myself at the window in the

weight of a refrigerator strapped to his forehead. A

courtyard, just as I understood that I had a duty not to

Newari 2 farmer might be carrying vegetables in two

smile when I was there. Sometimes it could be a bother,

baskets suspended from a carrying pole across his

if I was playing with my dolls or dancing with the

shoulders. Country women in colourful red saris sat

other children, but other times I didn’t mind.

on the steep steps of the Narayan Temple 3 gossiping. Children my own age would run around, some in blue 2

I put on my serious Kumari face and stepped to the window. 3

Sometimes the foreigners applauded, some of them did

they are playing ball and eating sweets. All I learned

Namaste, and some just stood and stared. Where were

were their names: Maya and Laxmi 6, Nepali names.

they from, I wondered? Why were the women dressed so strangely? Was their hair that way naturally? Most

When I was carried out of my temple for some of

of them, men and women, had cameras around their

my smaller festivals, I would be in the midst of a

necks, but I knew that if they pointed them at me I

crowd with people pressing all around me. This was

should step back. I wished I could just shout down and

especially true at Seto Macchendranath’s 7 bath in the

ask their Nepali guide what country they were from.

middle of winter when I sat right on the edge of the

What is that country of theirs like? Would I ever visit it?

crowd to observe the image being bathed, or some

And what did they make of me?

of the occasions where I went briefly to the nearby

A little hesitantly, I looked down to one corner of

Teleju Temple 8. Maya and Laxmi got to know my two

the courtyard, and there they were, two foreign girls

“brothers”, Gautam and Mahendra, and asked them if

a little older than me, dressed like Nepali girls in

they could come up close to me during these festivals.

grubby salwar khameez 5. For a long time they had

We had never been closer than the top and bottom of

been coming every day, sitting and looking up at me

the stairs. They agreed, as long as the girls didn’t try to

and smiling when I appeared for the tourists. There

make me laugh or start playing around. After all, I had

were fewer tourists back in those days, and often the

my duties, and one of them was to keep a straight face

courtyard would be empty. After the tourists left, I

whenever I was in public. Actually, I never had any

called down to the two girls that I had a ball, and why

trouble with that. There is a special necklace

didn’t we play? They seemed surprised, but looked

of a naga (snake) that symbolises

really happy. Of course they could not actually come

the power of Kumari that I wore

in since they were not Nepali, but my guardians,

only at festival times and when

whom I thought of as my father and brothers, decided

I had it on, I could feel its

they could come to the bottom of the steps while I

power and never felt

stood at the top and we could throw the ball back and

like smiling.

forth. Sometimes they threw me sweets, and at others I would throw down some of my offerings. We could even talk since they spoke some Nepali. Just who they were or where they were from I never learned. Kids don’t talk about things like that when 4

* Naga, the snake that symbolises the power of Kumari

Anyway, it all went well. Maya and Laxmi stood right

I felt silly. Needless to say, I didn’t find them during my

beside me and we watched together as the image

brief stay in New York.

had milk and water poured over him and everyone cheered. They behaved like perfect little ladies, and

In fact it would be a long time till I met either of them

none of us smiled. Soon they were walking beside my

again. By that time I was a university student. Their

palanquin, or beside one of my “brothers” carrying me

parents, who were again regular visitors to Kathmandu,

at every small festival. Sometimes when they came to

had looked me up a few years before. They were in

Kumari ghar 9 they would play with the other children

Kathmandu and Maya, now married and living in

in the courtyard. One of them was my sister Surmila,

Tokyo, came to visit. That night there was a feast in the

but I don’t think they ever knew that she was my sister.

courtyard of Kumari Ghar. It was nothing to do with

One day they told her that soon they were going away.

Maya’s visit, but she and her parents were invited, and

And then they were no longer there. I did not know

it was there that we were reunited. For the first time

where they went or if I would ever see them again.

we could sit next to one another and talk, this time in English, though it was my worst subject in school. She

When I had been living at home for some time and

came to my house the next day, and over the next few

had worked my way up to class ten, a Danish film

days we had a chance to hang out in Kathmandu and

about me won the Best Documentary prize at the

do girl things.

HBO Children’s Film Festival, and I was invited to go to New York, all expenses paid, as a special guest. In

I know that many people, especially from foreign

my ignorance I asked my older sisters, “Will I be able to

countries, find my childhood strange, and even feel

meet Maya and Laxmi there?” In spite of my two years

sorry for me because I was not free to go outside

back in school, my ideas of the world at large were still

whenever I wanted. But I never felt deprived in any

rather vague.

way. While I had to give up some things, I also had

“Do you even know what country they are

opportunities few other Nepali children of 7 or 8 had.”

from?” asked Pramila, my oldest sister who could be irritatingly practical. ANNA

“Well, no...” “You could just ask around on the streets. Maybe somebody there will have seen them somewhere in

“My family first visited Nepal when I was six and my

the world.”

sister, Maya, was eight. It was a six month trial run to 6


see how we would adjust to living in Asia while my father researched the area for a book he was working on. We had no preconceptions, and accepted the change as exciting and new, enjoying the freedom of being home-schooled for two hours a day and getting to know the local children and their homemade toys for the rest of the time. Most of the time Maya and I wore matching clothes which my mother, Naoko, had designed and made for us and we became roving fixtures in between our neighbourhood and Durbar Square 10 for the time we were in the valley. Our daily pilgrimage to Durbar square was to catch a glimpse of the Kumari, who was to us, the most mysterious and beautiful thing that we had ever seen. The first time we saw her must have been the same way as thousands of other tourists, putting a few rupees on the lotus pedestal in the courtyard of Kumari Ghar


and waiting for someone to shout out

‘Dyo mejhu!’ to call the goddess to the window. We learned later that her name was Anita, and she was older than us, probably around ten or twelve at the time and as unapproachable and haughty as a true goddess should be. Maya and I quickly discovered that we were allowed a free run outside of school times as long as we didn’t eat the ice lollies on the street (made from untreated

* ‘Dyo mejhu! to call

water) or wander too far off. We soon discovered that

the goddess to the window.

the ice lollies were delicious, and that if we went to Kumari Ghar every day and just lurked around in 8


the shadows, we would get a free look at the Kumari every time a new group of tourists came by and left an

back to Nepal. This time I was almost eight. When we landed in Kathmandu for our second stay, I felt much more like I had come home than

offering on the pedestal. After that we would go home, and dress up our dolls,

when we had returned to Hawaii. One of our first stops

Sita and Taji as the Kumari in one of her three different

was Kumari Ghar to see Anita again and I was full

outfits, and parade them around as though it were

of excitement. We put our offering down, and I was

festival time. Sita (Maya’s doll) was a leggy Indian

surprised and disappointed to see another face come

Barbie doll with articulating limbs and beautiful hair

to the window. She had the eye make up and the

which I had been coveting for years and Taji (my doll)

red dress of the Kumari, but she was a stranger to us

was a small stubby, stiff limbed plastic Mexican doll

and looked far too tiny and cute to be the mysterious

whose hair had been ripped off as soon as she came

goddess that we had become used to. The new Kumari

out of the box. We made full ceremonial outfits for both

was just five years old and was relatively new to the

of the dolls, gluing in tiny beads where the jewels on

role. Although she tried to look serious there was still

her golden headdress were, meticulously stitching the

a hint of a smile around her mouth when she came to

tiny clothes and applying the long eye makeup and

the window to look down at us. We missed our familiar

third eye of festival time.

Kumari and could not find the enthusiasm to dress up Taji and Sita that night.

The first six months went by quickly and soon it was

My parents rented an apartment on the edge of

time to go home to Hawaii. I remember going back

Durbar Square looking over the Taleju temple on

to school and not being able to describe our life in

Makhan Thol

Nepal to anyone who hadn’t been there. I tried to tell

Kathmandu routine again. Since we were just a 5

stories of the women doing morning puja’s, the holy

minute walk away from Kumari Ghar, Maya and I

cows roaming the streets stealing the vegetables from

would hold hands and wander there anyway, just for

market stalls and about how special Kumari was to

something to do. We would stand under the covered

Maya and I, but I was met with blank looks from my

walkway as before and wait for our free glimpses of

class mates and teachers. Eventually I settled back

her when tourist came to call her out. After a very short

into school life and keeping my stories to myself. I

time, this new Kumari began to appeal to us more and

missed Nepal though, and hoped that we could go



and it was easy to fall into our usual

back, so I was overjoyed when my parents told us we would be leaving Hawaii permanently and moving

We saw her at festival time, where her Kumari Ghar



family had to bend over her tiny 5 year old body to lead her through the crowds to her chariot. I remember being impressed that her demeanor was as natural and serious as as Anita’s had been. She didn’t smile once, or speak to anyone that was familiar to her, she just sat still and dignified looking very much like the goddess that she was. Gautam and Mahendra were two brothers from the family who lived and cared for her who supported her through the streets at festival time, kept the crowds away, carried her onto her chariot and held the weight of her headdress if it became too heavy for her. They recognized us too, and knew our names, smiling to us when they saw us in the crowd. There was also a group of children who we saw every day who either lived with the Kumari or came to play with her. I was very jealous of these children since they were allowed to run up the stairs and call her by name while we, as non-Hindus, had to stay down in the courtyard. What the inside of her small palace looked like, I can only imagine. Reading Rashmila and my

* Maya and I would

dad’s book about her time as Kumari has opened up

hold hands and wander

an entirely new image of her life inside Kumari Ghar.

there anyway

Soon Rashmila began to come to the window for tourists and look around to see if we were there, waiting around in the shade. Eye contact was exciting for us, she saw so many foreign faces in a day and was such an important figure in Nepal that I was amazed that she might be starting to recognize us. We waved 12


* Eye contact was exciting for us

and smiled at her shyly, wanting to be friends with

that she would be making a nighttime appearance

the little girl but never forgetting that she was above

at the Teleju temple, right across the road from us.

all, a goddess, who had endured many tests and

We rushed to get up and there she was, in her small

ceremonies to prove her status. We were content with

palanquin and virtually no crowd to jostle through. It

the waving and smiling for many months. For a more

was a very special and memorable night for us.

first hand experience, our dresses and costumes for Sita

My favourite festival was the washing of the Seto

and Taji became more elaborate and bead encrusted

Macchendranath. I loved everything about Seto

and our enactments of festival time became more time

Macchendranath, his temple, his diminutive size, his

consuming and detailed.

appealing face and the layers and layers of fancy clothing that he was dressed in. Once a year Kumari

When real festivals arrived, we would anticipate it for

would be carried through the streets to his courtyard

days and days and hound my dad to promise that he

and seated to watch Seto Macchendranath being de-

would be in the best position at all times to take the

robed and repainted. Since the Kumari was seated

best photographs. We knew of most of the nine days

off her palanquin we were able to push and pull our

when Kumari was allowed out but there were also

way through the crowd until we were standing right

smaller ceremonies which weren’t known. We were

next to her. It was one of the best few hours of my eight

woken up one night by our parents who had heard

year old life. I could have touched her shoulder if I had



wanted to, although of course I didn’t. Dad, following

I know much more about her now I am reluctant to

strict orders, was in a perfect position to photograph

strike up an email or ‘facebook friendship’ with her

this moment for us.

since I still hold the very unique ability to be able to say that I was once friends with a goddess.”

One day, as we waited around for some tourist to arrive so we could get our free showing, Kumari came to the window and beckoned us over to the side doorway.


I almost panicked, this was the doorway that the Hindus came and went through to pay their respects to

“Actually I don’t remember the first time I met her. But

Kumari, even the King went through this way. We went

I remember my parents taking us to her palace and

inside and Rashmila and several other children were

telling us, “This is a girl about your age and she is a

standing on the landing at the top of the stairs and

living goddess.” And while I can’t pin point that time

told us to stay downstairs but that we could talk. This

I remember being really intrigued and hooked from

was the first time that we had spoken to her, and I don’t

that moment. She was a girl from about our age and

remember what we talked about, but our Nepali was

she was a goddess.

good enough by this time that we could have a decent conversation. Over the next few months, until we left

It was just so mysterious.

Nepal for good, Maya and I would always make sure we had some sort of treat for her, some sweets from the

But I have to say we also loved everything to do with

shop next door or a ball that we could throw up and

Nepal: the clothes, the festivals, the puja... except for the

down the stairs. It didn’t happen everytime that we

food! Our parents made us eat dhal bat 13 every day,

were invited into the doorway, but enough so that we

we hated it! But everything else we loved.

all made a lasting impression on the other. There is a book called ‘The Cult of the Kumari’. It is an Getting to know the little girl in red made our stay in

old book written in the 30s or 40s. It was Christmas and

Nepal very special and unforgettable. We finally found

the book was out of print but my parents had somehow

out her real name around twenty years later when my

managed to get hold of an early edition, photocopied

parents found her again and became friends with her

it and then bound it. Anna and I devoured it. Which is

and her family.

how it all started.

I haven’t seen her since I was a child, although 16

There were so many traditions surrounding her, 17

which for us created a complete atmosphere of

* Her feet are not supposed

mystery. But what was the most interesting for us was

to touch the ground

that we couldn’t enter her home. I would go to sleep at night and dream that we were allowed to visit her there and in my imagination I would see what it was like. I must have been quite obsessed if I was dreaming about it! The clothes that she exhibited at festivals were beautiful beyond compare. Back then we didn’t have the whole Disney princess thing but I guess it was kind of equivalent for us maybe? And it was much less commercial obviously! We had to make our own Kumari clothes, we couldn’t just go buy them in the shop. At home we played Kumari and took turns being her while the other one was the attendant. The attendant was holding her hand while walking. Occasionally we also tried to lift each other up - because her feet are not supposed to touch the ground - but that was difficult because Anna and I were about the same size and we tried to be demure and all. I remember that we used to try not to smile because that is what she is supposed to be like. Of course, whoever played the role 18

of the attendant was making jokes to antagonize the one who was Kumari into smiles if not laughter. So we had to try immensely hard to look serious! We made the crown and did the entire make-up as well and I remember quite clearly wanting face-paint so we could make the third eye and it could come off, but we couldn’t get face-paint in Kathmandu. So when we tried to make it with real paint it wouldn’t come off and the charcoal eye make-up was so bad that when we had put it on we couldn’t get it off and we had to rub our skin so hard it ended up being very raw! We were home-schooled so we didn’t have many friends. It was just the two of us a lot of the time so Kumari was our complete obsession for years. Well, at least until I was around ten - because you only have that magical time for about a few years and then you grow up, right? But 19

when we returned to Hawaii we really wanted to go

or disrupt anything. Plus we used to visit everyday

back to see Kumari in Nepal.

anyway so they knew us.

Back in Hawaii, telling our friends about our time in

My best moment with Rashmila is the same moment

Nepal and Kumari was really hard. It wasn’t only

that is my sister’s favorite: the Seto Macchendranath

that they wouldn’t understand what it was that we

festival. There is a picture in the book where we are

knew about her but the fact that the whole affair was

right next to her and the two brothers have backed

frustrating. They just didn’t get it. They didn’t know

us by saying, “you can stay here”. We felt so special

where Nepal was for a start and from there on it was just

and it was so nice. I am really trying to remember

two different worlds. Also, since Hawaii is a tiny island

now whether I really thought she was a goddess

where people think they’re in paradise it was way

or if I thought she was a girl and I can’t remember if

beyond the comprehension of most folks. But about a

I thought she was a goddess and that’s why I didn’t

year and a half afterwards we returned to Kathmandu.

want to touch her because she was too holy. But I do recall we couldn’t touch her and I do remember feeling

The day we really became friends with her was when

really privileged we could stand there, and the same

they just told us to come in. Gautam and Mahendra,

when we were told we could go in the doorway. I felt so

her brothers, had a word with us and said, “Look you

privileged I didn’t want anything to ruin that.

can come to the bottom of the stairs if you promise

We loved the festivals. Now my father tells me that

you don’t run up the stairs or try anything”. We were

he was really nervous before each one, because he felt

really good kids so we said “Yes, yes, yes”! So we were

he had to deliver! Anna and I were like “This time the

allowed into the house and then she came to the top of

pictures have to be better than the ones from last time!”

the staircase and we started throwing things at each

And it was quite chaotic because it’s always huge

other like balls, candies and stuffed animals too. But we

crowds at these festivals. And you can be crushed.

never showed her our Kumari dolls, possibly because

Now they have designated areas but back then you

we were a bit embarrassed. I’m not sure why. Maybe

had to go really early to get a good (and safe!) spot.

because it showed how obsessed we were about her! It happened quite a few times and we talked in Nepali

It’s a really important part of my childhood.

but I can’t remember what we said. Her brothers and guardian family were really nice. I think they realized

I remember every time we went to a tourist shop

that we were not going to do anything naughty

we’d go through every guidebook to see if there was



a picture of Kumari that we hadn’t seen before. We’d look at all the postcards and if we found one really old postcard that was sold out everywhere else we would buy it and that was for our Kumari picture collection! We also cut out every article we could find about her. (Like stalkers now that I think about it!) But even now if I see a guide book on Nepal I go through the pictures really quick to see what the latest Kumari pictures look like - the Kathmandu one. Because she is the Royal Kumari, the most mysterious, the forbidden fruit, the other Kumaris are not the same. Leaving Nepal was a really traumatic experience and it took me years to get over it. So I actually don’t remember the last time I saw her. I guess we did say our goodbyes but I can’t remember. All I remember is being very traumatized by it all. I loved it so much there. Years later my parents found her again. When I went to Nepal eight years ago they took me to meet her. I was in a real state of shock because I hadn’t been to Nepal in 20 years at least and I think it was my first night. They were having some feast in the Kumari courtyard and they invited us and again I felt really privileged, even if though I was in my 30s this time I remember being in real awe, of being back in Nepal which I loved. * She is the Royal


Kumari, the most

When I found out that my father was writing the book

mysterious, the

about Rashmila I really encouraged it. I think that it

forbidden fruit


* some of it was downright laughable.

was really Rashmila the driving force behind the book

at the number of mistakes both foreign and Nepali

though. I didn’t realize how much we had made an

journalists made when writing articles about Kumari,

impression on her until I read it. I had no idea. Until

mistakes so serious as to make some people consider

then it had seemed completely one-sided to me. I

the Kumari tradition a form of child abuse. Because of

didn’t realize that she remembered us. So when I read

this, she hoped to write her own story down someday.

the book it was quite emotional. I cried. I read it in a Young as they had been back in the ’80s, our girls had

couple of hours. “

begun to read everything they could find about the Kumari tradition. Yet even at their age, they could see that much of what was written about Kumari was A WORD FROM SCOTT

wrong, and some of it was downright laughable. At

on the monsoon 2001 and finding Rashmila again

the time they had urged me to “write a book”. It was not a task I felt up to at the time, speaking no Newari

“We were often guests of Rashmila and her family,

and not being sure if I should go poking around in the

and developed a lively appreciation for her mother’s

secrets of Newari society.

cooking. Rashmila seemed to us to be a normal and

It was on our next visit, during the following

self-assured young woman. Gradually, from her and

monsoon, that I mentioned to Rashmila’s family that

her sisters, we heard the story of how she had gone

I had assisted a Japanese traveller and former spy

from pampered goddess to well-adjusted mortal. We

in writing his autobiography 11 Over the following

also learned from Rashmila herself that she was upset

winter, we agreed that I would help her to tell her




own story in English. We began in 2003 and finished up the book in 2005. Since then I have been able to watch from the sidelines as Rashmila completed her Bachelor’s degree, the first former Kumari to have done so, worked several volunteer jobs for experience, and finally settled into a career position as a software engineer. Speaking







Information Technology degree and on the verge of completing her Masters, riding around Kathmandu on a motor scooter, this self-confident young woman points the way for future “Living Goddesses” who all too often in the past have found their lives more or less over when they lost their divinity. But Rashmila has a different attitude. “I feel fortunate to have had had two lives,” she says looking back.”

Story adapted from the book “From Goddess to Mortal, the True Life story of a former Royal Kumari” by Rashmila Shakya as told to Scott Berry


Offerings, prayers

2 Durbar Square is the plaza opposite the old royal palace of Kathmandu 3 The Newaris are the main traditional inhabitants of the Kathmandu Valley. They have their own distinct culture and language. 4 The Narayan Temple is just outside Kumari’s house and temple

Ghadi Bhaitak is a neo-classical addition to the old Hanuman Dhoka Palace in Kathmandu directly opposite Kumari Ghar


Salwar khameez is the traditionnal two piece tunique and wide trousers worn by women in Nepal and India


Maya and Anna Mei (the latter’s name had proved unpronounceable to most of their Nepali friends and she was inevitably nicknamed “Laxmi”)


8 Seto Macchendranath is an important Kathmandu deity in Jan Baha in the oldest part of town. He is worshipped as an aspect of Avalokitaswara by Buddists and as an aspect of Shiva by Hindus

The Teleju Temple is the tallest traditional building in Kathmandu. The goddess is an aspect of Durga and was formally the patron deity of the royal family. Kumari is believed to be her earthly incarnation



Kumari ghar is Kumari’s house and temple

11 Makhan Thol is a street in Kathmandu on the opposite side of the Hanuman Dhoka Palace from Kumari Ghar 12 Japanese Agent in Tibet by Hisao Kimura as told to Scott Berry, London, Serindia Publications, 1990.



GRATITUDE Our most sincere thanks for their fantastic help, guidance and encouragement go to:

Nepal is one of the few places on earth still alive with myths and traditions that have stayed unchanged for centuries. And thus mysterious Kathmandu delights and enchants the traveller. The Girl in Red is the true story of the unusual friendship between three girls: Maya and Anna, two little sisters who moved to Katmandu from abroad in the 1980s, and Rashmila, a Nepalese living goddess. Twenty years later they recall this unforgettable moment of their childhood teaching us about cross cultural discoveries and tolerance - like only kids can do.

Anna Takagi-Berry Asad Chishti Maya Berry Rashmila Sakya Renuka Gurung Sanus House Team Patan Scott Berry And of course the amazing people of Kathmandu and the taxi driver who brought back our laptop bag forgotten on the backseat of his car.

We found their story in Kathmandu when stumbling upon Rashmila and Scott Berry’s book (Scott is the father of Maya and Anna). We met all four of them, collected their testimonies and with their agreement are presenting you their wonderful story here.


ŠKore Kamino 2013 28

The Girl In Red - A Nepalese Story  

This book tells the story of the unusual friendship that took place in the Kathmandu of 1980s between a Nepalese living goddess and two girl...