The living goddess likes bubble gum.
On a cold autumn evening, during a festival giving thanks for the monsoon rains, dozens of chanting worshippers pulled her enormous wooden chariot through the narrow streets of Katmandu's old city. Thousands of cheering people pressed forward, hoping for a blessing. Drunken young men danced around her, pounding drums and shouting.
But the goddess — a child wrapped in red silk, a third eye painted on her forehead as a sign of enlightenment — took little notice of the joyous riot. Instead, she stared ahead intently, her jaw pumping furiously. Then, finally, she blew a yellow bubble about the size of a plum.
And then the goddess smiled, just a little.
Priti Shakya is 10 years old, the daughter of a family of poor goldsmiths. At the age of 4, a panel of judges examined her in a series of ancient ceremonies — checking her horoscope, searching for physical imperfections and, as a final test, seeing if she would be frightened after a night spent in a room filled with 108 freshly decapitated animal heads. She was not.
So Priti became a goddess, worshipped as the incarnation of the powerful Hindu deity Taleju, and going into near-complete isolation in an ancient Katmandu palace.
She will return home only at the onset of menstruation, when a new goddess will be named. Then Priti will be left to adjust to a life that — suddenly and absolutely — is supposed to be completely normal.
That is how it has been for nearly four centuries, in a tradition that held out against modernity even as Nepal, ever so slowly, began to change.
But modernity is coming, even to the goddess.
Controversy shrouds goddess
She has been dragged into Nepal's political maelstrom, her influence argued over by everyone from Maoist militants to the prime minister. Her role, meanwhile, has become a topic of public debate, with human rights lawyers, politicians and academics wrangling about a child's rights and an ancient form of worship.
Today, everything from television to insults reach into the goddess' palace.
A communist politician called her an evil symbol and the Supreme Court launched an investigation after activists said the tradition violates Nepalese law. In a showdown that melded religion, politics and the monarchy, the nascent democratic government refused to allow King Gyanendra to receive the goddess' annual blessing — thought to be an all-important protector of the king. When the king went without permission, the government slashed the number of royal bodyguards.
Among the Shakyas, the goldsmith caste that chooses the goddess from its daughters, it has become increasingly difficult to find families willing to send their girls away.
For some people, all this is simply too much.
"We know there needs to be change," said Manju Shree Ratna Bajracharya, the eighth generation of priest from his family to oversee the temple of the royal kumari — or virgin — as the goddess is commonly called. "But this criticism of the tradition, this is pure ignorance."
He is bitter about politicians who focus on the kumaris for political gain, and the way she has been pulled into their battles with the king. He distrusts the rights activists, wondering if they are using the practice for publicity.
"The tradition can't be treated like this," said Bajracharya, who spends most of his days working as a bureaucrat in the state electricity company. "It is too important to Nepal."
But any criticism at all would have been unthinkable just a few decades ago, when Nepal was emerging from centuries of Himalayan isolation. It was a nation bound by feudal traditions, a country that handed out visitors' visas very reluctantly, and where few people could imagine a king without absolute power.
Nepal catches up slowly
While change did eventually come — foreigners began arriving regularly in the 1960s, when Katmandu became famous for its hippies and cheap drugs — it came slowly. It was only five years ago, for instance, when women earned equal inheritance rights under Nepalese law.
Today, Nepal is a democracy — albeit a fragile one, with crushing poverty, a figurehead monarch and a powerful Maoist militant movement with tenuous ties to mainstream politics — and change is coming even to the kumari.
Some of those changes are political, such as how the prime minister now seeks her official blessing, instead of the king. But some are more personal.
Teachers have been appointed, keeping the goddess on the same academic track as any other girl her age. There's also television in the palace these days, giving the kumari access to Bollywood, the news and more, and there's talk that she may be allowed someday to live at home with her family.
It is an attempt to give some normalcy to the goddesses, who can flail desperately when they return to the outside world.
Not everyone gets to be one
Rashmila Shakya, one of eight ex-royal kumaris still alive, remembers the pain of her return. Now a 25-year-old computer technician, she left the kumari palace at age 12. She did not have any proper schooling, and her feet had never touched the outside ground for years.
Her only playmates had been the children of the palace's caretaker, and while her family could visit, even they saw her as a goddess. Her return home took a heavy toll.
"I didn't even know how to walk around like a regular person," said Shakya, a quiet, bookish young woman who dreams of becoming a software designer. "The crowds frightened me."
Still, she said, she doesn't regret her time in the palace.
"Not everybody gets to be a goddess," she said, smiling. "In one life, I got to have two lives."