What struck me about the Taleju Bhawani myth was the dream.
According to oral mythology, much retold, King Jaya Prakash Malla used to play dice with the Taleju Bhawani. This goddess was an incarnation of Goddess Durga, who appeared before the monarch in human form. She discussed affairs of state and advised him while they played their nightly game. The monarch angered the goddess, however, by lusting after her. The goddess vanished, predicting the end of his reign. The king begged for forgiveness. The goddess relented and appeared before him in a dream. She would only appear before him, henceforth, in the form of a virgin child who has not yet undergone her menarche, she told him. He was to worship this form.
There is a second version of this story. According to this version, it was the goddess who lusted after the king. The queen followed the king to see where he vanished during the nights. One night she saw them together. The goddess had made the king promise never to tell anyone about her visits. The goddess saw the queen, and upset at being seen in mortal form, she vanished, never to reappear. As in the previous version, she returns to the king in a dream and tells him that, henceforth, she will only appear before him as a virgin child. This is the only way he will be able to worship her.
This dream is what led to the tradition of Malla monarchs worshipping a young girl from the Shakya clan as an incarnation of the living goddess. The goddess remains central to both Nepal’s political history and contemporary present. Three temples dedicated to the goddess stand tall and proud in all three cities of Kantipur, Lalitpur, and Bhaktapur. With the fall of the Malla dynasty, the Shah monarchy continued the tradition of worship. With the end of the monarchy in Nepal, the tradition of worship has been maintained by the democratically elected prime ministers of Nepal. If the Kumari cries, the head of state will suffer a downfall, says the myth. No wonder then, that each and every monarch or leader has been careful not to offend the whimsical little goddess!
According to the late writer Desmond Doig, the goddess was brought to the Kathmandu Valley by Harisingha Deva, a Karnatak king who was fleeing the Muslim invasion and came to Nepal, bringing the goddess with him. When the Muslim invaders left, he returned back to Simrangar, leaving his son and the goddess behind.
A hundred and eight male buffaloes and goats are sacrificed to the Taleju Bhawani on Astami, the eighth day of the Dashain festival. Note that in the jyotish (Vedic) astrological zodiac, the eighth house is known as Mrityu Bhava, the house of death. Interestingly, it is not a house which kills people, but from where longevity can be known. The cause of death is also analyzed through the Eighth House.
In keeping with this dread-inspiring association, I always found Dashain Astami days in my own family to be charged with a certain trepidation. People waited anxiously for the long puja done in secret in the Dashain Ghar to be over. Our grandfather, known for his unpredictable anger, was sure to be hungry and upset over something or other that had gone wrong. An unstated social rule said such emotion was not welcome, since this may upset the propitiation of the goddess.
Our grandfather also worshipped all of his six granddaughters as living goddesses. As far as I could remember, every dusk, he had washed my feet meticulously with cold water and put a jasmine flower, a one rupee coin, and a malt chocolate in my hands as part of a Kumari Puja tradition. Then I’d become too old, and he shifted to worshipping my younger cousin.
My aunt, who was the same age as me, whispered to me that my grandfather and his elder brother drank the hot blood of the sacrificed animals as prasad (ritual offering). This shocked me with terror and dread. The three goats had been cut before us in the small yard of our grandfather’s elder brother’s house. We children were the only witnesses, since the elders were busy with puja in the Dashain Ghar in the attic. Fear and an underlying dread color my Astami memories, because it is on this day I first came close to the visceral nature of death.
This powerful goddess in the attic and we little girls were somehow related, a relationship I’m still trying to puzzle out to this day.
Overlaid over these emotions was the elation and joy that people always felt during the festive season. Eating the sacrifice, which came to us in the form of a sacrament and a blessing which we only got to eat one day of the year, was anticipated all year long. This was no ordinary meat. This was prasad, blessed by the goddess. Tiny pieces of liver chopped up and fried were offered in tiny leaf plates. The whole day would be spent hanging around the adults preparing the meat. Big fat green flies buzzed over the carcass’s innards. Men bent over steaming giant copper vessels singeing off the hair and boiling the goats whole. The spleen and bile duct had to be found and carefully removed. The intestines had to be squeezed to get rid of the goat’s last meal, and washed like long strands of rope before being boiled. No parts were wasted. The goat was divided, portions separated for different branches of a large extended family.
Animal rights advocates have protested against the animal sacrifices. But they miss these nuances—the animals are a special offering, and therefore they must have been treated well. The goddess will reject them if there’s even a single mark on their bodies. To this day, sacrificial animals are nurtured and reared in grass pastures, never in oppressive factories, where they are caged in space no larger than their own bodies. The animals are supposed to be killed with a single stroke. If they keep cutting the animal, trying to sever the neck, the sacrifice is null and void. For many families, these sacrificial offerings were the only meat they would eat throughout the year. I say that this tradition is more humanistic than the ones in Europe and America, where meat is eaten three times a day with each meal, and the animal is an industrialized product reared and slaughtered in oppressive conditions to make a farm or corporation a comfortable profit.
An elderly friend recounted to me how she’d gone to the Taleju Temple and seen the thick streams of buffalo blood on the ground on Astami. She was a Brahmin, but she did not voice opposition or revulsion at this practice. I have never heard Brahmins say Newars should stop their sacrifices of male buffaloes, which Brahmins do not eat. These traditions continue side by side. Brahmins and Newars and everyone else live within their own cultural traditions, without opposition or sanctimony.
Feminists have viewed the Kumari tradition as an oppressive and exploitative practice. A public interest litigation was filed in 2005 by Pun Devi Maharjan. She claimed the Kumaris, of whom eleven lived in the Kathmandu Valley, were not given adequate food, health care, or education. Sajani Shakya, a Kumari from Bhaktapur, who went to the U.S.A. to take part in the screening of a documentary, was fired from her position. The authorities said she had been polluted by her visit abroad. In 2008, judges finally ruled that the Kumari’s movements should not be restricted, and they should be free to move around as they wanted.
I met filmmaker Ishbel Whitaker when she was shooting the documentary on Sajani Shakya. Unlike many Westerners, Ishbel thought the Kumari tradition was not oppressive, but rather a fun way for a young girl to live her life. She explained to me that there have been traditions of virgin worship in many different cultures. She told me she was exploring the life of this little girl in cinematic terms without judgment. Ishbel was filming the Bhaktapur Kumari, who is allowed to live with her family and go to school and be a normal little girl in her non-festive moments, so she had a different perception of the tradition. Sajani was a normal little girl, lively and playful. Only on festive occasions did she transform into a goddess. This freedom is not possible for the heavily-guarded Kumari of Kathmandu, whose every emotion is perceived to be of state import.
As a feminist, I must say the welfare of any child who becomes a Kumari must be a priority. She must be given all the rights and freedoms that other children have. She must be able to eat, study, and travel freely. On the other hand, there are many traditions all over the world where certain individuals have led restrictive childhoods to gain privileges. Think about ballerinas in the former Soviet Union, or Olympic skaters whose childhoods are incredibly restrictive, compared to other children. They go through this tough regime in order to get to the pinnacle of their chosen career. Is the Kumari tradition comparable—a childhood sacrificed to a very restrictive regimen in order to become a cultural icon who is more powerful than the head of state?
The Taleju Bhawani Temple is embedded in the heart of the Hanuman Dhoka palace complex. A very long line of royalty resided in this palace, from the Licchavi period to the Shah era. Sacrifices are performed in the Mul Chowk on Astami. Only kings were allowed to enter this temple, but on Navami it is open to all people for worship. Although I have not been back there since the earthquake, I have read that, sadly, it has been severely damaged. I hope these buildings are rebuilt and none of the mystique and power of this historical complex is lost.
I started with dreams and I would like to end with dreams. The Tibetan Buddhists have conceptualized the flow of life as a cosmic dream. All experiences are transient and insubstantial as a dream. The Red Tara practice of dream yoga deals with this explicitly, making the practitioner aware even during the moments of sleeping and dreaming. Understanding the nature of dreams makes us understand the nature of reality. Not only do the Tibetan masters teach us to be aware of our dreams and show us their import in our lives, but they also teach us how those moments can be used as a tool of spiritual growth.
Reading Chagdud Tulku Rimpoche’s book on Red Tara, I was struck by the philosophical depth as well as the openness towards the sleep and dream moments of our lives. We spend one third of our life sleeping and dreaming. In our modern way of living, we minimize the importance of this time. We perceive this as a time in which we are not conscious. But what the Tibetans teach us is that the dreamtime is very much a time of consciousness where we can learn a lot if we are willing. It is as important as our waking moments. Also woven in the Tibetan mythology are notions of being attacked by demons (“Mara”) and whose attacks we can see and fend off with the dream yoga practice. The demon mythology may explain the unease and unexplicable phenomena which besets us humans but which modern psychology has no words for. Mythology often visualizes human unease and discomfort more richly than modern science can ever do. Yet we rarely see its potential, seeing it only through Enlightenment glasses which tell us we know everything there is to know about the known world, and everything else is false or quaint.
The Buddhists do not sacrifice animals because it is against the Buddha’s edict not to kill. But they envision sacrifices in other ways, through visualization of giving up their bodies as an offering to be eaten as in the Chod Practice, for example.
Both Hinduism and Buddhism are interwoven in Nepal’s traditions and heritage. For Abrahamic Westerners used to distinctly defined religions who try to untangle these strands, these interweavings can often appear frustratingly muddled. Scholars often try to apply their own epistemological understandings to Tantric Vajrayana which brings together deities and practices from both religious traditions. They will say Hinduism has tried to appropriate a Buddhist deity or philosophy. What they do not understand is that for many people who incorporate both Hindu and Buddhist practices into their daily rituals, these distinctions are meaningless. These two Himalayan traditions have evolved side by side. The Taleju Bhawani in her flickering lamplit glory resembles the Red Tara leading her disciples onto higher spiritual ground in the middle of the darkest night. Both goddesses are making us aware of death. Through that pathway, they lead us to the knowledge of the dreamlike transience of life.
Sushma Joshi is a scholar and writer with a background in research on the intersections between Hinduism and Buddhism.