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Waiting for the Kumari in Kathmandu



Even the name is exotic, conjuring up images of crooked alley-ways, colourful prayer flags, religious devotees in their flowing robes, sacred cows, piles of spices and plates of curries, ringing bells and singing bowls, all in the shadow of the tallest mountain ranges in the world: the Annapurnas and the Himalayas.

It's the perfect place to start a mother/daughter trip-of-a-lifetime. After a quick exploration of Kathmandu, we plan to head out trekking for a week, then south to Chitwan National Park: the jungle.

It's close to midnight when our plane lands. Fourteen-year-old Lilah and I walk onto the tarmac, twirl around with glee, take in a deep breath, and cough our faces off.

The air stinks of pollution. It burns our throats, but doesn't dampen our spirits.

Backpacks collected, entry visas stamped, bleary-eyed but giddy-headed, we tumble into a taxi. No seatbelts? No problem! We race through the streets of this enchanting, grimy, sacred place, gawking at crazy signs, old buildings, massive temples, stray dogs and wobbling mopeds.

The next morning from the roof of our hotel in the Thamel district we have smoggy view: lines of laundry and prayer flags, an explosion of flowers, construction workers in flip-flops on neighbouring rooftops, horns honking below, and the smell of incense from somewhere.

Our mode of transport for the day is a rickety rickshaw. On a map, we point to a few places we'd like to go. Radu, in his thin red t-shirt and plastic sandals agrees to pedal-pull us around. Namaste, and away!

First stop is Kathmandu's Dubar Square, where Radu introduces us to his friend, a smiley Nepali boy named Bishal, who scoops us up and promises to make our visit to this royal centre amazing.

The 2015 earthquake that killed over 10,000 people also destroyed some of the temples and shrines in the square. A few others are held up with scaffolding and beams. But nonetheless, our mouths are agape.

"Hurry!" Bishal urges. "We might see The Kumari!"

Lilah and I look at each other, confused.

"The Living Goddess! Follow me!" The Kumari is the reincarnation of Telaju, a Hindu goddess. The current Kumari was chosen after satisfying a long list of physical requirements and being able to spend a night in a temple with the severed heads of 108 sacrificed water buffalo, unfazed.

She is three and a half years old.

We follow our guide into the inner courtyard of the Ghar, the palace where The Kumari lives until she reaches puberty, and is no longer considered "pure."

Bishal calls out to ask if she will show herself. He whispers that if she does look out the window, we are to immediately put our hands together in prayer.

We look up.

Pigeons fly down.

More tourists and some religious pilgrims enter the courtyard.

We wait, and wonder about this little girl's isolated and secretive life, and what she means to Nepal. The Kumari's feet may not touch the ground. She only leaves The Ghar during certain festivals and special days, when she is carried through the streets in an enormous chariot, lifted by dozens of men. Her playmates are selected children of her tutors. Her own family rarely sees her.

We marvel at the stupas (shrines) in the courtyard, and their mandala-design when viewed from above.

Suddenly, there is movement from the window three stories above.

The shutters are pulled back from the ornately carved wooden panels, and the Living Diety, dressed all in red, appears. She gazes down upon us with the pudgy face of a preschooler, sweeping eye makeup, an ornate mark on her forehead, and an expression of seriousness beyond her years. Perhaps it's boredom. Perhaps it's wisdom. It's not for us to judge.

She scowls, looks around, and retreats into her palace.

We are honoured and a bit baffled to have witnessed this part of Nepali culture.

"Amazing? I told you!" says Bishal.

He's right.

But Radu is waiting for us in a rickshaw that's parked next to a cow that lies next to a police outpost across from a statue of Ganesh, the elephant-headed god. And there's a lot more of amazing Kathmandu to see.