Nepal's supreme court has ordered the government to investigate possible children's rights violations in a local tradition of worshipping a virgin girl as a living goddess, an official said yesterday.
The order, issued this week by judges Anup Raj Sharma and Ram Prasad Shrestha, gives the government three months to conduct the probe and report on its findings, court spokesman Ram Krishna Timilsina said.
The order came in response to a writ filed by children's rights activists who claim the tradition violates Nepalese law, which gives basic rights to children.
"Such a study will be good for the Kumari system," said Madhav Prasad Ghimire, the most senior bureaucrat in the Ministry of Culture. "It is a unique culture of ours and one of Nepal's identities."
"If there are any practices that violate human rights those should be improved," Madhav said.
Under a tradition followed for centuries in the Kathmandu valley, a girl as young as four or five from the Buddhist Shakya family is chosen through a rigorous religious process to serve as Kumari or the living goddess.
She is selected from a group of small girls, who have gone through several tests, including spending a night among the heads of ritually slaughtered goats and buffaloes.
She has to leave her family and stay in a 15th century temple in Kathmandu's Basantapur area.
Lord Buddha also came from a Shakya family.
Many Nepali Hindus and Buddhists consider Kumari as an embodiment of Taleju Bhavani, the goddess of strength.
During festivals the girl, dressed in red and gold colored costumes with a third eye painted on her forehead, is carried in a chariot through the capital, home to 1.5 million people.
She is also revered by the king, who was traditionally considered an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, one of the trinity of Hindu gods including Shiva and Brahma.
Foreigners are barred from meeting Kumari in her upstairs chamber, but she regularly appears at an ornately carved balcony to greet visitors.
Her divine status is retained until the girl starts menstruating after which she goes back to her family and is replaced by a new child.
Critics say the child is denied a normal life and the practice violates her fundamental human rights.
"It requires the child to live away from her family, restricts contacts, deprives her of normal social as well as family life and regular schooling," said Pundevi Maharjan, a lawyer and human rights activist.
But others disagree.
"This raises the status of the child as divine," said Subarna Keshari Chitrakar, president of Nepal Bhasha Misha Khala, a group that promotes the Newari language and culture, unique to Kathmandu valley.
"The girl is given proper care, education and lives with dignity," she said. "There are maintenance allowances for her after she retires and rejoins the family."
Mukunda Raj Aryal, who teaches culture in Kathmandu's Tribhuvan University, said there was competition among parents to allow their daughters serve as Kumari and no parent was forced to send the child to take the job.
"There is nothing wrong with the tradition, which has changed over the past," Aryal said. "If further reforms and improvements are required they must be willingly made."