The Living Goddess

Mary McIntosh

Copyright 2002 by Mary McIntosh 

Photo by sanin sn on Unsplash
Photo by sanin sn on Unsplash

This was one of the highlights of a trip I took, which encompassed Sri Lanka, Thailand, India,
Afghanistan and Pakistan.

 Nepal.  When I first signed up for a trip to this highly exotic part of the world, I’m not sure I really knew where it was––somewhere near India, I thought.

 I prepared for my trip. By now I was a “pro” at managing to put just the right things I’d need into my suitcase.  I had one drawer in a bureau that I labeled my “travel drawer,” and in it, among other things, were a plastic soap dish, extra luggage tags, toothbrush holder, a travel alarm clock, zipper bags to hold dirty laundry until I could find somewhere to wash, and a rain hat.  What I didn’t know, though, was much about Nepal, and its history.

 I found a book in our library.  “For over a hundred years,” I read, “until the 1950s, Nepal had been inaccessible to most foreign travelers. The kings had wanted to keep their wealth within their own confines. When the country was finally opened, much of it still remained as it was a thousand years ago––narrow roads, shrines, temples, and marketplaces. To visit Kathmandu, the capital and largest city, is to experience a blend of modern architecture, and a journey back in time.  Kathmandu is filled with shrines, temples, and palaces, alongside modern first-class hotels.”

 That’s what I wanted to see––an exciting and exotic blend of the ancient and the modern.

 There were twenty in our group, all from England except for one couple from Texas, and myself. After our two-day stay in Thailand, we drove to the airport in Bangkok for our flight to Nepal.  Here we waited three hours before we finally, left late in the afternoon of December 23rd.

 I found a seat on Indian Airlines, and was immediately offered a free drink.  There were many Japanese on board. I asked the young Japanese man sitting across from me what he and the others were planning to do in Nepal.

 “We climb mountain,” he said.  “Not Everest. Too big.” He laughed.

 “I lived in Japan for two years, and I climbed Mt. Fuji.  If I remember correctly, it was pretty hard climbing,” I replied.

 “Good, mama-san.  You same Japanese. They supposed to climb Fuji once in life.  I did last year. Good practice for Nepal.”  Already we were great pals.

 “Put your watches ten minutes ahead,” our tour guide, Dennis, told us when we regrouped.

 :”Ten minutes!” I exclaimed.  “Why such a small difference?”

It’s because the Nepalese people believe the sun hits their yak pens high up in the Himalayas just ten minutes before it falls on India. They claim it is their one chance to be ahead of India.”  I smiled, set my watch ahead, and reminded myself to do the same with my traveling clock when I got my luggage.  I’m not sure, but I would imagine this is the only place in the world where such a short time difference is annotated. What delightful reasoning, I thought.

 A bus took us from the airport to the first-class Soaltee Oberoi Hotel in Kathmandu.  That was a big selling point with me when I decided I wanted to see this remote part of the world.  I’m sure many of the trips I had checked might have had more, or different sights to see, but a good hotel, especially in these areas, was a big plus. The Soaltee Oberoi was excellent––clean rooms, carpets throughout, and the wonderful Eastern hospitality I had quickly become used to.

 I found my room, and unpacked the things I thought I would need for a couple of days, then I joined the group for dinner in the Rose Room. Since ours was a small group, we often sat at one long table. The room was aptly named, for the walls were covered with deep-rose wallpaper. A single rose, in a vase, on a white linen tablecloth was at each table. By now we’d been together for nine days, so our evening meal often became a catch-up time with each other on how we were enjoying, and surviving, the trip.

 I was a good traveler, and I fit in well whenever plans had to be changed, but sometimes, when this did happen, I was disappointed. When I chose this tour, two things in Nepal were a “must” for me, a visit to see the Living Goddess, and a flight in a small plane to view Mt. Everest.  Unfortunately, dense fog canceled our flight.  Instead we drove up to the Nepal/Tibet border, where we had our passports stamped, though we did not cross into Communist China.

 On our way, the bus followed a clear, cold-looking, meandering river winding its way through the mountains.  On each side of the river were Sherpa villages that housed the trained guides who accompanied mountain climbers. At high altitudes, wild yak roamed on rocky hillsides, and one or two primitive-looking wooden houses, not much more than shacks, perched precariously on the steep hillsides.  Men, squatting along the riverbed, holding what looked like a mallet, pounded rocks into gravel by hand.

 At lunchtime, the bus pulled over to a level section of the road. The plan was for us to have a picnic lunch, but snow had begun to fall, so we stayed in the warm bus and ate a lunch the hotel had packed for us—fried chicken, tomato, cheese, cold roast beef, boiled eggs, apples, and fruitcake.  The weather, however, didn’t stop a group of children who huddled together under a large overhanging rock and watched us. Bill volunteered to step out of the bus and give the children what food we didn’t consume. They smiled and waved at us. There was no cultural or language barrier here.

 Upon our return to Kathmandu we were let off the bus at bustling Durbar Square.  Fresh fruit, along with piles of cabbages, carrots, pumpkins, and potatoes, were exhibited on mats on the ground.  It all looked so tempting, but I had no way of knowing how clean the produce was, so I didn’t buy anything.  Men darted in and out on bicycles, ringing their bells, and lingering overall was the ever-present odor of incense. While I walked around, I had to be careful to avoid those men squatting in the streets having their hair cut, beards trimmed, or being shaved.  Women picked lice out of children’s hair, and one old woman was seated in the street having her hair washed.  I was getting used to seeing the sacred cows wandering all around, with no one paying any attention to them, but here, also, were many goats, chickens, and even a few pigs that roamed around as if the streets were theirs alone.

 I could see the crowds in Durbar Square beginning to move toward the palace. I   joined my group.  I hoped this meant the Living Goddess would be seen today by her subjects and tourists.  I had read she was so pampered that if she didn’t feel like walking out on the balcony and waving to the people, no one could make her do it.

 “Wonder what it’s like inside the palace?” I asked Dave.  He and his brother, Ian, were university students in England and seemed knowledgeable.

 “I read somewhere it’s a three-story mansion with a throne room, and gold-plated windows,” Dave replied.

 “It’s kind of a sad life for a young girl, though.  Did you know she’s chosen out of many three-to-four-year old girls?” he continued.  “It often takes the priests several months before the right one is chosen.  She can’t show any human frailties, like fear, crying, or falling ill.  If these weaknesses occur any time after he has been crowned, she is immediately replaced, and the process starts all over again. She is revered by both Hindus and Buddhists, and worshipped by king and commoner. She is a goddess and divine.”

 “Yes, I remember, too, reading that before she’s chosen she has to endure spending a night among the heads of slaughtered goats and buffaloes.  Poor little thing.  I wouldn’t want to do that, but if she is picked, it is a great honor for her family, and she is held in high regard.”

 Just then Dennis walked up to us.  “You are all lucky,” he said, the Living Goddess is scheduled to come out on her balcony today.  I believe in about ten minutes.  You know, we Westerners may think this ritual is bizarre, but virgin worship dates back to the 6th century B.C. and is a very real part of Nepalese life. The sick worship her in the hope she will cure them of their illness; politicians make offerings at her feet, believing it will help their careers, and each September the king worships her in a ceremony where he touches her crimson-painted toenails with his forehead, and presents a gold coin to her.

 ‘The sad part of this ritual used to be it was difficult for an ex-goddess to accept the role of humble wife after being the focus of male veneration, and her every whim satisfied.  Instead of getting married, she often resorted to becoming a prostitute.  Nowadays, with Nepal’s present-day constitution, which guarantees equal rights to women, many of the ex-goddess finish their education and go on to universities.  Families are not as anxious now for their daughter to become the Living Goddess, as they know there are many more opportunities for her future than before.”

 “Oh, there she is,” I shouted.  “Look how ornately dressed she is with jewels and the tall headdress. Did you know two pieces of gold are chosen each day for her to wear?  No wonder she’s called ‘golden lady.’  Look she’s smiling at us.”

 As I stood there that December day and looked up at this young girl so resplendently dressed, smiling and waving, I couldn’t help but compare her to my own daughter at the same age.  My child had freedom to do what she wanted, within reasonable bounds, to enjoy the company of her peers and, later, to pick the man of her choice.  I felt a great sadness for the young goddess who stood there and waved to me. But then I realized it was not for me to judge. Their civilization and their culture are a great deal older than our two-hundred-year old American one.

 And so I just smiled back at her, knowing I would always remember the day I was privileged to see the Living Goddess of Nepal.

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