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Last Updated: Monday, 5 November 2007, 16:36 GMT
The goddess and the king
By Olenka Frenkiel
Reporter, This World

Royal Kumari during the procession
Preeti Shakya, 9, has been the Royal Kumari for five years
In Nepal a nine-year-old girl who is worshipped as a goddess is playing a significant symbolic role in the power struggle between politicians and the monarchy.

The nine-year-old Royal Kumari is worshipped as a goddess by the people of Kathmandu. For 240 years since they conquered and united the country of Nepal, the Kings of the Shah dynasty have sought her blessing to rule.

Each year, the king - himself traditionally worshipped as a God - has gone to her temple to be blessed with the tika, a red symbol on the forehead giving him another year as head of State.

But this year there was doubt about whether the King would attend the ceremony.

Political vacuum

Nepal's constitution is in limbo and one of the poorest countries in Asia is stuck in a political vacuum.

King Gyanendra is still king but has been stripped of his power. His palaces have been nationalised. He has become a king with no kingdom.

Now after more than a decade of conflict Nepal's politicians are trying to steer the country to elections and then, almost certainly, a Republic. But elections have twice been postponed.

King Gyanendra
King Gyanendra's future is uncertain in a changing Nepal
This king took power in 2001 after the Royal massacre in which most of Nepal's Royal family were killed. His unpopularity deepened when he staged a military coup in a bid to crush the Maoist uprising. He failed and had to back down.

This year, for the first time, the king was asked to stay away from the Royal Kumari. Nobody knew whether the goddess would bless his rule - or whether the king would brave the crowds.

Some hoped 2007 would be the year he stayed away, which could be interpreted as a symbolic abdication.

Revered goddess

The Royal Kumari is revered by both Hindus and Buddhists who believe that she blesses the people of Nepal with peace and prosperity. She is chosen by a committee of priests and advisors. She must be physically perfect, unmarked and her horoscope must match the king's.

Today's Kumari - whose real name is Preeti Shakya - was chosen five years ago when she was four years old. She was taken to the Kumari Temple where she will be worshipped as a goddess until puberty.

For her mother Reena Shakya, it was a wrench to let her go.

Family of the Royal Kumari
Preeti Shakya was taken to the temple when she was four years old
"At first I didn't want her to be the Kumari. I'd be sad without her. So I hid her upstairs, but they insisted and took her and said you shouldn't talk like that.

"They told us her horoscope matched exactly so we couldn't say no. My mother-in-law said something bad might happen if we didn't let her go. And it was good for the family name - so although we were sad, we let her go."

Her 12-year-old sister, Priya - an ordinary schoolgirl - is looking forward to her sister's return, once she's no longer a goddess.

"I used to cry. I miss her so much," she says. "If she was with me at home it would be so much fun. We would play together."

Preeti the goddess cannot leave her temple, except at festivals. But Priya is free to dawdle after school, buy an ice cream, chat with friends. She says despite the biscuits and chocolates worshippers bring, she would not want to be the Royal Kumari.

"I would not like to be separated from my parents. And I wouldn't have any friends in school. I can go to school and I can go outside as well."

'Abuse of rights'

Sapana Malla, a human rights lawyer, believes the role of Kumari is an abuse of the rights of the child and with other activists, has taken a case to the Supreme Court.

"The key deprivation is she cannot live with her mother or father - she must live in a temple without them. As a child you have a right to grow up in your own community with your own family. As a Kumari you cannot. You cannot play with your friends because you are a goddess."

She believes Nepal is modernising and it is time to abolish or at least reform state sponsored gods and goddesses.

"How many people now really believe that Kumari is really a goddess? They just follow it because it's a practice," she says.

The Royal Kumari is wheeled through the capital on a chariot
The Royal Kumari is wheeled through the capital on a chariot
Sapana did not believe the king would go to the Kumari's blessing this year: "The king used to go as head of the Hindu kingdom. But in all these religious ceremonies now it's the Prime Minister who goes."

She is hoping Nepal will become a secular Republic.

Avoiding taking sides

But Nepal continues to wait. Elections have again been postponed after the former Maoist revolutionaries pulled out of the country's interim coalition.

Sagar, of the Maoist Communist League, shows me a poster of his heroes - Engels, Marx Lenin, Stalin Mao and the Maoists' leader Prachanda. "Great leaders," he says proudly.

Maoist rally in Nepal
The Maoists want the immediate abolition of the monarchy
Maoist supporters are bussed into Kathmandu in daily shows of strength. But they, like the king, made enemies. During the war years they raped, tortured and murdered.

Many suspect the election boycott stemmed from fear. A bad election result would reduce their influence and ability to shape the future of Nepal, and in a worse-case scenario even threaten the peace process.

The Maoists want a Republic declared immediately. "We hate the Monarchy," says Sagar.

He sees the Kumari as an expensive distraction from the real task of building a new Nepal.

"Besides," he says, "she belongs to a narrow religious tradition of just one small ethnic group. Nepal has many."

Nepal may be changing, but the Kumari's blessing to rule is still an important symbol and on the appointed day vast crowds gathered to see who would come for the tika.

A convoy arrived in the darkness. It was the Prime Minister. He entered her temple and emerged with the tika on his brow. For the first time ever.

As the crowd thinned people asked whether it was the birth of Nepal's republic - and the fall of the House of Shah.

Then another car arrived. It was the king. Unofficial and unannounced. He too entered and emerged, blessed. The crowds cheered.

So the Monarchy is not quite dead. But the Republic is not yet born.

The Royal Kumari has deftly avoided taking sides. And Nepal's stalemate continues.

This World: The Goddess and The King will be broadcast on Monday 5 November 2007 at 1900 GMT on BBC Two.

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