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Sunday, 15 July, 2001, 00:51 GMT 01:51 UK
Nepal chooses new living goddess
Preeti Shakya being carried by her mother Reena Shakya
Preeti Shakya's mother takes her from home to a new life at the palace
A four-year-old girl has been chosen as the new living goddess of Nepal, to spend her childhood revered as the source of prosperity for the mountain kingdom.

Preeti Shakya, the daughter of a poor family, has been enthroned as the new Kumari, or virgin goddess - a status she will hold until she reaches puberty and returns to being a mere mortal.

Former Kumari, Rashmila Shakya
The old Kumari became mortal when she started menstruating
The ceremony took place in the goddess's small palace at the heart of the Nepalese capital, Kathmandu, an official from the department that looks after the Kumari said.

The palace is just few feet from the Hanumandhoka palace, where King Gyanendra was crowned last month after a royal massacre that left his predecessor and nine other royals dead.

The Kumari is revered by both Hindus and Buddhists who believe that she has blessed the king and the 22 million people of Nepal with peace and prosperity.

Long search

The royal priests and officials had spent April and May searching for a new Kumari to replace the old one, who began menstruating and therefore lost her divine status.

The new goddess will be introduced to the public in October during Desain, Nepal's biggest festival.

Like many Kumari before her, the girl comes from Nepal's lower classes, living with her family in a mud and brick house in a poor area of Kathmandu.

She has an elder sister, Priya, who is six.

Life of isolation

The goddess lives a life of extreme privilege, but also one of isolation.

She is sequestered in her palace, allowed only a few selected playmates, and sees the outside world only a few times a year when she is wheeled through the capital on a chariot pulled by devotees.

She wears only red, her hair is always tied in a topknot and she has a third eye painted on her forehead.

Traditionally the Kumari must come from the Shakya clan - the clan to which the Buddha belonged.

Series of tests

Shortlisted candidates must pass tough tests, including spending a night among the heads of ritually slaughtered goats and buffaloes.

She must also have perfect skin, hair, eyes and teeth.

Past Kumaris have complained of being dumped, unprepared and neglected, back into the harsh realities of life when they reach puberty.

Most of the eight ex-goddesses still alive are unmarried as tradition holds that men who marry an ex-goddess will die young.

In December, the government announced a monthly pension of $40 for serving and retired Kumaris.

Previously, the goddess received only a gold coin during an annual festival when the king receives a blessing from the Kumari.

See also:

14 Jun 01 | South Asia
Nepal's living link with history
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