Worship of the living goddesses: Still a sacred custom

With modernisation, we are forgetting many century old traditions and superstitions, but worship of the living goddesses is still considered to be a sacred custom among various communities, writes Pritha Banerjee   

Imagine the reaction of a five-year-old girl when suddenly her parents dress her in a sari, and make her the object of worship! It would make many women cringe. However, we live in a country where goddesses are worshiped as the Supreme Being or Adi Shakti and reverence to young female is an old custom. The culture of worshipping young girls or Kumari Puja is not only prevalent in India but also very popular in Nepal. In some communities people worship various folk goddesses, when suffering from skin diseases or the Devi Shitali when suffering from fevers.

The living Durga

Though nowadays Durga Puja is nothing but a big carnival in West Bengal, it signifies the victory of good over evil. Kumari Puja, during Durga Ashtami, is a ceremonious worship of young girls as the Divine Mother. “It is the highest form of devotion when you see the Goddess in a kumari (young pre-pubescent girls). Sri Ramakrishna had said that Kumari is another form of Durga,” says Swami Tallwavidananda, assistant general secretary at Balur Math.

What is known as Kumari Puja in West Bengal is called Kanya Pujan in North India. While Bengal celebrates it on Maha Ashtami, the eighth day of Durga Puja, Kanya Pujan is held on the ninth day or the last day of Navaratri in other states of India.

Kumari Puja is one of the key rituals followed during Durga Puja at various locations; while at Belur Math this is a grand ceremony and a spectacular ritual. “It was started by Swami Vivekananda in 1902. He worshiped nine young girls in the premises of Belur Math, in the presence of Sarada Maa, and the tradition is followed since then. Now, only one Kumari is selected by the swamijis, and worshiped in front of Maa Durga on Durga Ashtami. This year it will be celebrated on September 28,” adds Swami Tallwavidananda.

Kumari Puja, during Durga Ashtami, is worshipping of young girls as the Divine Mother
Kumari Puja, during Durga Ashtami, is worshipping of young girls as the Divine Mother

The puja is mentioned in Kubjika Tantra, a holy scripture on tantric worship of the deity Kubjika (Shakti). The girl selected to be the Kumari has to match the dynamism, purity and serenity of the Goddess. Swami Tallwavidananda further explains, “A one-year-old girl is worshipped in the Sandhya form of the Devi, two-year-old as Saraswati, three-year-old as Tridha, four-year-old as Kalika, and Subhaga and Uma for five and six-year old respectively. Malini represents a seven-year-old, Kujjika an eight-year-old, and Kalsondarbha and Aparajita stands for a 10-year-old girl and an 11-year-old girl. A 12-year-old is represented as Bhairavi, 13-year-old is Mahalakshmi, and 14, 15 and 16-year-old are Pitnayika, Khetragya and Ambika respectively.”

The Kamakhya Temple in Assam is one of the most venerated Shakti shrines in India. Kumari Puja is also held at the Kamakhya temple every year. Rahul Tamuli, an archeologist from Assam, says, “Kumari worship in Kamakhya temple is as old as that of the origin of the temple. It is believed that the Goddess, although omnipresent, exists in the virgin girl. So the pilgrims worship the living virgin as Goddess in this temple.”

Kumari Devi of Nepal

A young girl who is pre-pubescent is considered to be a vessel for goddess Taleju. They are worshiped and revered and this practice is going on since hundreds of years in Nepali culture. The chosen Kumari from the Shakya community of Nepal goes through 32 strict physical requirements ranging from the colour of her eyes to the sound of her voice.

After the physical requirements are met, her horoscope is matched with the king. Then, she goes through a series of tantric purification rituals and takes the position of Royal Kumari. There are many Kumaris in Nepal but the Kumari of Kathmandu is the most important one and makes rare public appearances.

As a Royal Kumari, she will leave her palace only for ceremonial occasions, carried on a golden palanquin. Even a glimpse of Kumari Devi is considered as a sign of good fortune in Nepal.

Kumaris are dressed in red with heavy ornaments and a red fire eye is always drawn on her forehead, as a symbol of her special powers of perception. Her reign will end with her first period, or heavy blood loss or any serious illness, and then she will revert back to the status of an ordinary mortal.

Kumari Puja is one of the key rituals followed during Durga Puja
Kumari Puja is one of the key rituals followed during Durga Puja

Worship of Banya and Mariamman

The Koli or the fishermen community of Maharashtra believes that worship of goddess Banya will cure ailments, especially the pox and measles. Mohit Ramle, a researcher from the Koli community, says, “When someone in the family is diagnosed with any kind of skin aliments we believe that he/she is possessed by goddess Banya. There are lots of restrictions that are followed in the house. We don’t prepare any non-vegetarian food, keep a vessel filled with water, flower and coconut and that water is changed every day. We worship for seven to eight days and on the last day we take the stricken to the temple and give offering to the goddess.”

Similarly, in South India, Mariamman is a major folk goddess, also known as Mari-aai, Renuka, Ekvira or Yellamma. It is believed by the people that the goddess blesses the infertile with children, and brings prosperity to the village and also cures virulent fevers.

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