The Living Goddess of Patan, who was selected in February 2018, poses for a portrait in the worshiping room of her new home inside the Kumari Temple of Patan in Kathmandu Valley. (Maria Contreras Coll)

During the Rato Machhendranath Festival in Patan, soldiers march in front of the Kumari of Patan. She has been assigned a privileged place (just behind them), from where she can see all the festivity rituals. (Maria Contreras Coll)

There are living, breathing goddesses in Nepal. Known as Kumaris, these goddesses are prepubescent girls believed to be the reincarnation of the Hindu goddess Durga. The Kumaris, however, are worshiped by both Hindus and Buddhists. The process of selecting the Kumaris is a centuries-old tradition that continues to this day. In 2017 and 2018, photographer Maria Contreras Coll visited Nepal to meet and photograph both current and former Kumaris.

Coll gave In Sight a little more background on her project, including a bit more on the history of the Kumari. Contreras Coll says that the tradition has taken place for at least the past 300 years, during which a succession of girls have been chosen to become living goddesses. And while there is more than one Kumari, according to Contreras Coll, the most important ones come from Patan and Kathmandu, both situated in the Kathmandu Valley. Contreras Coll says:

“Chosen from . . . 3 to 6 years of age from the Newari community, they [the Kumari] are confined inside a temple. Their relatives and a private teacher are the only ones who can talk to them and they are not allowed to touch the ground with their feet. In the Nepalese culture, menstrual blood is seen as something polluted, and thus, non-divine. Even for a Goddess, menstruation means exclusion and a change of life.”

The Kumari ceases to be a living goddess, according to Contreras Coll, “the day she has her first period.”

Contreras Coll spoke to at least two former Kumaris. One, 11-year-old Unika, told her that while being a Kumari, “What I liked most was to make people happy.” Another former Kumari, 16-year-old Samita, told Contreras Coll, “It takes at least one year to be used to it.”

Once the girls find themselves no longer living goddesses, though, the transition can be difficult. Contreras Coll notes: “Simple things like going to school can seem overwhelming at first. For the first time in their lives, they will have to mingle with other kids and learn to live like a mortal.” As Sumita told Contreras Coll, one day you are thought to be a goddess and the next day, you are just a “normal person learning how to take the bus.”

(This project was possible thanks to by Click Grant 2018, organized by the Generalitat de Catalunya and Diomira)

The father of the Living Goddess of Patan applies makeup to his daughter in her home inside the Kumari Temple of Patan in Kathmandu Valley. (Maria Contreras Coll)

The newly selected Living Goddess of Patan has breakfast in her room with her sister. She can't talk to anyone except her relatives. (Maria Contreras Coll)

The new Kumari of Kathmandu, who was selected in September 2017, is carried by male relatives in Kathmandu during a festival. (Maria Contreras Coll)

People gather during the Rato Machhendranath festival in Patan, where the Living Goddess is making an appearance. (Maria Contreras Coll)

The now-former Living Goddess of Patan, Unika, is carried home by male relatives to the temple where she lives. (Maria Contreras Coll)

After the Kumari of Kathmandu made an appearance during the Gai Jatra Festival, offerings made by people who gathered to catch a glimpse of her remain. (Maria Contreras Coll)

Unika's mother helps the former Kumari with her earrings before a school day. When Unika was a Kumari, her parents would perform daily pujas (prayers to honor the gods) and receive devotees who would come from all over the country. (Maria Contreras Coll)

Unika walks to school with her siblings in Patan, Kathmandu Valley. (Maria Contreras Coll)

"School where Living God and Goddess are students" is written on the banner of a school in the Kathmandu Valley. (Maria Contreras Coll)

Matina, a former Kumari, center, studies before the day of her final exams in her school in Patan, Kathmandu. (Maria Contreras Coll)

Unika walks with her grandmother and her whole family on their way to a temple. (Maria Contreras Coll)

Unika plays with her siblings during a family festivity. (Maria Contreras Coll)

One of Unika's relatives plays with a fishbowl during a family festivity. (Maria Contreras Coll)

In Sight is The Washington Post’s photography blog for visual narrative. This platform showcases compelling and diverse imagery from staff and freelance photographers, news agencies and archives. If you are interested in submitting a story to In Sight, please complete this form.

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