Right beside Kathmandu's Durbar Square stands the Kumari Ghar, a palace with magnificent intricate carvings. Inside its walls lives God. Well, not God, God as we know it, but a little seven-year old royal Living Goddess known as the Kumari Devi.
The Newari community—Hindus and Nepali Buddhists—settled in Kathmandu’s valley painstakingly select and fervently worship a pre-pubescent girl (pre-pubescent=virgin), who for the duration of her reign, remains as their main source of supreme power. The Kumari, literally meaning virgin, is no ordinary girl. She must be between 2 and 7 when chosen to represent Taleju, a Hindu goddess. Her selection is a highly elaborate tantric ritual, which includes her passing the 32 tests of ‘perfection’ among which are:
A neck like a conch shell
A body like a banyan tree
Eyelashes like a cow
Thighs like a deer
Chest like a lion
Voice soft and clear as a duck's
Dainty hands and feet
Her hair and eyes should be very black
Small and well-recessed sexual organs
A set of twenty teeth.
Additionally, her horoscope must also be appropriate (it has to coincide with that of the president of Nepal). Once she passes the physical tests, she is taken to a dark room in the Taleju temple where her courage is challenged. There are several killed goats, buffalo heads, chicken parts and demon- like masked dancers jumping at her from all directions, while terrifying noises fill the room. And while there might be a few virgins capable of passing the physical perfection tests, only the real goddess has no notion of fear; she remains calm and collected throughout the tests. If the candidate is fearless during this experience, then she would be selected as the Kumari and yet another highly secret tantric ritual is held to erase all past memories from her body so that she can be a pure vessel for the Taleju Goddess to enter.
Et voila. The Newari have a new living Goddess, who for a whole year, is removed from her parents, taken to the God-House, and trained in all divine things. After this initial training, her parents and spiritual leaders (elders) live with her in the royal house, until she menstruates, at which point she is declared impure and replaced by another virgin.
And because she is a Goddess and she can do whatever the hell she wants and follows no orders or set schedules, Kumari comes out to bless visitors from a tiny window (think Pope in the Vatican) only when she feels like it. The randomness and unpredictability of her appearances make it very difficult for anyone to plan a glimpse of, let alone, a blessing from the Goddess. That is, unless you are me. I was right underneath her window when she came out. It must have been the wonderment revealed by how low my jaw dropped when I saw her, which made her look straight at me. I'm sure she didn't look at anybody else. We held gazes, the Goddess and me; me and the Goddess, for a few seconds. By the time I realized that I had never looked God in the eye and that I didn't know the proper protocol for divine encounters, she had already retreated into her palace. Someone closed the tiny window and she disappeared as mysteriously as she had appeared a few seconds earlier.
At first, they are silent. They look around trying hard to comprehend the meaning of the word "green." Here, in the Costa Rican jungle, nothing is just Olive, or Army Green, or Bottle Green. Nuh-uh. That's too easy. Here, green is a thing. It's heavy and wet and ubiquitous. And like all inescapable things, Green is terrifyingly vast. It hugs you first thing in the morning as soon as you look out your window and it lays with you in bed, all damp, mossy, and clingy, like a needy lover.
The color green, surely, was born and given a name in the jungle. A tree is Fern Green, which is not the same as Laurel Green. The stem of a budding plant is Mantis Green, which is different from Myrtle Green. Pine Green. Sap Green. India Green. Brunswick Green. None of which should be confused with Spanish Green, Sea Green, Jade Green, Harlequin Green or even Yellow Green. If the couple were to spend one year in Costa Rica per each hue of green they find, they'd be here many more lifetimes.
They say, Look, Look, like children do. That's the thing about this jungle. It makes them go back to their childhoods. It puts them in a state of constant wonderment. Here, they no longer are husband and wife: they are two children exploring a fantastic world of living creatures, giant trees, and aerial roots. Can I touch this? Can I walk there? What is this? Does it bite? Is it venomous? Is it poisonous? What happens if...? Is it true that...? Can I eat it? In this jungle, it is okay to ask questions, to ponder, to speculate, to photograph everything from different angles, to jot down notes so that they don't forget the names of the things they see. They collect river pebbles and dry leaves. They tiptoe their way around a sloth, whisper in the presence of a toucan, use sign language if they spot a lizard, hold their breath as they look at the crocodiles in the water. A type of reverence needs to be paid here. They both know this. They've been together many years. They know the godliness of beauty: they have seen it in each other.
They embrace inside a tree, because it's raining, the howling monkeys are making terrifying calls, the lightning is of apocalyptic proportions, and because she is frightened. (He is too, a little, only he wouldn't admit it.) Thunderous bolts of blinding light hit nearby. They count. One, two, three. Too close for comfort. They haven't seen anyone in hours and they are deep in the woods. It was sunny when they started their jungle walk; they don't have umbrellas, rain jackets, proper boots, or water, or food, or telephones. They are alone in a jungle downpour, the sound of which is nowhere near as soothing as the Nature Sounds tracks yoga teachers listen to. It sounds like the crust of the earth is cracking beneath their feet, like some ancient dragon has just woken up after centuries of hibernation and he is not happy. They find a Ceiba tree--a towering leviathan--whose colossal trunk has been carved out by the elements. They dive into each other's arms, shaking from cold and fear.
So, this is how we die, she thinks.
This is fantastic, he thinks.
But they don't say anything. They hold each other inside the belly of the tree and together, they wait for the sun.