Category Archives: Ritual

Kumari and the Sacred Gaze, 1966

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Palanquin of the Patan Kumari. Photograph taken October 1969. (Bernier Archive #vrc_20150204_047)

Here, a palanquin is being readied for procession, adorned with fresh plants and flowers, and the main seat supporting silk-covered cushions. Its occupant for the day will be the Patan Kumari, also referred to as the Royal Kumari.

Kumaris are often called ‘Living Goddesses’ and there are many kumari residing in Kathmandu and elsewhere throughout Nepal. Each kumari is a pre-pubescent girl selected in her early childhood to be the vessel of the goddess Taleju. While Hindus and Newar Buddhists propitiate Taleju via the Kumari, practitioners of other forms of Himalayan Buddhism generally do not. Taleju is a deity unique to Nepal, one particularly associated with the royal family: Taleju is seen as a source their power, as their patron goddess, and has been associated with kingship since the Malla dynasty. Further specifically, the Patan Kumari is particularly important for the royal family.

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Palanquin of Patan Kumari approaching Royal Palace, 1966. (Bernier Archive #vrc_20150618_152)

As the Patan Kumari is carried on her processional, she is simultaneously seeing and being seen in particular ways. Her physical presence in the community allows her to define her domain and reinforce the sacred space that she protects. At the same time, those gathered to view her receive the Kumari’s blessings through the goddess’s gaze.

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Procession of the Patan Kumari past the Royal Family and invited guests, Durbar Square. Photograph taken 1966. (Bernier Archive #vrc_20150618_153)

Ron managed to capture the moment that the Patan Kumari procession passed by the palace in Durbar Square. Members of the Royal Family and their invited guests are seen looking toward the Kumari as her head is turned to her right, gazing toward the group.

The Royal Family of Nepal was established in the second half of the 17th c., and continued to the early 21st century. When Ron took this photo in 1966, the King was Mahendra Bir Bikram Shah, who reigned from 1955-1972. This moment captures the Royal Family and their guests assembled to have darshan (exchange of gazes) with the Patan Kumari, a source of their power, and whose blessing as an embodiment of Taleju blesses not only the family—and its continued reign—but also on the nation as well.

For more on Kumaris, see Janice Glowski’s doctoral thesis, Gerard Toffin’s article on Newari society, Ron Bernier’s article on the architecture of the Kumari Bahal, and a personal view written by Deepak Shimkhada for asianart.com.

Festivals and Ritual Life

Though a specialist in Himalayan architecture, Ron and Dianne often captured seasonal or special events, such as rituals, festivals, or other public displays. These photos provide useful comparative evidence that enables research on the history and development of particular rituals, and occasionally document events that are once-in-a-lifetime, such as the Fourth King of Bhutan’s 1974 coronation, or local festivals as they occurred in the late 1960s.

Many of Ron’s images also capture the ways in which images and objects are approached and engaged in the ritual process, generally in highly sensory ways. For students in the classroom or for others who are more familiar with material culture as displayed in a museum context–without the requisite powders, flowers, and adornments–viewing works as they are approached by practitioners and devotees, such as in this image below, facilitate greater understanding–and appreciation–of the cultures that create them.

Ganesh Shrine, Surya Binayak Temple, photo taken 1978.

Ganesh Shrine, Surya Binayak Temple, photo taken 1978. The offering of flowers, food, drink, incense, and colored pastes are all part of the propitiation process.

 

Indra Jatra, 1969.

Indra Jatra, 1969. Dedicated to the Vedic god Indra, the Indra Jatra is an annual festival that functions in religious and political terms to consolidate authority. For more information, follow this link to the article  “The Indra Jatra of Kathmandu as a Royal Festival: Past and Present” by Gerard Toffin

 

Bisket Jatra, Kumbeshwar, December 1969

Bisket Jatra, Kumbeshwar, December 1969

Bisket Jatra is a nine-day long New Year celebration that takes place every springtime. Dr. Bernier included discussion of this festival in a 1984 article he published in the journal Himalaya entitled “Survival of Wooden Art in Nepal: Three Masterworks”, available for free download here.

 

Monks at coronation of Fourth King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, Tashichho Dzong, 2 June 1974.

Monks at coronation of the Fourth King of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, Tashichho Dzong, 2 June 1974.

The Fourth King of Bhutan is widely credited with revolutionizing Bhutan’s polity and policies, including development of the oft-cited ‘Gross National Happiness’ development principle and the institution of democracy in the kingdom with his willing abdication of the throne in 2008. More information about the Fourth King’s contributions can be read in this Journal of Bhutan Studies article, “Bhutan: Political Reform in a Buddhist Monarchy” by Thierry Mathou.