Chanira Bajracharya was once a living goddess.
As a Kumari, she lived in a temple, was carried on a chariot during festivals and worshipped by thousands of Hindus and Buddhists. But today, Bajracharya, 19, is among the ranks of ex-goddesses reduced to the status of mere mortals.
In Nepal, pre-pubescent girls from a particular Newar clan possessing godly attributes are selected to become Kumaris. Also known as the Living Virgin Goddess, they retire upon puberty. Bajracharya was 15 when she retired.
"It was a challenging transition," said the soft-spoken teenager chosen as the Kumari of Patan when she was five. "[After retirement] I couldn't even walk properly because I had been carried all the time. The outside world was a complete stranger to me."
As Kumaris are confined to their houses or temples and are subject to strict daily rituals, some activists claimed it to be a form of child labour, hindering their freedom and education. In 2008, Nepal's Supreme Court overruled a petition against this custom, citing Kumaris as culturally and religiously significant. The court also demanded reforms, stressing the girls' education.
Bajracharya concurred that the Kumaris should be entitled to formal education, and there should be more focus in developing their social skills. She took pride in becoming the first Kumari to sit the school-leaving certificate exam.
Becoming a human, according to the ex-goddess, was demanding. At 16, she still couldn't navigate her neighbourhood and her mother walked her to school. She also had problems with classmates and teachers.
But despite her subsequent difficulties, she said that to have been a Kumari was "a blessed life." "Being a Kumari was a matter of great pride and respect for me and my family," Bajracharya said.
Bajracharya is now a business student at Kathmandu University. She hopes to become a banker. Fellow ex-Kumari Rashmila Shakya told of her life as the manifestation of the Hindu goddess Taleju [Durga] and her transition to the human world in a memoir, From Goddess to Mortal. She told of her decision to study computer science and debunked myths associated with exKumaris.
The centuries-old custom of the Kumaris has survived different monarchical dynasties as well as a Maoist-led government.
Isabella Tree, author of The Living Goddess, said the Kumari "embodies a powerful goddess connected to the protection of the country".
This identity of a respectable female force with divine energy, according to Bajracharya, should surpass religious connotations.
"Nepal is primarily a male-dominated society, but here's a girl worshipped and revered as a goddess," she said. "As a woman, I got that respect. And the same message should be conveyed in society - that women should be respected, not dominated."