KATHMANDU Religious authorities in Nepal have begun the search for a girl who could be as young as three or four to serve as the new Kumari, or the virgin "living goddess", in a centuries-old tradition.
Astrologers were consulting horoscopes of candidates from Buddhist Shakya families to replace the current Kumari, Preeti Shakya, who is 11 and should retire during the annual Hindu festival of Dasain in October, temple officials said.
"If we don't change her now, we'll have to wait until next year which could be late," said Deepak Bahadur Pandey, a senior official of the state-run Trust Corporation that oversees the country's cultural matters.
"If the girl starts menstruating while serving as Kumari, it is considered inauspicious," Pandey told Reuters on Tuesday.
Under the Kumari tradition, a girl selected from a Buddhist Newar family goes through a rigorous cultural process and becomes the "living goddess".
She is considered by many as an incarnation of the powerful deity Kali and is revered until she menstruates, after which she must return to the family and a new one is chosen.
Pandey said the keepers in Kathmandu's elaborately carved wooden temple where the "goddess" lives, have already started the secret selection process.
The "Kumari" must have perfect eyes, teeth, hair and must not have even a small scratch to her skin.
Traditionally it was believed that the girl's horoscope should be in harmony with that of the king of Nepal. It is not clear how this formality will be completed now that Nepal has abolished the monarchy.
Many Nepali Hindus and Buddhists consider Kumari as an embodiment of Taleju Bhavani, the goddess of strength.
"I believe she is the goddess," said 50-year-old Saili Tamang, selling the present Kumari's pictures outside the temple. "Otherwise why would people respect her ?"
But critics say the child is denied a normal life and the practice violates her fundamental human rights.
Those who support the tradition say parents were free to decide whether they want to send their daughter to serve as Kumari or not, the girl gets state allowances and is looked after well.
During many Hindu and Buddhist festivals the Kumari, dressed in red and gold colored costumes, is carried in a wooden chariot pulled by men through the capital.
In the past even the kings of Nepal sought her blessings, but foreigners are barred from the upstairs chamber of Kumari, a leading tourist attraction.
(Editing by Bappa Majumdar and Sanjeev Miglani)