by Shristi Kafle
KATHMANDU, Oct. 15 (Xinhua) -- A narrow alleyway with both its sides filled with stalls of bangles and beads in Kathmandu's Indra Chowk leads to a courtyard called Itum Bahal.
Inside the main square lies a newly-constructed five-story building with big dark glass windows.
An old passerby bows his head in front of a flex print of an astounding looking little girl hanging on the ground floor of the same building. The picture belongs to the youngest daughter of the family, Matina Shakya.
But Shakya's identity is not that of a regular child as she lived as Nepal's living goddess, known locally as "Kumari," for nine years.
In Nepal, Kumari is worshipped by both Nepali Hindus and Buddhists who regard her as the reincarnation of the Hindu goddess Taleju.
Just two weeks ago, Nepal appointed three-year-old Trishna Shakya as the new Kumari to continue the centuries-old tradition. With this crucial change, 12-year-old Matina, who was also appointed as Kumari at the age of three, was bid farewell amid religious rituals.
The only reason for Matina's retirement was that she had reached the age of puberty, which means she no longer fits the criteria of Kumari any more.
After her retirement, Matina started living a normal life as a regular young girl. On the fourth morning of her school journey, she was getting dressed in her school uniform on the first floor of the same building.
"She has been living a normal life like other children. She is trying to adjust herself in every way. She studies in the school just like other children. I am glad that she is loving this new phase of life," Pratap Man Shakya, father of Matina, told Xinhua at his home.
Unlike the regular Kumari look that includes red robe with heavy jewelry, red paint on the forehead and black winged eyeliner, Matina's new look comprises a white shirt, green skirt, tie and a white ribbon on her two hair braids.
The recently-retired Kumari has lived a sacred life as a goddess in isolation from the outer world for nine years. She only stepped outside of her temple-palace, known as "Kumari Ghar," on 13 particular occasions a year, such as during special festivals and chariot processions.
In addition, Kumaris are always carried by someone when appearing in public during the festivals as the religion decrees that her feet should not touch the ground.
Her family members are glad that Matina has been adjusting to her new home and school environment in such a short period of time. At home, she is especially fond of her elder sister Mijala Shakya and loves to go outdoors, play guitar and surf the internet.
She now attends the Green Peace Co-Ed School, where she attended nursery classes before being appointed as Kumari.
During her nine years as Kumari, she has received private education inside Kumari Ghar itself. A teacher at the Green Peace Co-Ed School, Laxmi Maharjan, used to visit her every day to teach her all the subjects as per the curriculum. Now, she is continuing her educational journey from Grade 7 at the same school.
For years, Maharjan spent three hours every day with Matina, whom she still calls "Deu Maa" meaning goddess.
"She calls me miss but I still call her goddess. I feel very special and fortunate to be the teacher of a living goddess. I found her always eager to learn new things and she was very active in extra-curricular activities like drawing, painting, weaving and cooking. She also taught me so many things," Maharjan told Xinhua at the school.
According to the teacher, Matina is now mostly interested in science and mathematics. Maharjan said she had not expected the former Kumari to have adjusted so well to the school environment and made new friends so quickly.
Right after entering the classroom, Matina's classmates bow their heads in front of her, paying the same respect as she used to receive as Kumari. In a small classroom with around 30 students, Matina sits in the first bench with two other girl friends.
Though Matina feels shy to talk with teachers and strangers, she seems very friendly with her bench-mates.
Amid giggles and whispers, they often ask her to share her experiences as a living goddess.
Twelve-year-old Abigya Tuladhar, a close friend and bench-mate of the former Kumari, told Xinhua, "I am very happy and proud to be friends with her. I always help her when she feels uncomfortable. I will help with her studies too."
As Abigya said this, Matina smiled gently at her friend.
Photos and newspaper cutouts about the former Kumari hang on the the walls of the classroom indicating that the school management has warmly accepted Matina as a regular student.
Hemant Kumar Yonjan, director at the Green Peace Co-Ed School, told Xinhua, "We are very proud to have the retired living goddess studying at our school. We are committed to providing her the best education in a proper way."
The school has also started providing her with extra-curricular training, including separate classes on music, as she is fond of playing guitar. Those who have heard her playing the guitar said she sings Nepali songs really well.
"We know that she is good at painting too. We want to encourage her to pursue the arts," Yonjan added.
Matina still has more than three years until she completes her secondary school education. Though her education was handled solely by the government during her term as Kumari, the responsibility now rests on the shoulders of her parents.
Matina's family does not demand much of the government. She has been receiving a minimal allowance for her living expenses, although her family wants financial support for her future education.
Matina's father, who is an advocate for Kumaris' rights, told Xinhua, "Kumari is an ancient tradition so we need to continue it in a proper fashion. Since it's a matter of national identity and culture, the state should seriously consider all aspects of its preservation."
After spending an hour at his daughter's school, Pratap Man Shakya rushed to his private office, which is related to finance. On his way back, he noticed dumplings, popularly known as momos, being prepared in the school canteen.
"Momos are her favorite. This is the reason why she has not carried lunch with her from home today," Shakya said jovially.
For now, the parents of the former living goddess do not have any big plans or dreams for her future. They are just concerned about providing her with the best education possible in every way.
"I just want to see her become a good citizen of Nepal," Shakya said.