Isolated from family and friends, the young "living goddesses" of Nepal are revered, their every need accounted for and their every motion interpreted as divine instruction.
From the age of four, many girls chosen as "kumaris" live their childhood lives through a series of rituals, having little contact with the outside world. Those most revered are forbidden from letting their feet touch the floor.
But the nation took a major step yesterday towards abandoning the centuries-old tradition, after its Supreme Court ordered an inquiry into whether the human rights of the girls are being violated.
There are around a dozen living goddesses in the Kathmandu area. While lesser kumaris attend school and lead relatively normal lives, the most important are confined to special "kumari houses" and only allowed out for religious ceremonies.
According to tradition, kumaris are selected from the Buddhist community and subjected to rituals, including being left in a room of severed goat and buffalo heads for a night. If they prove their fearlessness, and meet other criteria, they are worshipped as a goddess by both Hindus and Buddhists until they first menstruate, when a replacement is found.
Although in recent years the most important kumaris have received home tuition to compensate for lost schooling, campaigners say that they are ill equipped to fully reintegrate into society when their years in the kumari house end.
"Maybe some people say that a goddess doesn't need human rights," said Anup Singh Suwal, a community leader who supports reform. "But after she is a goddess she has to become a human again."
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