In Nepal, there is the ancient custom of choosing a young virgin goddess, who reigns until she reaches puberty. Rashmilla Shakya was taken from her family at when she was 4 and enthroned as the Kumari in an ancient palace, where she was worshipped by both Hindus and Buddhists. But once she started menstruating, she was sent back home and is now a college student.

Sanjeev Miglani writes that Rashmilla has been replaced by a 5-year-old girl. When she first came home, she could neither read or write, so she had to make up for lost time. “Rashmilla considers herself lucky,” says her sister Pramilla. “She says she has had two lives, being a Kumari was one life, and now she is born again.” But she adds, “We had mixed feelings when she was going. She was too small to remember anything.”

Many critics say it’s cruel to take a young girl from her home and deny her a childhood. As a goddess, Rashmilla could leave her palace only a few times a year, when she rode in a chariot pulled by devotees. She could never visit her family. She played with the children of the family that took care of her in the palace.

The virgin goddess must be a member of the Shakya Buddhist clan, and goes through an elaborate, secret ritual. One part of this involves spending the night in a dark room with the heads of slaughtered buffaloes. But it’s still considered an honor to be chosen. “No girl is forced to become a Kumari,” says cultural expert Mukunda Raj Aryal. “This is part of Nepali culture where even parents compete to give daughters as Kumaris.” Rashmilla was chosen because her horoscope matched that of King Birendra, who was killed by his drunken son in a palace massacre in 2001.

Rashmilla had a palace tutor, but she didn’t spend much time studying, so she had to begin first grade again at age 12. Cows are considered sacred, so a Kumari is not allowed to touch leather, which made Rashmilla nervous when she had to wear shoes to school for the first time. She has a lifetime government pension equivalent to $40 a month.

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