National Geographic June 2015, Part 2

Living Goddesses of Nepal, by Isabella Tree, photographs by Stephanie Sinclair

Living Goddesses of Nepal is about the tradition of the kumari, which are prepubescent girls who are believed to be the living incarnation of the goddess Vajradevi for Buddhists and Taleju for Hindus. Our guide to this world is a kumari candidate, six-year-old Unika Vajracharya. The tradition goes back at least as far as the 900s, when both boys and girls were considered to be conduits for the Divine. Eventually, the boys fell out of favor and the girls were elevated to the status of goddesses.

The article opens on the second attempt to make Unika a kumari. I gather that it is not terribly common for a girl to be a candidate twice, since kumari lose their position the first time they bleed. Sometimes a reign can end by a simple scratch and it always ends at the beginning of the reigning kumari’s menstrual cycles. Since loss of blood ends the reign, kumari are never allowed to touch the ground outdoors, and their activities even within doors are fairly restricted. As a result, most kumari leave at the onset of menses. So a kumari chosen at three or four would then reign for around 10 years, which would make most of the candidates from the previous round also too old for the position.

Traditionally every village in the Kathmandu Valley had a kumari, but with time, the number of kumari has dwindled. Part of this is that only some girls qualify to even be candidates. They must all be from the Shakya caste of the Newari, and traditionally there are 32 traits that a kumari must have to even be considered, including such poetic items as the body of a banyan tree and the soft voice of a duck (I, personally, have never thought of ducks as quiet animals — maybe Nepalese ducks are quieter than mallards) and fearlessness.

In fact, the candidate pool has shrunk so much that the selection process sometimes just boils down to checking the horoscopes of the candidates and choosing the one with the most auspicious signs. As fate would have it, Unika has a horoscope more auspicious than that of her rival, so she is chosen.

There is a note on the National Geographic website version of this article that tells us that all of the kumari and former kumari mentioned in the article survived the earthquake that hit the Kathmandu Valley in April and May 2015.

Canada’s Little Park of Wonders, by McKenzie Funk, photographs by Peter Essick

We begin Canada’s Little Park of Wonders, an article on Yoho National Park in British Columbia, by looking at the Cambrian fossils found there, and the evolutionary dead ends that the represent. We then leave that topic to focus on the Vaux family, a family of liberal Quakers. Mary Vaux, the daughter of the family, was a naturalist. She also eventually became the third wife of Charles Doolittle Walcott, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution (Walcott also took one of the first panoramic photos to be published in National Geographic).

Quakers were not supposed to be interested in art, and yet the Vauxes took many photographs of Yoho National park, and Mary in particular, both took photographs and made numerous paintings of the plants found there. Yet their art was mixed in with science — whether they were scientists whose science was artistic or artists whose art was scientific is up for debate. Over 20 years, they documented the changes in the park (the retreat of the Illecillewaet glacier in particular) through photographs.

Sins of the Aral Sea, by Mark Synnott, photographs by Carolyn Drake

This title just gets me every time I see it. I didn’t even know a sea could sin. I’ll try to let go of that. We’ll see how well that works.

The Aral Sea, which sits on the coast between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, was once the fourth-largest lake in the world, in between Lake Victoria and Lake Huron. Then, driven at least in part by siphoning off water from the river that fed the sea in order to raise cotton, the Aral Sea began to shrink. By 1998, the Aral Sea was the eighth largest lake in the world, and now it barely ranks at all. In fact, in 2015, the Aral Sea is actually two smaller bodies of water, with salinity levels one-third that of the Dead Sea, and the southernmost half of the sea is evaporating so quickly that the ground it leaves behind is still wet.

The land left behind is covered in remains of the sea that once was, including docks and piers, grounded fishing ships, and acres and acres of salt. They had hoped that the salt would form a hard crust, but instead, the salt is friable, and blows up in dust storms that are also contaminated by agricultural chemicals.

There are still fish in the northernmost body of water, but the southern part of what remains is inhabited only by one species of brine shrimp. In fact, thanks to dams on the local rivers, the northernmost part of the sea is reviving. However, one of the rivers that they dammed is the river that would have fed into the southern portion. In trying to save one part of the sea, they are killing the other.

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