Nine-year-old Sajani Shakya is venerated as a deity in the Katmandu valley of Nepal.
Nine-year-old Sajani Shakya is venerated as a deity in the Katmandu valley of Nepal. Marc Hawker
Clips from the new documentary 'Living Goddesses:'
A goddess arrived in the nation's capital this week: Nine-year-old Sajani Shakya, who's venerated as a deity in the Kathmandu valley of Nepal. She's one of three such "living goddesses" featured in a documentary that makes its world premiere June 16 at the American Film Institute's Silverdocs film festival.
Sajani is said to be the first living goddess, or Kumari, to visit the United States. While she was in Washington, D.C., she stopped by Lafayette Elementary, a local public school. The goddess, frankly, was a little jet-lagged. But in her gold-and-saffron robes, with her ceremonial third eye painted on her forehead, she was the most majestic 9-year-old the classroom full of American kids had ever met. They weren't intimidated, though, and among the many questions they asked was the obvious: Do you like being a goddess?
Follow-up queries involved whether the goddess can ever be a boy (no), whether she plays video games (yes, much to the students' amazement) and what she eats.
"She can't eat chicken, she can't eat chicken egg, she can't eat pork," explained documentary filmmaker Ishbel Whitaker.
"Can she eat salmon?" asked 9-year-old Kevin Holston.
As it turns out, she can.
Kevin was excited to meet Sajani — "I've never met a goddess before," he said — but he confessed that she didn't look quite the way he had imagined.
"I thought the outfit would be like blue-ish, goldish — like our school colors," he said. "And she would have like a little ponytail in the back."
Why a ponytail?
"Because a lot of girls have ponytails."
In fact, Sajani wore her long hair coiled in a topknot, tied with red cords given to her by worshippers. Whitaker said she's like many Nepalese girls her age — but she's also very different.
"She's a life force," the filmmaker said. "She's a very remarkable kid. She's cheeky, funny, mischievous; she is able to relate to her work — she takes it very seriously and knows what to do. Whether that means she's divine, I think that depends on your religious persuasion."
The Kumaris are Buddhist girls believed to be inhabited by a Hindu goddess, so they're seen as symbols of religious tolerance. For centuries, the goddesses were used by kings to legitimize their rule.
Whitaker's documentary follows Sajani as she blesses devoted passers-by and performs rituals at a yearly festival. Her perks include being worshipped by her parents and receiving offerings of chocolate. But life as a goddess isn't always bliss, apparently.
"Sometimes I don't feel like going on my throne when mommy asks me," Sajani said through an interpreter. "I've got to get up so early."
Sajani is somewhat unique in that she is permitted outside of the "goddess house" where she lives with her family. Her fellow Kumaris, for the most part, live lives of isolation and devotion.
Whitaker's documentary Living Goddesses was filmed during a dramatic moment in Nepalese history. Against the backdrop of a civil war that has taken 13,000 lives, demonstrators stormed the streets, protesting the king and debating the Kumaris' relevance.
Whitaker says she didn't start out to make the film political.
"I was fascinated by the female face of God, and a sort of search for the divine that involves worshipping young girls," she said.
During Sajani's Lafayette Elementary visit, the students seemed just as fascinated, and the questions kept coming: "How long are you goddess for?" one wanted to know.
"She's a goddess 'til about 12 years old," Whitaker answered, "and then the belief is that the goddess will leave her, and she becomes a normal child."
Whitaker is being diplomatically vague on the details: It's the onset of menses that will cost Sajani her divinity.
The goddess capped her Lafayette Elementary visit with a local tradition — an end-of-the-school-year volleyball tournament. Sajani's guardian kept a close watch on her little goddess as she mixed with her mortal counterparts.
"She has to live a normal life, you know?" said Vijaya Mark Rahna. "She will realize when she grows up."
And what does a goddess do when she grows up? This one plans to be a teacher.