MICHELE NORRIS, host:
So what does a goddess do on her summer vacation in Washington, D.C.? Now, we should say that 9-year-old Sajani Shakya is technically not on vacation. She's in Washington to promote a documentary she's in. It has its world premiere here this weekend at the American Film Institute's Silverdocs festival. But she is a goddess, or Kumari, venerated as a deity in the Kathmandu valley of Nepal. And while in Washington, she visited the National Zoo, and the White House, and a public elementary school.
And that's where NPR's Neda Ulaby tagged along.
NEDA ULABY: The goddess is, frankly, a little jet-lagged. But adorned with gold and saffron robes and a ceremonial third eye painted on her forehead, she's the most majestic 9-year-old this classroom of American kids has ever met.
Unidentified Girl#1: Do you like being a goddess?
Ms. VIJAYA MARK RAHNA (Guardian): Yes, she loves to be a goddess.
Ms. ISHBEL WHITAKER (Filmmaker): She's very shy today.
Ms. RAHNA: She's very shy because this is the first time she is meeting all of you.
ULABY: That's Sajani's Nepalese guardian Vijaya Mark Rahna and documentarian Ishbel Whitaker. These students at Lafayette Elementary want to know if the goddess can ever be a boy. The answer is no. They are amazed to learn she plays video games, and they wonder what she eats.
Ms. WHITAKER: She can't eat chicken. She can't eat chicken egg. She can't pork.
Unidentified Girl#2: Vegetarian?
Unidentified Boy#1: So she can't eat meat?
Ms. WHITAKER: No, she can eat meat.
Ms. RAHNA: She can have mutton, yeah.
Ms. WHITAKER: Just different kinds of meat.
Mr. KEVIN HOLSTEN (Lafayette Elementary student): Can she eat salmon?
ULABY: The answer is yes. That inquiry came from 9-year-old Kevin Holsten.
Mr. HOLSTEN: I thought it was great because I've never met a goddess before.
ULABY: Yet, the goddess did not look quite the way Kevin had imagined.
Mr. HOLSTEN: I thought the outfit would be like bluish, goldish.
Unidentified Boy#2: Like our school colors?
Mr. HOLSTEN: Yeah. And she would have like a little ponytail in the back.
ULABY: Why did you think she would have a ponytail?
Mr. HOLSTEN: Because a girl, a lot of girls have ponytails.
ULABY: Sajani is like many Nepalese girls her age, but she's also very different, says documentarian Ishbel Whitaker.
Ms. WHITAKER: She's a very remarkable kid. She's cheeky, funny, mischievous. She is able to relate to her work. Whether that means she's divine, I think that depends on your religious persuasion.
ULABY: The Kumaris are Buddhist girls believed to be inhabited by a Hindu goddess. So by embodying the two religions, they're seen as symbols of tolerance. The documentary follows Sajani as she blesses passersby on the street, and performs rituals at a yearly festival. Her perks include being worshipped by her parents and receiving offerings of chocolate. But in the film she says life as a goddess is not always bliss.
Ms. SAJANI SHAKYA (Nepalese Kumari): (Through Translator) Sometimes, I don't feel like going on my throne when mommy asks me. I've got to get up so early.
ULABY: Sajani is 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. The documentary, "Living Goddesses," was filmed during a dramatic moment in Nepalese history. Against the backdrop of a civil war that took 13,000 lives, demonstrators stormed the streets, protesting the king and debating the Kumaris' relevance. Director Ishbel Whitaker says she did not start out to make the film political.
Ms. WHITAKER: I was fascinated by the female face of God.
ULABY: Back in Washington D.C., the feminine divine is admiring a school mural of a zoo with one of the film's producers.
Unidentified Woman#1: Can I introduce Sajani to our school principal?
ULABY: Lafayette's principal is Lynn Main.
Ms. GAIL LYNN MAIN (School Principal, Lafayette Elementary): I have some girls here who think they're goddesses. But I have never had a real goddess visit the school before.
ULABY: And the school kids cannot get enough of her.
Unidentified Boy#3: How long are you goddess for?
Ms. WHITAKER: She's a goddess until about 12 years old. And then, the belief is that the goddess will leave her, and she becomes a normal child.
ULABY: Whitaker is being diplomatically vague about the details. Sajani will lose her goddessness when she starts to menstruate. So what will she do when she grows up? This goddess plans to be a teacher.
Neda Ulaby, NPR News, Washington.
NORRIS: And you're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.