WASHINGTON — Even by the standards of the luminaries who sweep through Washington, the little girl in front of Lafayette Elementary School almost six miles north of the White House was special.
Politicians, power brokers and the occasional celebrities who come through town hope to be respected and maybe, in a childlike place in their grown-up hearts, genuinely liked. Sajani Shakya, 10, is worshipped.
In Nepal, Sajani is a living goddess, one of about a dozen such goddesses in her homeland who are considered earthly manifestations of the Hindu goddess Kali.
Sajani arrived in Washington on June 11 to help promote a British documentary about the living goddesses of the Katmandu Valley and to see a bit of the United States. She is the first of the Nepalese living goddesses to come to the U.S. because the girls live mostly in seclusion.
What does a young goddess do in Washington? Unlike some visitors, Sajani had no plans to ask anyone for anything. Instead, she planned to go on a private tour of the White House with an interpreter. She hoped also to go to the zoo, perhaps ride a roller coaster, visit a Hindu temple and, in places like the school, learn how others live and show them, however shyly, something of her little-known world.
“There’s nothing I don’t like about being a goddess,” Sajani said through an interpreter. Then, thinking about her typical day, when she has to rise early for her family and others to pray to her, she added, “It was difficult when I was younger to get up at 4 to bathe for the morning prayers.”
The children in Blake Yedwab’s 3rd-grade class thought it would be cool to be a god or goddess. Sajani never gets into trouble. In fact, her family worships her, and if she is in a bad mood, it “becomes a major drama because it’s considered bad luck,” said Ishbel Whitaker, director of the documentary, “Living Goddess,” which revolves mostly around Sajani.
The goddesses of Katmandu are chosen when they are about 2 years old from a Buddhist caste, though they represent a Hindu deity, an example, Whitaker said, of the harmony between the two religions in Nepal.
The king of Nepal has traditionally sought the blessings of the three main goddesses. Hindu and Buddhist priests pick the living goddesses after consulting a horoscope and then finding a girl who meets “the 32 perfections,” Whitaker said, from skin “of golden color” to a body “like a banyan tree.”
Devotees believe that the goddess Kali inhabits the girls, though they do not exhibit unusual behavior, and then the goddess leaves them when they reach puberty. After that, the girls retire with a small pension. They are free to work and marry.
“The idea of virginal, premenstrual purity, it does seem like a contradiction with worshipping a feminine divine,” said Rachel McDermott, associate professor in the department of Asian and Middle Eastern cultures at Barnard College, “but in all this, there is the devotion to purity.”
People go to the goddesses to touch their feet as they are carried through the streets. They give them money as offerings, which in Sajani’s case goes to support her family. They visit Sajani in the goddess house, where she sits on a small ornate throne, to ask for a better job, better health, a measure of happiness. The girls are not expected to impart wisdom, said Marc Hawker, the film’s cinematographer and producer, just blessings.
“It’s not about dogma or rules,” Hawker said. “People relate to her as a divine being but also as a child: they pray to her, but afterward they sit and joke with her. There is something very comforting about worshipping a child, something about the cycle of life, about renewal.”
The goddesses are busiest in late fall, during the festival of Dasain. The royal goddess in Katmandu and the other in Patan live in varying degrees of seclusion. Sajani has the most normal life, blessing those who show up, but also playing with friends and going to school, where she is treated with respect, though not assured of straight A’s, Whitaker said.
The film was made from 2005 to 2006, and it captures a Nepal that was roiled by protests against the monarchy and demands for establishing a democracy. The same people who took part in protests against the king also worship Sajani, Hawker said. But as Nepal modernizes and changes, Whitaker noted, parents are less keen for their daughters to become goddesses.
“The potency of the cult diminishes,” she said.
Sajani knows she has only a few years left before she must retire. She says she would like to be a teacher someday, but she cries with her mother over the loss of her life as a goddess.
“When I’m not a goddess anymore,” she said, “no one will treat me as well as they treat me now.”