The 10-year-old living goddess who divided a nation

The Goddess is sleeping, her head resting against the window of the aeroplane. Far beneath the clouds outside lie the mountains of her native country to which she is returning. Soon she will be stepping on to the tarmac, the broadest of happy smiles beaming across her young face. But for now the Goddess is quiet and calm. Tranquil. The plane banks and dips.

This is no ordinary homecoming, just as her trip away from Nepal was no ordinary departure. Indeed, for centuries no living Goddess had ever left the country. Her journey abroad was both fuelled by exhilaration and beset with problems. Now, at least, it appears those problems are behind her. ” I’m excited to be going home,” the Goddess had said the previous evening, as she ate an ice-cream which dripped a pool of sticky vanilla onto the restaurant table.

The ice cream-loving Goddess is 10 years old and her name is Sajani Shakya. She is a kumari, a child goddess worshipped by the Newari, an ethnic minority who live in Nepal’s green and luxuriant Kathmandu Valley. For centuries Buddhists and Hindus alike have come to prostrate themselves at the feet of these pre-pubescent girls — believed to bear the spirit of the Goddess Kali — and to ask for their help. At the first sign of menstruation the spirit is believed to depart from the girls’ bodies and they lose their goddess status.

And so might it have gone with Sajani but for her clash with modernity. A pair of British film-makers who spent two years making a documentary about the kumaris invited Sajani to attend the US premiere of their film, Living Goddess, and with her parents’ agreement she gladly accepted.

Her trip was a complete success, the Goddess charming adults and children alike in Washington DC and eliciting the sort of positive coverage for a film one is certain to receive’ when you bring a goddess to the opening night. At least it would have been a complete success but for modernity’s clash with tradition while Sajani was still in the US.

Concerned that she had broken the code of etiquette by leaving Nepal, the guild of officials who oversee the kumaris told her family she was to be stripped of her deity status. Frantic days of negotiation followed with the film-makers and family seeking to reason with the guild. In theory the guild have removed their threat to strip Sajani of her status but even at this late stage — with the plane being bumped by the wind as it makes it final approach through the valley — it is unclear what lies ahead.

The glass doors of the airport’s arrivals lounge slide open and immediately there is a frantic scramble. A small scrum of Nepalese photographers — tipped off about Sajani’s return — are fighting for position. Flashes go off. There is the sound of what appears to be a thousand shutters snapping open and shut. Dozens of relatives are waving and cheering. A band playing Buddhist devotional music strikes up what sounds like a jazz tune. Sajani — dressed in her ceremonial clothes — is hoisted upon the shoulders of her father, Nyuchhe. Her mother Rukmimi reaches out to hug her, grinning wildly. “I’m very happy. I’m overjoyed to have her back,” her father says later. Her mother adds: “I had tears in my eyes.” Someone is carrying a huge black-and-white toy panda, a souvenir from Washington. Such is the me^le’e, it seems the Goddess will never get out of the airport.

Somehow the party makes it on to crowded buses and then to Bhaktapur, the timber-constructed medieval city in which Sajani lives and of which she is the official Goddess. The group marches on foot through the narrow streets of the city as people lean from their carved windows, smiling. Someone is carrying sticks of fragrant incense and the band has barely paused. Even now they are leading the way, drumming and chiming. Through this remarkable city that director Bernardo Bertolucci used for the set of his movie Little Buddha, the throng twists its way in a very public demonstration of the Goddess’s return to her people.

Soon Sajani has arrived at the narrow, three-storey building that is her home. Bedecked with flowers and scarves, she steps inside and takes her place upon a throne set in a specially constructed shrine. A Buddhist priest steps forward to perform a lengthy purification ritual designed both to cleanse Sajani and to seek pardon for any transgression that may have occurred.

Relatives and neighbours come and pray and bring gifts and offerings. People tear strips of red cloths. Someone places bowls of curd at the feet of the Goddess. Sajani looks distracted and blows bubbles with a piece of green gum. “This process is incredibly important for her and for her family,” says Ishbel Whitaker, the director of the documentary and who for the past two weeks has led negotiations with the guild. “It’s important for them to see she is still the kumari.”

Within hours the guild will issue a rare statement, confirming that it has decided not to take any action against Sajani after all. As evening quietly falls in Bhaktapur and cooking fires are lit across the city, the men of Sajani’s family gather on the rooftop to celebrate with a cloudy homemade rice wine called rakshi and a super-charged spirit also distilled from fermented rice.

Sajani’s drama has not taken place in a vacuum. Nepal is a rapidly changing country that is confronting an assault from the outside world that its remote Himalayan location kept at bay for hundreds of years. All but shut-off to foreigners until the 1950s, the last 10 years have seen the country overwhelmed by political upheaval in the form of a Maoist uprising against the government and by a “people power revolution” that saw the monarchy reverse its decision to suspend parliament.

At many levels a struggle is being fought between modernity, represented by the hordes of backpackers and tourists who throng Kathmandu’s streets and the interest of people such as the Whitaker and her colleague Marc Hawker, and unyielding tradition represented by Sajani and the strict rules that govern her existence and that of Nepal’s dozen or so other kumaris.

There are certainly those who believe the kumari tradition needs to change and that this ancient practice is an affront to the rights of those children who, to a greater or lesser extent, lose their childhood for the sake of tradition. In 2005, Kathmandu-based human rights lawyer Pundevi Maharjan filed a lawsuit claiming the children’s rights were being abused and demanding a reform of the practice. The government ordered a commission to investigate and the publication of its findings is expected within weeks.

“I said that exploitation and discrimination has been going on. This should be eliminated,” says Ms Maharjan, herself a member of the Newari and who asked for a kumari’s blessing’ before filing her lawsuit. “We don’t want to end the tradition but we have to change for the protection of the culture. If we don’t change the culture maybe one day it will collapse.”

Ms Maharjan says that the most egregious abuse concerned the Kathmandu or Royal Kumari, the most senior of the goddesses who lives a life of isolation cut off from her friends, forced to stay inside her palace and wave to tourists. She is carried everywhere, her feet not being permitted to touch the ground. Evidence suggests many kumari and their families live in considerable poverty and that former kumari face severe challenges in their adult lives, struggling to relate to other people and their reduced status. In some cities, there is a shortage of candidates for kumari as families seek to avoid the poverty and problems associated with the “honour” .

Sajani’s life appears to have a better balance. Five days a week she goes to school with her friends, she lives at home with her two sisters and brother, and other than for special ceremonies she wears her normal clothes. Were you to see her playing with her siblings on any normal day you would presume she was just any child from a poor family living in a very poor country.

Yet such a perception would be wrong. Not only is there the regular worship from neighbours seeking her help or blessing, but during the autumnal festival of dashain Sajani’s participation is required for 15 consecutive days, culminating with her spending the final day alone in the temple surrounded by the severed heads of hundreds of sacrificed buffalo, goats and other animals. It is not, by any means, a normal childhood.

The day after her homecoming and purification, the Goddess is sitting on her bed, playing with the panda. Frankly she seems distinctly bored by the latest in what has been a series of interrogators. One wonders whether Sajani has a bit of Goddess attitude.

Yes, she enjoyed her visit the US. She enjoyed meeting the children at Lafayette Elementary School. “The cars there don’t emit smoke like they do in Nepal. The cars don’t use their horns,” she says. She was also struck by Washington’s scorching summer weather. “It was 47C,” she claims. “It was very hot. In Nepal it is 27C.” She enjoyed drinking extra-large glasses of milk and seeing a stretch limousine. At the airport she was dazzled by the moving walkway.

Sajani has been a kumari since the age of two, picked from the goldsmiths’ caste according to a traditional checklist of 32 various attributes. Almost ever since she has been conscious that people have treated her differently. The 10-year-old says her friends treat her normally and that at school she studies the same subjects — maths, science, Nepali, social studies — as everyone else. And yet if someone in the community is taken ill, Sajani will be collected from school and asked to use her shakti, or powers, to try to heal them. “There was an old man and an old woman and their son had taken all their money and belongings. Everything,” she recalls. “I believe they got it back after getting my blessing.”

On another occasion one of the many foreign tourists who make their way to Bhaktapur was taken ill and Sajani was taken to visit him in hospital. ” My mother told me to bless them and let them get better. He got better and went away,” she says. Another woman who came seeking help clung on to Sajani’s limbs. “How could I help her when she was pulling it out of my legs,” she laughs.

The Goddess wants to play badminton and one of her sisters runs to a local shop to buy a shuttlecock made with real feathers. The cobbled courtyard outside her house, next to an ancient Buddhist temple replete with prayer wheels and flags and a large brass bell that devotees strike when they come to pray, makes a perfect court.

For a deity, her game is nothing special, but she plays with the boundless energy and enthusiasm of a 10-year-old child. A neighbour sits on the floor of the courtyard weaving mats from dried rice stalks while the prayer flags flutter in the breeze. The scene appears fixed and unchanging, but for how long? The Goddess hits the shuttlecock high into the air. *

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Religion News Blog posted this on Tuesday July 31, 2007.
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