11-year-old retires as goddess

March 3, 2008 12:13:18 PM PST
Wanted: 4-year-old girl who is perfect to spend the next six or seven years as a goddess. Reason for opening: "retirement" of current position occupant, 11-year-old Sajani Shakya, whose eligibility has lapsed since she's been married off to a fruit.

Shakya was one of Nepal's 12 "kumaris," or living goddesses - girls believed to be the manifestation of the Hindu goddess Kali. They are chosen between the ages of 2 and 4 from an elite Buddhist caste and must be, well, perfect.

They have to fulfill exactly 32 perfections, none of them easily ascertained. Among them: perfect skin, the gait "of a swan," a body shaped like a banyan tree, thighs like a deer, cheeks like a lion, not afraid of the dark, and a neck like a conch shell.

"It's a very ancient tradition. Its roots go back to almost the dawn of time," Ishbel Whitaker, the director of the film "Living Goddess," told ABC News.

"It's very beautiful tradition," Whitaker said. She chronicled Nepal's young goddesses for her 2007 film as a revolution took place in Nepal against the monarchy. "It's a tradition where young girls are revered and in many ways this enhances the status of girls within the culture."

The goddess Kali is believed to leave the girls' bodies as they reach puberty, officially when they are married at an elaborate symbolic ceremony. For Shakya, her days as a deity are over.

"We have a tradition to get our girls married to a Bael (Aegle marmelos), a fruit dedicated to Lord Shiva, around the age of 10 or 11," Nhuchhe Shakya, Sajani's father, told AFP from the town of Bhaktapur, nine miles east of Katmandhu. "She knew that she was not going to remain a Kumari all her life, so she is mentally prepared. I think she will handle it well."

The girls are not born divine, and each one goes through a different process once they are identified as having celestial characteristics. Some human rights groups have criticized the Nepalese cities that choose the goddesses and then separate them from their families.

But Shakya grew up as a normal child would, most of the time. She went to school, played hide-and-seek, watched movies and occasionally fiddled with a cellphone while sitting on her throne.

"She's very smart, she's very intelligent, very funny, mischievous. Cheeky. She's very self-possessed and she knows her own mind," Whitaker says of Skakya. "She's a very dignified child in that she knows what she wants to do and how she'll do it and doesn't let people to push her around."

For nine days every autumn, though, Shakya was worshipped as an American girl can only dream of.

"I like it best at festival time," Shakya told ABC News last year during a visit to the Untied States. "That's when they carry me."

Actually, they touch her feet, a sign of respect among all Hindus, and wheel her around on her very own chariot. She sits in her home on a throne and people visit her, asking for health and happiness. And every year, the king of Nepal seeks the blessings of Nepal's three main goddesses, who live in the cities of Katmandu, Bhaktapur (where Shakya is from), and Patan.

Walking the planet thinking they're goddesses might be common among 4-year-old girls these days. But in a part of the world where there are horror stories of parents aborting female fetuses, worship of women might help change patriarchal attitudes.

"It's unusual for girls to have that status, particularly in South Asian society," Whitaker says. "To see girls elevated and given the status and honor, I think gives them confidence that hopefully they'll take through the rest of their lives."

Shakya traveled to the U.S. last year in order to promote "Living Goddess" and do a little sightseeing. She was the first living goddess to leave the country, and the government stripped her of her title for traveling without permission. But thanks to a popular outcry, she was declared divine once again.

As for what's next, Shakya's dreams are bright, though still undefined. After all, she's only 11 - and she's been working for nine years.

"One minute she says she wants to be a teacher, the next a doctor," Whitaker says. During the filming of the movie, Shakya took an interest in how it was being made, and "then she wanted to be a camerawoman. I think what's great is that she had ambition and she has her sights set on wanting to do something."

Last weekend, she took an entrance exam to enter into a prestigious middle school. She will, once again, be a mortal among girls and boys her age.

"Her mother prepared her that she couldn't live in this world of worship," Whitaker notes. "Her mother stressed the importance of education. It's good to study at school and become something in adult life too. Her family have been great and have made her understand that at one point, all of this will end, and she has to function as a normal child."


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