How does a goddess become a mere mortal? The answer, it seems, is to go to America and promote a movie made about yourself. That’s what happened to 10-year-old Sajani Shakya after British helmer Ishbel Whitaker made “Living Goddess,” a docu about Shakya’s life as the Kumari of Bhaktapur, one of several living goddesses near Kathmandu in Nepal, and took the young girl with her to the U.S.
The Kumari, or living goddesses, are chosen for their physical and mental purity and are required to live in a temple, blessing believers until they reach puberty, at which point they are allowed to retire and live a normal life.
Shakya, for example, had been chosen at the age of 2 and had never left her temple prior to her Stateside visit in June. Her journey through Washington — where she met pupils at an elementary school and visited the zoo — upset some members of the committee who had appointed her as a goddess in the first place. They subsequently demoted her, having decided that her purity had been tainted.
“I feel responsible but not guilty,” says Whitaker about her decision to take Shakya with her on her travels. “I feel that Sajani was treated as a free person. There’s no regret about her going to the States because she was treated with such love. Maybe it’s better that she’s treated as a human being.”
However, all’s well that ends well, as Shakya discovered her divine status had been reinstated July 18 following lengthy negotiations between Whitaker and the royal priests.
An outcry over the priests’ initial decision, as well as an ongoing case with the Nepalese Supreme Court investigating whether the Kumari tradition is a form of child abuse, also had some bearing on the priests overturning their decision.
Whitaker and her fellow producers had kept Shakya in hiding in India while their negotiations with the royal priests were ongoing. Co-producer Marc Hawker has now flown to India to bring Shakya back home, whereupon she will undergo a purification ritual before being officially reinstated as a goddess. “The priests do not want to be seen in a bad light,” says producer Andrew Curtis. “They did not realize the kind of global story this would mean.”