A Nepalese girl worshipped as a "living goddess," but who may be stripped of her religious title after travelling to the United States, returned to Nepal yesterday seemingly unaware of the controversy surrounding her.
Ten-year-old Sajani Shakya was installed at the age of two as the Kumari or "goddess" of the ancient town of Bhaktapur, near the capital Kathmandu, where she was revered by Hindus and Buddhists alike in deeply religious Nepal.
But a recent trip to the United States to promote a British-made documentary exploring Nepal's traditions and its modern development upset local religious leaders, who said it was against practice to travel without permission.
However, an official of a trust that manages the Kumari's temple in Bhaktapur said yesterday a final decision had not been reached on whether she would remain a goddess.
Sajani was greeted at Kathmandu airport by dozens of family members, friends and followers who beat drums and blew brass trumpets to welcome her. She appeared relaxed and unaware of the controversy.
Her parents, who did not travel with her, presented her with Buddhist prayer scarves and marigold garlands and said they were unaware of any ban on the child's foreign travel.
"If we knew it, we would not have sent her," her mother, Rukmini Shakya, said.
"We have not been told about her removal either. She has to remain Kumari until a new one is found to replace her."
The Kumari of Bhaktapur is one of several such goddesses in the temple-studded Kathmandu valley, home to 1.5-million people.
Living goddesses are chosen from the Buddhist Shakya family - the same caste from which Lord Buddha himself came.
They must adhere to certain standards such as being kept in a dark room without crying or not having any blemishes on their skin.
Once selected, the young girls are required to live in temples, blessing devotees until they reach puberty - when they return to normal life and are replaced with a new goddess.
In return, the goddesses get allowances and a monthly pension after retirement.
The British makers of the documentary apologized for the controversy.
"She is a normal child and a living goddess. She has both lives," film director Ishbel Whitaker said.
While in the United States, Sajani visited the Capitol, met with Nepalis living in the U.S., toured a school and met American children.
"It was a lovely opportunity for her," said Ms. Whitaker. "It was a great experience when American children told Sajani about their lives and she told them about her life."
During the 39-day trip, Sajani had to maintain what Ms. Whitaker said was "food purity" - a diet of boiled rice, lentils, goat meat and pumpkins.