American feminists talk about women being put up on a pedestal and yet never have American girls and women been made into living goddesses. In the 2008 documentary, “Living Goddess,” three prepubescent girls in Nepal are honored and pampered, dressed up and visited by people of all social classes. Called kumari, these girls are pampered and worshipped.
That might seem like a young girl’s princess dream: beautiful clothes, jewelry, people to care for you and no chores save meeting people and participating in ceremonies. The kumari are honored and take part in old traditions and rituals, some of which involved the slaughter of animals. Despite the protective nature of their existence, the kumari aren’t totally sheltered from modern technology: We see one girl using her cellphone or a computer. Yet while one of the caretakers talks to the filmmakers about the volatile political situation the kumari sits intently playing a video game on a small handheld device.
In Nepal, the old exists uneasily alongside the new. The documentary was filmed during the Nepalese Civil War (1996-2006). Nepal is a landlocked country locted in the Himalayas, just south of the People’s Republic of China with the Republic of India on its south, east and west borders. The majority of the Nepalese (81 percent) are Hindu. The Shah dynasty of kings ruled Nepal from 1768 until 2008.
King Gyanendra stepped down from the throne in response to a democratic movement in 2006 and during that time the Communist Party of Nepal, the Maoist, rose to power.
The documentary attempts to make sense of the social changes. The political instability is juxtaposed against the stability of the tradition that supports the living goddesses–a world of men and guns contrast a world of women and rituals.
The actual bloodshed of war is kept at a distance. Instead of dead and dying men we see protests that sometimes break down into chaotic violence. The documentary does show us part of the animal sacrifices. We’re told in all there were 108 buffalos and 108 goats decapitated for one particular event and we see a few heads roll. Director Ishbel Whitaker chooses not to discretely turn the camera away. The blood pooling on the streets in this documentary belongs to animals, dead through ritual slaughter (although there is a scene late in the movie of human casualties of the war).
With the abolition of the monarchy and modernization, one wonders how much longer the system will survive. Whitaker, perhaps in chosing to show us the shifting political situation, refrains from showing what happens to the goddesses when they are too old to sit on their thrones. We don’t see what happens to the virgin goddess after she becomes too old, when she has to walk instead of being carried, cook and clean for others and become a normal woman within the society although unlikely to marry. One wishes we had heard something from former goddesses such as Rashmila Shakya.
The system discards the girls as they become women, leaving them unprepared for the rest of their lives as working members of a family and the greater society, and superstitions may make them unlikely to marry. Once toppled from their pedestals as they age out, the girls are no longer a concern of the system that made them socially stunted. If the fall from the pedestal of mother/saint is hard for American women, then imagine how brutal the fall from being a pampered goddess to an illiterate nobody?
“Living Goddess” is part of the SundanceNow June 2013 Beyond Belief series and can be viewed on SundanceNow or Netflix.