The living God

The living God


Sambeg Shakya, 6, is hailed as a living god in Nepal. In 2010 Buddhist priests proclaimed that he was the living reincarnation of Ganesh, the god of good fortune.

Since then he has led several processions like this one at the Indra Jatra festiva

. Kathmandu, Nepal. Reuters/Navesh Chitrakar

The Indra Jatra festival, historically a centuries-old ritual, was once used by now-toppled kings who thought it would make them stronger.

It is now the climax of the annual Hindu festival of Dasain, which lasts for two weeks and has become a major tourist attraction in Nepal.

. Kathmandu, Nepal. Reuters/Navesh Chitrakar

On the day of his starring role in the festival, Sambeg, like any normal boy, still has certain routines to go through.

. KATHMANDU, Nepal. REUTERS/Navesh Chitrakar

He has to attend school.

. Kathmandu, Nepal. Reuters/Navesh Chitrakar

And study amongst his classmates.

. Kathmandu, Nepal. Reuters/Navesh Chitrakar

But unlike normal boys, on this day Sambeg's grandmother Purna Rupi Shakya (right) bows to him while his aunt Sumitra Shakya prepares to dress him.

. KATHMANDU, Nepal. REUTERS/Navesh Chitrakar

Sambeg will continue to play the role of living god until he is big enough to fit in a chariot pulled by men, after which he must return to real life.

"What struck me was he was just like an ordinary child."
Navesh Chitrakar, Reuters Photographer

Born and raised in Kathmandu’s Newar community I am familiar with Lord Ganesh. His elephant head attached to a human body makes him easy to identify. Ganesh is honored at the beginning of rituals and ceremonies as we celebrate religious festivals.

This month, I had the opportunity to take pictures of Living God Ganesh after I asked one of my friends who was close to the living god’s family. I was pleased and surprised that the family was willing to accept me since they don’t normally allow pictures to be taken.

The first thing I saw was a six-year-old boy sitting on the sofa and yawning. The boy was the living god but he looked totally different from how he had looked when I saw him on the streets during festivals. In his home, the sofa was his throne.

As he bathed I took some pictures, never realizing before that his hair was so long. What struck me was he was just like an ordinary child. He was very playful and would hide from his mother when she came looking for him. He did his homework and loved to draw pictures. And just like any regular child, he loved to dance.

I thought to myself what makes him a living god? Is it people’s belief or is it just tradition that has been followed from ancient times? Maybe the question will remain unanswered. For me, he was a very sweet boy kept inside a closed box. I never saw him wearing colorful clothes like other children instead he had clothes made especially for different occasions.

After some time, I returned to his home where he was being prepared for the Indra Jatra Festival. He was already crowned with jewelry, in the way I was used to seeing him on the street as devotees bowed down in front of him and offered offerings; he was treated like a god. He looked very different with the makeover. I missed the smile that he had on his face while I visited him that morning.

After all the religious rituals he was carried towards a Kumari House to participate in further rituals. No photojournalists are allowed inside the Kumari house so I stayed outside. I knew that the living god would look out from the window and I waited to see him appear.

What amazed me was that he noticed me despite the crowd of people and he started waving to me. I was very happy to see him. He was then carried towards his chariot which was pulled through the city after the festival began.

A few days later, I went back to his home. I was right on time as he was about to leave for school. His father accompanied him to the nearby school. The living god didn’t have to wear a school uniform despite all the other students wearing one.

At the school his classmates bowed down in front of him and he blessed them by placing his hand on their heads.

After capturing these images, I realized I had seen the two sides of Sambeg Shakya, known as the Living God Ganesh; one without the crown and one with the crown. From deep inside I enjoyed being with Sambeg Shakya but not the living god.