Boy hailed as a modern Buddha 'has been fasting for six months'

Scientists in Nepal are planning to examine claims by a 15-year-old boy, hailed by pilgrims from across the country as a modern-day Buddha, that he has been meditating without drinking water for six months.

Ram Bahadur Bamjan sits cross-legged, in the pose of a Buddhist ascetic, beneath a peepul tree in the village of Ratanapuri south of Kathmandu. His family and devotees say he has not moved since he sat to meditate six months ago. They say he eats and drinks nothing, and does not relieve himself. His hair has grown long and shaggy and hangs down over his eyes. He has only spoken rarely since he began meditating.

The incident that sealed his fame in Nepal came weeks ago when a poisonous snake bit him. After being hidden behind a curtain by his supporters for five days, reports say he came out and said: "A snake bit me but I do not need treatment. I need six years of deep meditation."

The Buddha, who was born Siddhartha Gautama in Nepal in 560 BC, meditated and fasted under a tree until he achieved enlightenment and founded the Buddhist religion.

The teenager has said he will meditate and fast for six years, until he achieves enlightenment. But he has also told followers that he is not a Buddha but a rinpoche, a lesser degree of holiness. "I don't have the Buddha's energy," he said.

Now scientists want to investigate the claims that the boy is surviving without drinking water. Most people can survive without food for prolonged periods, drawing on their bodies' stores of fat. But it is not believed possible to survive without water.

Some of the boy's devotees say that at first he drank a milk-like substance from the roots of the tree, but more recently has done without any liquid.

Claims by holy men to have unusual powers are common in south Asia, but they are rarely subjected to scientific scrutiny. But Bamjan has become so famous that people are asking for proof. A team from the Royal Nepal Academy of Science and Technology is to investigate. They will have to observe without touching him to avoid breaking his meditation.

Their study could prove controversial. A lucrative business has grown up around the meditating boy. Photographs of him are on sale at the shrine that has sprung up in honour of him. Local authorities say some 500,000 Nepali rupees (£4,000) have been deposited in the bank by his devotees. Local people have formed a committee to manage the offerings made by pilgrims.

As well as donations, private vendors are said to be making big profits by selling incense sticks and tea to those who visit the shrine. Although the boy's devotees say he fasts and meditates day and night, no one has seen him at night. After dark, a screen is put up around him. The same screen was put up after he was bitten by the snake.

The boy's parents say that they have no more understanding than anyone else of what is really going on with their son. His mother says she fainted when she heard he had started meditating. She says she visits him but that he will not talk even to her.

But those hoping the scientists can put paid to the controversy for good may be disappointed; their observations will be performed behind the same screen that hides Bamjan from onlookers at night.

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