In a remote village in the Bihar region of northeast India, in October 2005, a woman named Poonam Tatma gave birth to an extraordinary child -- a girl with four arms and four legs who was destined to become famous worldwide.
The newborn was the image of a multi-limbed Hindu goddess named Lakshmi, who is worshiped as a deity of wealth and good fortune. And so the child was also named Lakshmi.
"After she was born, for a whole month crowds of people came to see her," Tatma said. "It was said that Lakshmi had been born here."
The family's story is a spellbinding tale of religion and science, assembled by the National Geographic Channel for a documentary to be aired Sunday, June 22.
When Lakshmi turned age 2, a socialworker sent photos of her to Dr. Sharan Patil, who is a leading orthopedic surgeon at Sparsh Hospital in Bangalore, India, which specializes in treating skeletal abnormalities in children.
"I had never seen anything like those pictures," Patil said. "We had read about it in our books, and medically, it was fascinating because it was such a rare thing."
The doctor also knew that the child had come to be revered by many villagers. "They thought she was very special," Patil said. "She was a godsend; she was a reincarnation. They almost worshiped her in the village."
Rajesh Kumar Singh, the village chief, told National Geographic that "A child who looks like this, with four arms and four legs, according to our scriptures, must be the Goddess Lakshmi. It's a wonderful piece of luck to have a child born like this and surviving like this."
The Tatma family earned the equivalent of about $200 a year from farming, and couldn't afford even basic medicines for Lakshmi. They could have profited by charging others to see her, but chose not to. They turned down an offer to sell her to a traveling circus.
Her parents, too, believed she was a goddess. But they also knew she had the needs of a disabled child. Her mother worried about how she would provide care when Lakshmi grew older. "Picking her up, sitting her down, putting her to sleep, these are the problems," Poonam Tatma said. "She tries to crawl with other children but they go ahead of her. She can't keep up. The problem is what will happen when she is older? Right now, she is small, so we can do it. When she is older, who will do it?"
Determined to study the child, Patil went on a journey to the remote Araria district in Bihar to meet Lakshmi and her family. His arrival in the village caused a stir. Cars are rarely seen in Bihar.
Patil approached the Tatma family gently by asking if he could conduct examine Lakshmi. "I think the past experience of the parents, of reaching out to the doctors, was that the circumstances were probably not right. They had had bad experience in the past. So they had their reservations to start with. They were wondering if we had some ulterior motives toward them."
What Patil discovered is that the child that many associated with the image of a goddess was, in fact, a case so rare that only a few have been known in history. Lakshmi had two arms and two legs that functioned normally (they were the uppermost limbs on each side of her body). Below those limbs, in mirror image, were two more sets of arms and legs.
The lower part of Lakshmi's body was a type of conjoined twin called a parasitic twin.