Dharna Ratna does not have the contemplative air of a nun. She’s wrapped in nine yards of sinuous white and pale yellow, her eyes are flecked with grey-green and she has a throaty laugh. With her infectious enthusiasm, the Shwetambar nun seems more like a girl about to embark on an adventure. She speaks of a bride-turned-sadhvi. For the 10 days preceding initiation as a nun, aspirants have to dress as brides.
The story is hard to believe, but she pulls out a picture of herself in wedding finery, blue shadow highlighting her eyes, mehndi on her palms. Her lustrous, knee-length hair is braided. “On the day we take deeksha, we shave off our hair,” she says, smiling. “And from then on, twice a year, we pluck off each strand of hair from our bodies.” The celebration as a bride is meant to dissuade young girls from choosing the life of a sadhvi, so that only the strong-willed ones who have really made up their minds choose the austere path. The vows are excruciating. The spiritually motivated vegetarian diet would sound extreme even to radical environmentalists. Jain monks and nuns only take sponge baths, since bathing wastes a lot of water; they wear frugal clothes that they tailor themselves and go begging for their needs. The vow of celibacy is so strict they cannot touch any male, including little boys. They are also supposed to follow non-violence, not only in action, but also in thought and word. And they have to make a complete break from their family.