In the heart of the picturesque town of Shey in Ladakh lies the Naro Photang nunnery. Gijme Wangchuk loves the misty mountain air that wafts into her room when she gets up at 3 am for prayers. As dawn approaches, though, she trades her traditional maroon robe for pyjamas, along with big yellow sashes. Gijme is 15, and all she dreams today is of being the “perfect kung fu nun”. “It comes with meditation and intensive martial arts practice,” she says earnestly. One of the youngest members now in the 800-year-old Drukpa Buddhist lineage, Gijme, a stout teenager with an impish smile, is soon joined by her friends in similar attire. The calm at Naro Potang, adorned with colourful prayer flags, is broken by the huuus and haee-yaas of the young rectors punching and kicking in the rare air.
Gijme’s parents live in Bhutan, but she divides her time between Nepal and Ladakh. At the age of 11, against her parents’ wishes, she left home, shaved her head and decided to take the route of “meditational calm”. But what does dharma really mean to her? “It’s prayer. That’s the best way to make this world a better place,” she says playfully, adding that she has a long way to go as she has learnt only a “third meditational calm”, an early stage. Life at the nunnery may be tough with many hours of field practice, strict discipline and sparse meals, but Gijme prefers it to going back to family life or indulging in “worldly pleasures”.
But how did kung fu enter their lives? Well, His Holiness Gyalwang Drukpa, the current leader of the Drukpa lineage, brought Dang Dinh Hai, a Vietnamese master, in 2009 to train nuns from Nepal, Ladakh, Bhutan and Tibet in “the power of the kick”. Nearly 400 of the nuns have by now been inspired to take up this ancient martial art. Gyalwang also bolstered their confidence by arranging for them to be taught in groups, and even on a one-to-one basis. So, do the monks now have to turn to the nuns to learn a few new tricks? “Buddha says women must be given equal rights as men. The nuns were unhealthy, overweight. Kung fu is for their empowerment and well being,” says Gyalwang.
“A nun’s life is a hard life. This discipline is essential, those who can’t keep up quit. It only happened once in five years.”
Gijmerigzin Lhamo, a lithe 36-year-old nun who joined the order in 1999, says the recent initiation into kung fu has been a revelation. “It’s really improved our sense of empowerment. We’re no longer wary of the unruly men who we sometimes see outside...we can even match up to the monks now. And to think they used to treat us with such disdain.” In fact, with the improved fitness, the nuns have also started participating in the sect’s sacred dances, which used to be an exclusive male preserve. “Earlier, the monks would make fun of us, but that’s a thing of the past. We are respected now,” says Gijmerigzin, who’s gearing up for the dragon dance at the 5th Annual Drukpa Council meet in Hemis.
It’s heartening to see such confidence, especially in a world where the female gender is mostly relegated to menial tasks like cooking and cleaning. Here at Naro Photang, the girls are brimming with confidence, kicking up dust and clearly calling the shots. Not only are they keepers of this large monastery, there are even some who take classes in Tibetan and English.
Gijmerinchen, who’s from Nepal, is the youngest of six siblings. She convinced her parents quite early on that she wanted to renounce a worldly life for the “happier way”. She’s been in Ladakh for over 10 years now and now believes kung fu is the way to a healthier future. She’s certainly one of the experts now. Leading a troupe of 25 nuns who have gathered for practice in the evening, the 26-year-old holds court with a power-packed performance. Punching a fist in the air, she demonstrates a perfect roundhouse kick and instructs the others to follow. It’s clearly no-nonsense time. Later, after sundown, Gijmerinchen spares a few moments to talk. “A nun’s life is a hard life, you can’t sleep all day or eat like a pig. After lunch, we don’t eat anything for the rest of the day, we don’t sleep for more than five hours either. This discipline is essential, those who can’t keep up quit the nunnery. But that’s happened only once in the last five years.”
It’s a tough life, but there are vacations too. Young Gijme Wangchuk goes back to Bhutan every year to celebrate Tibetan New Year with her family. “I love playing football and cricket with my cousins and watch Bruce Lee films. In three days, I try to pack in a year’s worth of fun,” she says. Meanwhile, the older Gijmerigzin Lhamo says she’s enjoyed her trips to Vietnam, London and Taiwan to attend Buddhist kung fu conferences.
It’s already 8 pm, and as the call for sengey tsewa, an evening prayer ritual is made, the nuns go into a huddle and meditate a bit, then break up to do the final winding down kicks for the night. It’s always an early day tomorrow.
By Priyadarshini Sen in Leh