Catalytic changes are taking place in Leh -- nuns take to learning martial arts while the hills are getting green

Winds of change are slowly but surely sweeping Buddhist society. The arid landscape is greening and the Buddhist nuns are being allowed to practice Kung Fu, a martial arts traditionally forbidden to women.

Interestingly, these changes are emanating and being patronised by the Hemis Monastery of the predominant Drukpa lineage of Tibetan Buddhism.

It is not an uncommon sight to see nuns practicing fighting skills early in the mornings at Naro Photang Nunnery in Shey on the outskirts of Leh or the maroon-dressed nuns digging and planting on vast stretches of barren land. 

At the moment nuns have given up practising fighting skills because a majority of them are away getting trained Druk Gawa Khilwa (DGK) in Kathmandu, which is effectively the administration office for the nunneries and management office for the construction projects on the sites of the nunneries.

The nuns have to spend three to four years in Nepal where they are trained by Vietnamese Kung Fu master before they return to Leh and dedicate their lives for religious and social causes. Environmental protection is one such cause the nuns have taken up now. 

Of the 400 nuns enrolled at Naro Photang, close to 300 are in Nepal and the remaining spend a major part of the day planting trees to make Leh a greener and safer place. The inspiration for environmental safety came after the 2010 flash floods in Leh that left behind a trail of death and destruction.

“Allowing nuns to learn Kung Fu is all about telling the world that women are equal and empowered,” says Sonam Rigzin of Naro Photang Nunnery. He says self defence was important for women in the present context. “Women, including nuns, have been oppressed and allowing them to perform martial arts is a way of empowering them,” he explains.

Nuns are also allowed to perform the sect’s sacred Dragon dance. While the nunnery was opened in 1992, Kung Fu was allowed only in 2010. “I feel self confident now,” says Jigmet Tunduk, a nun. Following a strict disciplined life, Jigmet says her parents were very happy when she decided to become a nun.

It was in 2010 that the Hemis Monastery administration decided to embark upon the tree plantation drive to prevent soil erosion and make the town a greener place. In 2010, Gyalwang Drukpa, head of the Drukpa lineage decided to take up the plantation project within a few months of the disaster hitting the place. The 9,000-odd volunteers of the Hemis Monastery, backed by the officials in their personal capacity, planted over 50,000 trees in about 30 minutes making a position in the Guinness Book of World records by displacing Peru that had planted about 27,000 tress the same year.

This is the third year running when trees are planted and the number of locals has increased manifold as they have found sense in the project. Tree plantation helps in soil conservation and increased precipitation (rain). This year about a lakh trees were planted – all on monastery land – of which over 99,300 have survived. This is said to be another Guinness record.

“Survival of trees is a huge issue here because there is hardly any rain and no irrigation and very less oxygen,” says Mr Rigzin. They are now busy digging water channels for irrigation. The nuns take turns for digging channels and attending to the plants.