Meet the kung fu nuns kicking down stereotypes in Nepal

Buddhist women teach self-defence, double as painters and plumbers and combat human trafficking while fighting for gender equality

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Clad in umber robes, their heads shorn, Jigme Yeshe Lhamo, Jigme Tontam Wangmo and Jigme Deepam squat in a kung fu stance. Their eyes narrowed and bodies taut, they stare straight ahead and focus on the task at hand.

Over the next hour, they will punch, kick, cartwheel and land in splits, often wielding spears and swords.

Rather than fighting enemies, they combat gender stereotypes and help others along the way at their nunnery surrounded by the Himalayas.

Meet the 'fearless ones'

At the Amitabha Drukpa Nunnery in Kathmandu Valley, home to more than 400 Himalayan Buddhist nuns from ages nine to 70, all women have the moniker “Jigme”, meaning “fearless one”.

The nuns are of the Drukpa lineage, a 1,000-year-old Buddhist sect born in the Himalayas when the founder, who goes by the title Gyalwang Drukpa, is said to have witnessed the miraculous flight of nine dragons in the sky.

Most of the nuns hail from the Himalayas; as many as half of them call Ladakh home. Now, the majority stay at the nunnery in Nepal and share a common belief: helping others.

Their unusual weapon of choice? Kung fu.

“Kung fu helps us to break gender barriers and develop inner confidence,” says Jigme Deepam. “It gives us peace of mind, makes us sure and strong.”

Righting the balance

Deepam arrived at the nunnery almost 18 years ago as a young girl from Himachal Pradesh, northern India.

Women in the Himalayas have had to fight for their place as equals alongside male Buddhist monks for hundreds of years. Religious diktats and social hierarchies meant they could not engage in philosophic debates, lead prayers or be fully ordained.

Forbidden from activities that involved physical exertion, they were typically relegated to “women-like” chores, including cooking and cleaning in monasteries and temples. Many were told that being “well-behaved” would lead them to enlightenment and help them return as monks in their next life.

Things changed more than 30 years ago when the Drukpa sect began a reformist movement under the leadership of Jigme Pema Wangchen, said to be the 12th incarnation of the Gyalwang Drukpa.

I wanted opportunities that women in this part of the world do not get
Jigme Yeshe Lhamo

Wangchen aimed to promote gender equality by setting up schools, medical clinics and meditation centres across the Himalayas. He wanted to disrupt centuries of tradition and empower nuns to carry the sect’s religious message outside monastery walls.

In 2005, he travelled to Ladakh to conduct empowerment workshops for women.

“His words encouraged me to take charge of my life. I wanted opportunities that women in this part of the world do not get,” Lhamo says.

Wangchen put domestic chores on the back burner, bringing women into the spotlight and encouraging them to pray and meditate, but also do all that their male counterparts did. He also trained the nuns to become chant masters, a position once reserved only for men.

Carrie Lee, volunteer and former president of Live to Love, a non-profit dedicated to empowering Himalayan communities, says the Gyalwang Drukpa gave the nuns the highest level of Drukpa teachings to support and elevate them.

“If monks wanted to learn the teaching, they would have to ingratiate themselves with the nuns,” she says.

Giving the nuns leadership roles was revolutionary and not well-received in conservative pockets. “The nuns experienced harassment, assault and threats,” says Lee. “People even threatened to burn down the nunnery.”

The head of the Drukpa order decided it was imperative to build the nuns’ confidence and strength.

Taking a stance

In 2008, when followers from Vietnam visited the nunnery to learn scriptures and play instruments used during prayers, they were tasked with introducing the nuns to martial arts. Since then, more than 1,000 nuns have been trained in the basics and almost 100 joined intensive lessons to become trainers.

“Kung fu is good for the body and mind,” says Wangmo, who moved to Nepal from Kullu, a small town in Himachal Pradesh. “Apart from keeping us in fine fettle, the exercise regime also increases our focus and concentration.”

Their unofficial motto is: ‘Be your own saviour'
Carrie Lee, former president, Live to Love

The daily routine is arduous. “We are up at 3am and meditate for two hours, followed by an hour-long communal prayer service in the nunnery's main temple,” Deepam says. Sitting cross-legged in pews, they sing and chant as the temple resonates with the beats of drums and bells.

Warm-up sessions follow the morning prayers. The nuns run laps around the garden and perform army-style crawls down steps before practising various forms of kung fu.

After breakfast, it’s time for classes such as learning scripture and playing instruments, as well as chanting and routine work. The evening includes another cycle of meditation and prayer.

“It isn’t enough for us to only meditate and pray in the monastery; we are working to change things at the grassroots level,” Deepam says.

Empowering other 'anti-Cinderellas'

Since 2010, amid rising cases of sexual assault in India, the nuns decided to teach the martial arts form to young women to help them defend themselves. Every summer, they hold self-defence workshops in Ladakh, teaching techniques including takedowns and strikes. They also act out possible sexual assault scenarios and demonstrate how women can deal with problems on the streets and other public places.

“We began learning kung fu as self-defence and for building our inner and outer strength, and now we help others learn the same,” Deepam says.

Lee calls the nuns the “anti-Cinderellas” of the Himalayas. “They do not wait around for someone to rescue them. Their unofficial motto is: ‘Be your own saviour',” she says.

We are returning to our spiritual roots by championing gender equality, physical fitness, environmentally friendly ways of living and respect for all living beings
Jigme Tontam Wangmo

“Many other communities welcomed this change,” Lee says. “One nun from another Buddhist lineage shared that she stopped experiencing harassment because people did not know if she was Drukpa or not and did not want to risk provoking a nun who might know kung fu.”

They have turned convention on its head by aligning their spiritual mission with gender equality by way of martial arts.

Apart from prayers and spiritual assignments, they work as painters, plumbers, gardeners, electricians, masons and artists – they also manage a library and clinic. Many are trained technicians for solar panel work, while others assist doctors in the Live to Love eye camps that provide people with cataract surgeries free of charge.

“We are returning to our spiritual roots by championing gender equality, physical fitness, environmentally friendly ways of living and respect for all living beings,” Wangmo says.

Springing into action

In 2015, after a 7.8-magnitude earthquake rocked Nepal, killing almost 9,000, the nuns leapt into action. They divided themselves into relief teams and set on foot to distribute food, water, blankets and medicines to nearby villages.

“The kung fu training worked so well that the nuns were ready to spring into action when the natural disaster hit the region,” Lee says.

On hearing that families from lower-income homes were sending their daughters away with relatively unknown people promising them “better opportunities” without knowing they were inadvertently helping human trafficking, the nuns began an annual bicycle trek, travelling 2,000km from Kathmandu to Ladakh and back. They cycled from village to village meeting families, speaking about how girls can contribute to society as much as boys and stressing the dangers of trafficking.

Amid the pandemic, they were out again, dispensing masks, soaps and hand sanitisers and explaining the importance of social distancing.

Each year, the kung fu nuns also go on eco pad yatras (eco-walks) to pick up plastic and litter and educate locals on eco-friendly practices. They have also cycled through India and Nepal to promote world peace and green transportation.

Last year, after a gap of four years, a group of 200 nuns cycled around the mountains to create awareness about climate change.

In 2021, the Unesco International Centre for Martial Arts awarded its Martial Arts' Education Prize to the kung fu nuns. Among other accolades, the nuns were recipients of Asia Society's Game Changers in 2019 as well as finalists of the Vaclav Havel Humanitarian Prize in 2021 and Atlantic Council's Unsung Heroes in 2020.

Updated: January 05, 2024, 6:13 AM