Those Kicks Are Fast as Lightning: The Life of a Kung Fu Nun in Ladakh

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Those Kicks Are Fast as Lightning: The Life of a Kung Fu Nun in Ladakh

Illustration: Reynold Mascarenhas

Most millennial women in their 20s are busy spending time making career moves in urban jungles. Jigme Konchok Lhamo is making her moves too. But they are of a different kind. She trains with swords, nunchucks, and machetes in the cold desert region of Ladakh. Now 24 years old, Lhamo was always following the path less-trodden, choosing to pursue “spiritual awakening” at the age of 12, when her friends were busy with dolls. Her journey led her from her home state of Himachal Pradesh to the Druk Gawa Khilwo Nunnery, run by the 10th century Hemis monastery, one of the oldest monasteries in Leh. It was here that Lhamo, along with 80 other outstanding women, became a member of a special order focussed on breaking taboos and stereotypes in the Himalayas — the Kung Fu Nuns.

It may sound incongruous at first, but perhaps that’s because most people are not used to the idea of peaceful Buddhist nuns practising a martial art popularised by Jackie Chan. But the Kung Fu Nuns are anything but ordinary, coming from Drukpa lineage, a 1,000-year-old sect of Buddhists and the only female order in the patriarchal Buddhist monastic system where nuns have equal status to monks. For centuries, nuns have been forbidden from performing Kung Fu, but in 2009, the Drukpa leader, His Holiness the Gyalwang Drukpa, lifted the ban.

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For centuries, nuns have been forbidden from performing Kung Fu, but in 2009, the Drukpa leader, His Holiness the Gyalwang Drukpa, lifted the ban.

Olivier Adam/ Buddhist Door

“After I became a nun, one of the main things we learnt that changed our lives was Kung Fu,” Lhamo says. “It made us both physically and mentally strong besides helping us with meditation.” Besides learning Kung Fu, the nuns also perform Dragon Dances, which were earlier prohibited. When they performed the dance for the first time in Ladakh, it was the first Dragon Dance by nuns anywhere in the world. The Kung Fu nuns also sing, go on marathon walks, and cycling trails, all while spreading the word on environmental conservation. The mission of the Drukpas is to bring the women to a central position in society, to entrust them with ancient crafts and secrets of Ladakh.

The life of a Kung Fu Nun follows a disciplined structure. They wake up in the dead of the night at 3 am and meditate in isolation until 5 am. Prayers start at 6 am and continue until 8 am. Between 8 am and 10 am, the nuns eat breakfast and clean the nunnery. “From 10 am to noon, we take our English, Tibetan, Kung Fu, dance and music classes,” Lhamo says. These are followed by a lunch break and nap time, which lasts from noon to 2 pm, before a second round of classes. “From 2 pm to 4 pm, we participate in classes on spirituality, learn to use instruments, and take memorising classes, besides doing some reading,” Lhamo says. “The time slot between 4 pm to 6 pm is free and during this time we can do whatever we want to, before evening prayers.” After evening prayers, which go on until 8 pm, the nuns spend a couple of hours watching movies together. Their favourite genre? Kung Fu classics, of course!

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The life of a Kung Fu Nun follows a disciplined structure. They wake up in the dead of the night at 3 am and meditate in isolation until 5 am.

Kung Fu Nuns/ Wikimedia Commons

For centuries Buddhism has been considered a monastic religion, but the Drukpas are now trying to be connected with the rest of the world and in the process providing women equal opportunities. “Gyalwang Drukpa is our guru; he is an inspirational figure to all girls,” Lhamo says. Inspired by his mother to advocate gender equality, Gyalwang Drukpa gave the nuns leadership roles and helped them study beyond Buddhist teachings. He encouraged them to become electricians and plumbers, a job most sought after in Ladakh where electric connections and plumbing frequently develop snags due to sub-zero temperatures in winter.

Now, these Kung Fu Nuns are teaching self-defence to women in Ladakh and the rest of the Himalayas. Of late, the Kung Fu Nuns have been organising an annual gruelling, 15-hours a day, five-day workshop where they train Ladakhi girls in both defensive and offensive tactics — skills that come to their rescue when they witness eve-teasing or attempts at molestations. “The nuns are usually considered to be praying inside nunnery but these Kung Fu nuns teach us to walk the talk,” says a youngster, Yangchan Dolma, who attended the workshop.

The Kung Fu might be the most eye-catching aspect of the nuns’ lifestyle, but it is far from being their only achievement.

The Kung Fu might be the most eye-catching aspect of the nuns’ lifestyle, but it is far from being their only achievement. During their marathon runs and cycle treks that continue for several months — often through rain, snow, wind, and avalanches — the nuns pick up plastic litter and educate locals on environmental conservation, world peace, and reforestation. Together with the Ladakh Renewable Energy Department, the monastery has planted one lakh trees in the cold desert. 

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The Kung Fu Nuns also carried out an exceptional rescue-and-relief operation for the earthquake victims of Kathmandu after a 7.9 Richter Scale quake struck Nepal in April 2015.

Kung Fu Nuns

The Kung Fu Nuns also carried out an exceptional rescue-and-relief operation for the earthquake victims of Kathmandu after a 7.9 Richter Scale quake struck Nepal in April 2015. Carrie Lee, President of Live to Love International, a charity organisation working with the Drukpa nuns to support the marginalised Himalayan communities, says, “The Kung Fu Nuns are exceptional role models, the heroes of the Himalayas.”

For a young lady like Lhamo, leaving behind the material world to pursue her life as a nun was a huge step, but also a rewarding one. She speaks to her family occasionally from the long-distance phone in the nunnery, and visits home only once every three years, but she wouldn’t trade her place in the order of Kung Fu Nuns. “Being connected to the community gives me more satisfaction,” Lhamo says. “Being a nun, I can help more people.”

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