The cycling Kung Fu Nuns

We met empowered Buddhist nuns of the Drukpa order who are on a 2,200km cycle ride from Kathmandu to Delhi


Kung Fu Nuns on their way from Agra to Delhi. Photographs: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Kung Fu Nuns on their way from Agra to Delhi. Photographs: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

More than 9,000 people were killed and 20,000 injured in the two earthquakes that rocked Nepal in April and May. Nearly one million homes were destroyed.

The scenes at the Druk Amitabha Mountain nunnery in Ramkot, in Kathmandu district, reflected the mayhem.

“When we realized what was happening, we were glued to the place we were at and so terrified that we could not move an inch,” recalls Jigme Yudron Lhamo, 32, a nun at the monastery.

When the tremors subsided, the nuns jumped through the broken glass windows, dodged falling pieces of a wall, ran to the grounds and started praying. In the days that followed, these Buddhist nuns of the Drukpa order, known also as the Kung Fu Nuns, not only restored their monastery, but also helped members of the local community get their lives back on track. They became so involved with the rescue and relief work that they even refused to be evacuated from the earthquake-affected area.

Their dedication surprised the Gyalwang Drukpa, the spiritual leader of the Drukpa order. “There are lots of monasteries in Kathmandu and when the earthquakes happened, most of the monks ran away to their respective villages,” he recalls. “Our nuns were the only ones from the community who refused to be evacuated and wanted to support the locals. Locals say our nuns were more aggressive and more capable than even the Red Cross. I was surprised, rather, inspired,” he says.

The nuns see the community work as part of their kung-fu training.

*****

On a cold Sunday morning this month, in Agra, around 190km from New Delhi, 250 of these nuns started preparing for their journey to Delhi.

They were on the last leg of their 2,200km cycle ride, which started on 18 November in Kathmandu and will culminate in New Delhi today. According to the Gyalwang Drukpa, the aim is to spread the message of women’s empowerment and environmental consciousness, emphasizing the importance of ecological balance amid economic development.

Since they started, they have crossed Kushinagar, Nalanda, Rajgir, Sarnath, Varanasi and Bodhgaya. On their return journey, they will pass through Shravasti and Lumbini.

Besides visiting villages and Buddhist temples on the route and educating people on the importance of gender parity, the nuns also talk about the need to protect the environment.

In Agra, on the lawns of the youth hostel where the nuns had arrived a day earlier, two mechanics are at work, checking bicycle tyres for punctures, lubricating nuts and gears, checking the brakes and shooing off curious onlookers.

“Can I have a ride?” one bystander asks in Hindi.

“These are not our bikes. They belong to them,” one of the mechanics says in broken Hindi, pointing to one of the nuns. “If any part is broken, there would be a problem because none of the parts of these bikes (mostly made-in-China mountain bikes) are available locally,” he says.

It explains why the nuns are travelling with, among other things, a couple of mechanics and all the repair gear.

The two young mechanics chat in Nepalese, breaking off in between to answer the questions directed at them. The queue of bikes that need repair grows longer. In a couple of hours, the nuns will begin the ride to Delhi.

Inside one of the halls of the hostel, the Gyalwang Drukpa is conducting a prayer meeting. Around 150 nuns, their heads shaven and clad in red and black biking gear, are in attendance; their voices rising and falling in one musical note. The rest are packing up, and finishing odd jobs. And some of them are showing us why they are called Kung Fu Nuns. They will get to hear the recorded teachings later.

*****

Kung fu was introduced to the Drukpa order of nuns, around 500 of them, in 2008 by the current Gyalwang Drukpa.

Jigme Pema Wangchen was born to Kelsang Yudron and Zhichen Bairochana, both originally from Tibet, in 1963 when they were on a pilgrimage in Tso Pema, Rewalsar, in Himachal Pradesh. He is the 12th Gyalwang Drukpa, the honorific title for the spiritual head of the Drukpa, or dragon, lineage, the 1,000-year-old Buddhist order based in the Himalayas. He was recognized as the reincarnation of the master, the founder of the Drukpa lineage, when he was four years old and, at age 17, he took over as the spiritual head of the order.

Among other things, the current Gyalwang Drukpa is known for his work on environment protection, education and gender equality. He is the founder of the Druk White Lotus School in Ladakh and the Live to Love global humanitarian movement.

“I started Kung Fu Nuns to establish gender equality,” says the Gyalwang Drukpa. “I like kung fu. It is good for meditation and strength—both physical and mental. Also, because many people thought it is a man’s game, I wanted the nuns to learn it.”

Traditionally, women cook, clean, serve food and are trained to do daily chores in monasteries around the world, while the men take up more administrative and decision-making roles. “I wanted to change that,” says the Gyalwang Drukpa. And that was the genesis of the Kung Fu Nuns.

At the Druk Amitabha monastery and Druk Gawa Khilwa monastery in Nepal, and the main monastery, Naro Photang, in Leh, the nuns are taught the texts, how to lead prayers, and given rudimentary business skills. In 2008, they were introduced to kung fu to improve their health and spiritual well-being.

Most of the nuns come from the Himalayan region. “We don’t force them. They come if and when they want to,” says the Gyalwang Drukpa. “Most start in their teens. And almost all have primary education. Many have completed their 10th grade in school.”

“We feel much more confident and physically lighter after learning kung fu,” says Jigme Konchok Lhamo, 21, who has been a part of the monastery since 2006.

“Kung fu gives them confidence and helps them meditate. They were asked a couple of times if they were scared taking up such a long cycle ride. They would say, ‘No, we know kung fu’,” says the spiritual leader. “They are not experts when it comes to cycling. But they are determined and confident.”

Both Nepal and India would perhaps do well to take their message of gender equality and women’s empowerment seriously.

For Nepal has, a sex ratio of 0.94, and similar gender parity in the workforce; but only 53% of the women there are literate compared with 76% of the men, according to the World Economic Forum’s 2015 Global Gender Gap Report. Women earn only 56% of what men earn, according to the report.

*****

At the prayer meeting at the youth hostel that lasted well over 90 minutes, the Gyalwang Drukpa, who is leading the cycle ride, talked about death. “He told us how our karma dictated the way we live and die and how it affects our next life,” Jigme Konchok says.

Jigme Konchok, a talkative girl with an impish smile, is from Lahaul-Spiti in Himachal Pradesh. She became a nun against her parents’ wishes when she was just 12, in 2006.

“Where I come from, nuns just stay in the monastery and do household chores. My parents said that I shouldn’t be living a life like that,” she says. “But I was inspired by His Holiness (the Gyalwang Drukpa). The first batch of nuns from our village left in 2005. When they returned for a visit the next year, I was inspired by them.

“In one year, they knew so much about the world. I have studied in a convent school and I thought I knew about the world but, when I met the nuns upon their return, I was in awe. They were holding prayer sessions and that’s something we haven’t seen.”

Jigme Konchok’s life too changed. “Shaolin is for monks, that was what everyone thought, but His Holiness introduced us to it,” she says.

At the monastery, the nuns do everything—from cooking and cleaning to plumbing, even electrical jobs. They are taught Tibetan, English and Hindi and computers.

Life at the Druk Amitabha Mountain nunnery, some 15-20km from Tribhuvan International Airport, starts at 3 in the morning and ends by 10pm. The nuns skip dinner. “If you eat more, you feel lazy and sleepy,” says Jigme Yudron. “It is also in our teachings that we should skip a meal. It helps us feel physically lighter.” During the ride, that routine continues.

After meditation and prayers and a light breakfast, the nuns hit the road around 8am. After sessions of cycling interspersed with small intervals, they have lunch around noon and take a break for a couple of hours. At 3pm, they resume their journey and, just around sunset, camp for the night.

“We want to show people that we do more than just sitting in the monasteries and meditate,” says Jigme Yudron, who is also from Lahaul-Spiti and joined the monastery in 2005. She loves reading and has a graduate degree from a government college in Himachal Pradesh. Jigme Yudron says she always wanted to be a nun.

Jigme Yeshe Lhamo, 26, also from Lahaul-Spiti, joined the Drukpa order in 2005. “Generally, we don’t think about death too much even though we know it is inevitable. We live life in denial, lie, hurt other people. The quake brought us very close to death. His Holiness told us we all have to die one day and, therefore, we have to help others and do the right things, as only our good deeds go with us,” she says.

More From Livemint