Learn to Fight with the Kung Fu-Trained Nuns of the Himalayas
Women at the Druk Gawa Khilwa nunnery on the outskirts of Kathmandu, Nepal meditate and lead Buddhist prayers. They also train in combat.
All photos by Ahmer Khan
Around 4AM every day, the nuns at Druk Gawa Khilwa (DGK) nunnery in the Himalayas wake up, get dressed in maroon martial arts robes, and begin practicing kung fu.
Women's voices are traditionally quieter in Buddhism, where monks usually take charge of all the most important roles. But that began changing in 2008, thanks to the Gyalwang Drukpa, the spiritual head of the ancient Drukpa school of Tibetan Buddhism.
The Gyalwang Drukpa—who also goes by the name of Jigme Pema Wangchen—is an environmental activist, educator, and women's rights advocate. After going to Vietnam and seeing nuns train in combat, he founded the DGK nunnery to do the same for women in his region.
The nunnery on the outskirts of Kathmandu, Nepal is now a hive of activity. There are English classes alongside kung fu training, and the nuns are taught rudimentary business skills and lessons in how to lead Buddhist prayers. Around 400 nuns from Bhutan, Nepal, India, and Tibet live together in this place of worship, where it's not unusual for nuns speak multiple languages.
"I decided to become a nun in 2010 and since then I have been here. Most people think nuns just sit and pray, but we do more," says 16-year-old Jigme Yangchan Ghamo, one of the nuns who is currently learning kung fu.
It's not the only physical activity that the nuns excel at. Last year, 500 women cycled 4,000 kilometers (2,485 miles) from Kathmandu to Leh in India, in order to raise awareness about human trafficking.
The nuns hope that their martial arts expertise will help to overturn conservative attitudes towards women in their country. Some women, like 26-year-old Jigme Paldel Lhadol, even joined the nunnery in defiance of their family.
"Since my childhood, I wanted to be a nun, and I never liked long hair," Lhadol says. The young woman from Tibet has been a nun for the last eight years. "I never wanted to marry, though I always had family pressure. Somehow I came here and never went back to my home."
Apart from the backflips and sword skills, however, the nunnery is more than just a training ground for seriously impressive martial artists—it is a women's community that many prefer to their hometowns.
Just take it from 22-year-old Jigmet Zeskit Lhamo from the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, who became a nun when she was only 12. "I was persuaded by my friends to visit the nunnery in Nepal back in 2007," she says. "My family didn't like this idea initially, and now I don't really like going back to home. This is my home."