Just reaching the Druk Gawa Khilwa (DGK) Buddhist Nunnery atop the lofty Druk Amitabha Mountain near Kathmandu in Nepal was a challenge in itself. Firstly the taxi driver and I had to find the right tiny road that ascended the mountain and then pray the rickety car would not expire half way up. This seemed quite likely given the daunting series of ever tightening hairpin bends with increasingly perpendicular and loose inclines. Not for the first time in the developing world I marvelled at the gutsy performance of a totally unsuitable vehicle in the hands of an experienced driver to conquer terrain that most Chelsea Tractor owners would baulk at.
I had come to the nunnery to photograph the nuns practicing Kung Fu. The leader of the 800-year-old Drukpa – or Dragon – order, to which DGK belongs, his Holiness Jigme Pema Wangchen, the present Gyalwang Drukpa instigated Shaolin Kung Fu training for his nuns in 2008 after a visit to Vietnam in the same year. Here he witnessed Vietnamese nuns practicing the martial art. He was told that it helped the nuns concentrate better and made them more self-reliant. Recalling how some of his nuns at the Khilwa nunnery had been harassed while travelling up and down from the mountain alone he decided to incorporate defensive Kung Fu training at his own nunnery. This was in keeping with his desire to empower his nuns “As a young boy growing up in India and Tibet I observed the pitiful condition in which nuns lived. They were considered second-class while all the privileges went to monks. I wanted to change this.” So unlike most Buddhist monasteries where the nuns only carry out household chores the nuns of DGK, who come from places as far apart as Assam, Tibet and Kashmir, are taught to lead prayers and given basic business skills. They run the guest house and coffee shop at the abbey and drive DGK’s 4X4s to Kathmandu to get supplies. But its the Kung Fu training which has proved most popular and since word spread enrolment at the nunnery is up. 200 nuns are taught Kung Fu at the abbey ranging in age from 12 to 25 (its considered too demanding for older nuns) and there are currently 3 sessions a day starting in the early morning. Their teachers who have come from Vietnam are several nuns and their 29 year old Kung Fu Master Dang Dinh Hai, on whom His Holiness bestowed the title of ‘Jigme Gudrun’ which means ‘fearless practitioner’ in Tibetan.
As with many location shoots not everything went perfectly to plan! The first problem I encountered was easily solved – the nuns were used to training inside their sports hall for their morning session but I asked if they’d mind training outside (for the much better background) and this was readily and graciously agreed to. What they understandably refused to alter was the timing of their practice as this would have a disruptive affect on the rest of the days routines. The problem was that they began the morning session in the dark and finished it 20 minutes before the sun came up, thus I was forced to shoot in near total dark to begin with which ‘improved’ only to the dull flat light of pre-dawn! That the light became gorgeous tantalisingly soon after can be seen from the image below of nuns on gardening duty .
To make some of the pre-dawn shots more interesting I used slow shutter speeds combined with flash to give a sense of movement, see below.
The nuns also had an afternoon Kung Fu training session but it was mostly in shade and not very attractive light again. After one session ended I persuaded a couple of nuns to do postures and kicks on their own (see below) and this was going well but had to be cut short when they had to go off to their next scheduled activities.
I wanted to show the more usual side of the nuns activities at the abbey too and so took the following images before and during the morning puja.
I was made very welcome during my visit at the abbey but the nuns were mostly quite reserved and serious although many were very young and little more than children. I often wondered how these youngsters coped with the lack of visible fun though of course the Kung Fu would give them a great outlet for any pent up energy. But the nuns did let their guard down occasionally in my presence and I was pleased to capture the shot below of a group of young nuns relaxing with lollypops!
It was a great story to cover despite the difficulties and The Guardian took it up in 2011 and published one of my images here.