The Kung Fu Nuns of Nepal


View of the Druk Gawa Khilwa Buddhist Nunnery, Druk Amitabha Mountain, near Kathmandu, Nepal, May 2010.

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.

Nuns from the Druk Gawa Khilwa Buddhist Nunnery in Nepal practicing their Shaolin Kung Fu

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.

Vietnamese Kung Fu master Jigme Gedrun (with red sash) leads nun Jigme Zeki Lhamo (16) in Kung Fu training at the Druk Gawa Khilwa Buddhist Nunnery
17 year old nun Jigme Kunchok Lhama (centre) says " Learning Kung Fu has made me more self-confident and a lot fitter "

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 .

Nuns at the DGK Nunnery pose for a picture during early morning Retreat Practice of gardening

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.

Jigme Zeki Lhamo (16) practicing Kung Fu at the Druk Gawa Khilwa Nunnery
Jigme RigdenLhamo (16) practicing Kung Fu at the Druk Gawa Khilwa Nunnery

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.

View of the main temple at the Druk Gawa Khilwa Nunnery
Buddhist nuns perform morning puja at the Druk Gawa Khilwa Nunnery

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!

Nuns relaxing on the steps of the main temple at the DGK Buddhist Nunnery

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.

Method: I used one Nikon SB900 speedlight with dome diffuser in place, hand-held and attached to my  Nikon D3 via a SC29 extension cord for the fill-flashed shots, all the rest natural light.





8 thoughts on “The Kung Fu Nuns of Nepal”

  1. Simon

    …really lovely pictures.

    I love the detail of the nun’s Kung Fu uniforms. Nice to see the nuns posing in relaxed groups too.

    Living so close I must get up there one day soon and see them for myself.


    1. Hi Rose, no it did not affect the nuns, the monastery/nunnery escaped unscathed except for a few minor cracks I read. In fact the nuns have been very active since the quake helping those much worse affected in the surrounding villages. Best, Simon

  2. Simon, these are superb photos giving a superb – if only brief – insight into the nuns’ day.
    I could hardly believe that you had bad light for the opening shots! – then the rest of the “bad light” just dramatized the story, at least for me.
    I still love best the second photo shown here, but also the monastery – if one have to join a monastery, this could be a spectacular one!
    I love the way you capture the spirit of a person or a place

    1. Thank you so much Susanna, most kind, that shot is one of my favourites too. Its a lovely monastery and the views back down to Kathmandu are fabulous.

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