Editor's note: This story was reported and photographed in January, before the global pandemic. The text has been updated to reflect the activities of the nuns aimed at COVID-19 prevention.
Jigme Yeshe Lhamo squats in a powerful kung fu stance. As she raises her 18-inch sword, it flashes in the sunlight against the backdrop of the Himalayas. It's a crisp January morning at Amitabha Drukpa Nunnery in Kathmandu Valley, home to more than 800 Himalayan Buddhist nuns ranging in age from 6 to 80.
Sporting maroon-colored robes and shaved heads, the sisters cartwheel, punch, kick and land in splits. They wield spears and dance in formation with paper fans. Lhamo, 31, says practicing the martial art has given her confidence.
When she was 12, Lhamo nearly drowned when she fell over the guard rail of a bridge and plunged into the freezing cold river below. She had to undergo surgery for multiple fractures in her right leg, an injury that disqualified her from pursuing her dream of joining the Indian army.
"Becoming an Indian officer was everything to me. I was very sad and depressed and crying all of the time and I stopped eating." says Lhamo.
Lhamo's depression only started to lift a few years later when she met Jigme Pema Wangchen. He's the the head of a 1,000-year-old Buddhist sect called the Drukpa — which means a person from Bhutan or of Bhutanese descent. He's known as the Gyalwang Drukpa.
Jigme Pema Wangchen — regarded as the twelfth incarnation of the Gyalwang Drukpa — works to promote gender equality by establishing schools, medical clinics and meditation centers throughout the Himalayas. He traveled to Lhamo's village in Ladakh, India, in 2005 to hold a series of empowerment workshops for women.
"He encouraged me to take charge of my life and pursue opportunities that are not usually afforded to women in this part of the world," says Lhamo.
Lhamo says it was through the teachings of the Gyalwang Drukpa that she was able to gain confidence in herself and pursue her dream of helping others. It was also the moment that she decided to become a nun.
Her parents called the idea crazy. "They were so mad. They told me that I didn't know anything about Buddhism and that I was too young to make such a choice and that I had to continue my studies to become an engineer or a doctor," says Lhamo, who ended up running away from home at the age of 16. "My mother and father wouldn't allow me to go so I got on a bus and traveled to Nepal. It was scary but I knew I needed to go."
The Fearless Ones
Lhamo arrived at the Druk Amitabaha Mountain nunnery just outside of Kathmandu and started her new life with a new first name. All of the Drukpa nuns are known as Jigme, which means "fearless one."
For centuries, women in the Himalayas who sought to practice spirituality equally with men have risked being ostracized. They are forbidden from leading prayers, singing or being fully ordained. Tasked with the chores of cooking and cleaning, nuns are told if they're "well behaved" they can come back in their next lifetime as monks — and only then can they become enlightened.
About ten years ago, the Gyalwang Drukpa set out to change that. Inspired by his mother, who worked to break down gender stereotypes, he put the nuns in leadership roles. He encouraged the nuns to take part in religious rituals traditionally reserved for their male counterparts and gave them the highest level of teachings, called Mahamudra. Monks in his sect then had to ingratiate themselves to the nuns (or more accurately, formally request the teachings from the nuns). This shifted the power dynamic.
"Monks within the Drukpa lineage celebrate what the nuns do," says Carrie Lee, former president of Live to Love International, a non-governmental organization that has partnered with the nunnery for nearly 20 years. "However, monks from other sects believe that if a woman touches something it's considered tainted and they have to throw it away, so [the nuns'] work is still not widely accepted."
Drukpa's efforts to break down patriarchal traditions have sparked intense backlash from the more conservative Buddhist sects in the Himalayas.
"They received threats almost on a daily basis. Some threatened to burn down their nunnery and their temple. Many consider them blasphemists, which in this community is a very big deal. But most of all they were harassed physically," says Lee.
Kung Fu Lessons
Instead of backing down, the Gyalwang Drukpa decided to instill even more confidence in the nuns. At his suggestion, starting in 2010, they began to study kung fu, the ancient Chinese martial arts practice that was off-limits to women in Nepal for more than two centuries.
The training is intense.
But first there is a lengthy spiritual preparation. The nuns wake up each morning at 3 a.m. and meditate for two hours, followed by a larger communal prayer service in the nunnery's main temple. They sit cross-legged in pews, singing and chanting from Buddhist prayer books. The smell of saffron-infused Himalayan incense fills the brightly colored temple as they beat on drums, sound horns and ring bells.
After their morning prayers, or "puja," it's time to warm-up.
Each kung fu session starts and ends with running laps around the nunnery's statue garden. The nuns then run up about 200 steps to the top of the garden and climb back down "army crawl" style."
After that, the nuns break up into groups and start practicing various forms of kung fu. Jigme Yangchen Ghamo, 25, who has lived at the nunnery since she was 10, says she's proud to be part of something that hasn't been done before.
"We are the only nuns in the Himalayas who practice kung fu," says Ghamo, who notes that it has boosted her physical strength and endurance and sharpened her ability to meditate and focus. "It's given me the self-confidence that I didn't have while growing up."
Amid an increase in the number of rapes and sexual assaults in neighboring India, the nuns began teaching young women the art of self-defense. More than 32,000 cases of rape were registered with Indian police in 2017, about 90 a day, according to the most recent government data.
One case in particular drew outrage from the Drukpa nuns. They heard about the story of an 8-year-old girl from a nomadic Muslim family. Their animals had accidentally grazed on Hindu land. A Hindu priest reportedly kidnapped the girl and kept her in a cage in a temple and had her gang raped. She was eventually killed by an unknown assailant.
It was then the Drukpa nuns decided to help young women defend themselves.
Each summer since 2010, the nuns have held week-long self-defense workshops in Ladkh, India to teach young women the basics of kung fu. Jigme Migyur Palmo, who became a nun at the age of 13, is one of the instructors.
"We need to help as many young girls as possible. They don't know that rape or sexual assault is wrong so we work to educate them and [teach them] how to handle difficult situations," Palmo says.
The workshops teach young girls various kung fu techniques, including take-downs and strikes. They also act out potential sexual assault scenarios — like being attacked from behind — and how to handle themselves in everyday settings, such as problems that might arise traveling to school on buses as well as dealing with cat-calling at outdoor markets and shopping malls.
Taking Charge After The Earthquake
In 2015, a devastating 7.9 magnitude earthquake struck Nepal killing nearly 9,000 people. For Jigme Leshe Lhamo, the experience was terrifying.
"Everything was shaking and I saw houses collapsing right in front of me. I saw people dying. I closed my eyes and tried to breathe and I realized that we had to help," says Lhamo, who immediately organized the nuns into relief teams. They traveled to areas that government agencies and other organizations considered too dangerous to access.
Their journey was treacherous.
Landslides and debris from aftershocks blocked the roads to many communities, so the nuns set out on foot to deliver blankets, food, water and other supplies to nearby villages. They spent close to a year helping to rebuild homes, businesses and water purification systems. Lhamo says during the cleanup, the nuns discovered that girls from poor families were in effect being sold to traffickers.
People were desperate after the earthquake. They needed money, jobs, food. Strangers came to the villages and approached families, offering to give their daughters "opportunities" — jobs that would provide the families money.
Some parents allowed their daughters to go with these traffickers. In the end they didn't get the money — and some of them never heard from their children again.
Investigating the matter, Nepal's National Human Rights Commission reported that the authorities had seen an increase in human trafficking.
The nuns heard these stories and set out to educate other families throughout their area about this scam. They began an annual bike trek, cycling nearly 2,500 miles from Kathmandu to Ladakh, India, and back. They went from village to village, meeting with families to convince them not to sell their daughters by stressing how girls can contribute to society as much as boys can — and by emphasizing the dangers of trafficking.
Five years later, the nuns are still rebuilding their own home. The earthquake destroyed nearly three-quarters of the Amitabha Drukpa Nunnery, leveling several dormitories and cracking the foundation of the main compound. The unsafe conditions forced them to live in tents and cook outdoors for nearly two years.
Construction to rebuild the nunnery is in its early stages and isn't expected to be completed for a few years. For now, the nuns spend their days re-painting stairwells, fixing electrical wiring, installing solar panels and planting trees and flowers.
Shortly after the start of the coronavirus outbreak, the nuns found themselves once again pitching tents on the grounds of the nunnery — this time, to reduce crowding in their dormitories. The nuns have launched a new online video demonstrating basic hygiene practices and other steps people can take to protect themselves and others from COVID-19, and they have traveled to nearby villages to spread awareness.
"We passed out masks, soap and hand sanitizer to teach families how to properly wash their hands. We also gave them food and explained the importance of staying home and social distancing," Yeshe Lhamo says. Their efforts are being funded by private donors from Europe and the United States.
Nepal, unlike many parts of Southeast Asia, has had fairly low rates of COVID-19. But the country's strict mitigation measures, including sealing the borders with China and India, have crippled the local economy, leaving tens of thousands of people in Kathmandu Valley without jobs and struggling to provide for their families.
"I try to give people hope," says Lhamo. "I tell them that nothing is permanent and that this situation will pass. I also encourage them to help others. Even though helping one or two people might not seem like a lot to them, but for others it may change their whole life. It's very hard to see so much suffering in the world, but I believe by becoming your own hero you can fight the situation with love, kindness and compassion."
A Prize for The Nuns
Over the past decade, the Drukpa nuns have begun calling themselves the "Kung Fu Nuns," and their efforts have earned them worldwide recognition. In October, the Kung Fu Nuns traveled to New York City to receive the 2019 "Game Changer Award" from the Asia Society, an annual award that honors groups and individuals making a "transformative" impact in Asia and beyond. The nuns are the first all-female group of honorees.
"Our 2019 Asia Game Changers are women who have truly championed gender equality," said Asia Society president and CEO Josette Sheeran said.
"We honored the Kung Fu Nuns for putting passion into action by empowering women and dismantling gender inequality one kick at a time. They've become an inspiration outside of Asia too," says Yoshie Ito, assistant director for Global Initiatives.
For Jigme Yeshe Lhamo, receiving the award was a humbling moment.
"We still have a lot of work to do, but even if we help one person it's worth it," Lhamo says.
This was the first trip to the U.S. for the nuns. One of them was so nervous she packed two left shoes.
And they were so moved by the Himalayans they met in Queens during their visit that they set aside funds to provide food for needy families in that community during the pandemic.
The nuns believe that keeping busy is the key to a fulfilling life, but once a week they take some free time for themselves. Every Sunday they pause their daily chores and activities to indulge in an unlikely past time — watching horror movies.
"The afterlife is scary. We have to prepare," says Lhamo, who explains that the deities who guide humans in the afterlife — as well as in life — can appear terrifying. If you run away from them, you miss out on great blessings.
So on this particular Sunday, the fearless ones are in a huddle deciding between Halloween and The Shining.