Gaden Relief Projects support for Zanskar nunneries 2023

By Irina Safonova

Last fall, at the end of September, I traveled to Zanskar to visit and deliver aid to the nine nunneries supported by Gaden Relief. It had been quite some time since my last visit in 2019, just before the onset of the global pandemic. Despite the challenges, including limited communication due to sparse cellphone and internet connectivity in the valley, we continued our support from afar with the invaluable assistance of local villagers. I fell in love with the most wonderful people and stunning landscapes of Zanskar since my first visit. The anticipation of reuniting with them and witnessing the progress made by the nunneries over the past years filled me with joy and excitement.

Zanskar Valley has indeed remained hidden from the outer world, preserving its pristine and pure beauty. But some developments mark a beginning of a new era for the region. The progress is crucial for the betterment and upliftment of the people of Zanskar. However, it also poses challenges for the preservation of traditions and the simplicity of life in the valley.

The new road traversing the 16,700-foot-high Shinku La Pass, brought me from Leh to Zanskar in ten hours. Although condition of this road, like most of the routs in Zanskar, is hellish, the are improvements in progress. The old two-day route through14,400-foot-high Pensi La Pass remains accessible for a longer period during the season compared to the new road.

Photo Sani Nunnery

This time, I was hosted by the Sani Kachod Ling nuns. I felt a sense of belonging, as if I were at home, and the nuns became like family to me. 

During my last visit, I learned that the nunnery’s solar system wasn’t functioning. Over the pandemic years, with the assistance of local villager, GRP purchased and installed the necessary replacement parts, including the inverter. The Indian government is currently constructing an electricity line to Zanskar from Kargil through Pensi La Pass. This brings big hope for continuous, year-round 24/7 electricity supply for lighting and heating. Until the project is completed, solar power systems continue to be an essential source of electricity.

Photo Sani nun and woman from Sani village

There aren’t enough words to express my gratitude to the seven nuns, my new sisters, for the care and assistance I have received.

Photo Joyful time with Sani nuns

While not a big deal in daily communication, the language barrier still presents challenges in collecting accurate information and conducting survey of the nunneries for our charity. I was lucky to get help with interpretation and transportation from Passang Lhawang, the president of Zanskar Buddhist Association for laypeople.His deep understanding of Zanskar people and traditions, along with his cheerful willingness to help others, not only helped me connect better with the nunneries but also allowed me to see and understand the meaning of the local lifestyle and customs.

Next, we visited Zangla Chang Chub Choling Nunnery. The entire nunnery, except for 88-year-old nun Chuskit, was preparing to leave the next day for a pilgrimage to India until spring, and all the little girls were visiting their parents before the long journey.

I met Divina, a passionate teacher from Delhi. When the valley became accessible in spring, she returned to Zangla nunnery to teach little nuns for the past three years. During my last visit, the nuns requested a laptop and printer to aid in teaching the little nuns. Zasep Rinpoche’s students from Australia provided funds, and during the pandemic, we were able to fulfill their wish by purchasing and delivering the requested items, along with additional accessories that might have been needed. I was happy to learn that this first laptop, when cellular internet arrived to the valley, opened doors for the nuns, enabling them to communicate with the world.

 The nunnery invests a lot of love and time in the conventional education and development of children, as well as in the study of Buddhist disciplines. Moreover, most of the nuns speak English. The adult nuns also continue their study of Buddhist philosophy and scriptures with a Geshe from a South Indian monastery. He returns every year to teach when winter passes.

It’s so great to see how Zangla nuns continue to learn a wide range of skills — from Buddhist debate and thangka painting to environmental projects and cheese making. Their success empowers them but also but also inspires other nunneries.

Dorje Dzong nunnery
Photo Dorje Dzong nunnery

There are seven adult nuns living in Rizhing Dorje Dzong nunnery two of whom are 92 years old. The little nuns reside in the boarding school down the hill and come to the nunnery for prayers.

92 years old nuns
Photo 92 years old nuns

 When I visited Zanskar last time, nuns in all the nunneries were requesting remedies for arthritis pain relief. Due to the very cold, long winters and the reliance solely on cow dung-burning stoves as the source of heat, arthritis is very common there. I brought as many over-the-counter joint and spine pain relief creams for the nuns as I could fit in my luggage. Distributed creams, along with reading glasses and warm blankets, were very much appreciated by Dorje Dzong nuns.

With our interpreter Passang Lhawang
Photo With our interpreter Passang Lhawang

I met two friendly, helpful men from the nearby village at the nunnery. They’re part of the village group that looks after the nunnery and the boarding school. In the Valley, it’s a remarkable tradition for villages to look after the nearby nunneries and monasteries. Monks and nuns are a very important part of villagers’ lives – they perform pujas and prayers for them during holidays and family events. We went down the hill to visit the kids. There are 12 little nuns, and 15 disadvantaged children from nearby villages live in the boarding school. It was a lot of fun offering socks to children with Lhawang’s help. He transformed this simple offering into a joyful and happy event. 

Some European charity provided funds for the construction of new buildings and facilities and the repair of old ones. The school’s residential rooms, classrooms, prayer hall, and dining room are very spacious and bright. Even the rooms still under construction look very beautiful. Witnessing the nuns receiving support, and their lives dedicated to practicing Dharma becoming a bit easier, brings great joy to me.

Tsering Dolker, 93 years old nun
Photo Tsering Dolker, 93 years old nun

I brought the requested solar panel system from Leh for Pishu Namgyal Choling Nunnery. Six nuns move from their individual huts to a communal room for the winter, as it is easier to keep it warm. The panel system will supply electricity to that room. One of the nuns is 93-year-old Tsering Dolker. We found her sitting under the warm sun in front of her hut, reciting mantras.

Pishu nuns
Photo Pishu nuns

We stayed in touch with Mandal Padma Choling Nunnery. They opened a group chat for the nine nuns and me on WhatsApp under the touching name ‘Miss u ama ly”. One of the nuns, who speaks English quite well, kept us connected. During this visit, I spent more time with villagers and nuns without an interpreter and discovered that many people in Zanskar speak English well or well enough.

Mandal nuns
Photo Mandal nuns

We provided nunnery with a good-sized solar panel system that supplied electricity to the communal area and all individual huts during the pandemic years. The immeasurable assistance of the local man Thukjey Targais made it possible. After the system was installed, they sent me videos and photos capturing the joyful moment when the lights came on. I heard that the head nun was crying tears of joy. This time, as they now have electricity, we bought them a washing machine with a spinner, which will be immensely helpful, especially during the long winter.

Photo Friendship

This time, I met resident Dharma teachers in Mandal and a few other Zanskar nunneries. They had come to the Valley to teach Buddhist philosophy, scriptures, and rituals, as well as Tibetan grammar to adult nuns from spring to fall at the request of Karma Leshe Tsomo, an American nun who has been living in India and supporting nunneries in Ladakh for many years. This marks excellent progress for the nuns!

New temple
Photo New temple

The Manda nuns proudly showed me the new temple funded by American donors. It was under construction for the last two years. Perhaps they will consecrate it this coming spring after completing the interior work.

Skyagam nunnery
Photo Skyagam nunnery

At Skyagam Phagmo Ling, there are 13 adult nuns and 20 young ones. When I arrived, the nunnery was busy preparing to leave for Bodhgaya in a few days. Karma Leshe Tsomo’s organization several years ago opened a center in Bodhgaya where nuns could stay as long as they need. Skyagam nuns stayed there last winter and plan to stay until spring this winter as well. I brought Collins Children’s World Maps from Canada for the kids in all the nunneries. They quickly located India on the map and learned how far away Canada is.

Karsha nuns
Photo Karsha nuns

 I was happy to meet again with the nuns from Karsha Kachod Grubling Nunnery, who kindly hosted me during two previous visits. Two years earlier, I received sad news that the abbess passed away from Covid. The pandemic brought suffering and death even to this remote valley.

Tea time
Photo Tea time

One of the nuns was very sick, physicaly and mentally, when I visited last year.  When people of Zanskar fall sick, they rely on the Ayurvedic system of Tibetan medicine known as amchi for the cure. Gaden Relief helped to pay for the amchi’s services, and to my delight, I saw this nun fully recovered and well. The little nuns I knew were sent for further education to Kopan Monastery in Nepal. 13 adult nuns and 7 new kids lives in the nunnery now.

The nunnery is midway through the construction of a very large two-story building. They have in mind visitor residences on the second floor and rooms for nuns on the first. Nuns also share that they want to built a new temple. 

Cha Dolma Ling nunnery is the most remote, situated on an almost vertical cliff.

Cha nuns
Photo Cha nuns

 Not long ago, the nunnery was connected to the rest of Zanskar only by narrow paths. Now, a new, very rough non-tarmac road winds beneath the nunnery. Five nuns endure the harshest living conditions. While the pandemic prevented us from visiting Zanskar, we continued to support the nuns as much as possible remotely. With Targais’s assistance, we were able to purchase and deliver a solar panel system and very warm wool blankets to the nuns.

Cha and Sani nuns by the temple
Photo Cha and Sani nuns by the temple

Sani nuns joined me on my visit to Cha. Apparently, they had never been there and wanted to meet the Cha nuns. Lhawang organized a bigger, more powerful vehicle that could accommodate all of us and navigate this road. Despite the long and difficult drive, we had a wonderful day. 

It turned out that falling stone broke the solar panel, and even though it was the end of the season, we managed to buy a replacement panel in Padum. Cha nuns finally have a mobile connection, and now we will be able to keep in touch. 

View of Tungri village
Photo View of Tungri village

Tungri Phuntsog Ling is situated in a very picturesque location. Years ago, many poplar and willow trees were planted on the land around the village, and now it looks like a forest, which is very unusual for the cold desert climate of Zanskar.

There are 13 adult nuns, among them 88, 83, 81, and 77 years old, and 6 children in the nunnery.

Assembly room and prayer hall
Photo  Assembly room and prayer hall

Nuns are very happy to have Dharma teacher. The older nuns, who are studying LamRim, said that only now do they understand how much they missed not having a teacher to study with earlier in life. After the conversation with tea, we went to see the school. The nuns eagerly ran there with their notebooks for the Tibetan grammar lesson, and the kids were having a class with the government-provided teacher.

The last visit was to five Sakya nuns. A couple of years ago, after spending most of their lives in Bhutan, they were forced to return to native Zanskar due to changes in immigration regulations.

In the prayer room
Photo In the prayer room

They are between 65 and 81 years old. Local people helped them to acquire and renovate a little house in Padum. One room serves as a temple, and two nuns continue practicing all the time while we have a conversation with one of the nuns in the adjusted room. They are having a hard time settling due to age and a lack of financial means. The nuns weren’t expecting my visit, and the donation from Gaden Relief came as a surprise to them like to believe that our support made their life a bit easier for a while.

I distributed the equivalent of $10,000 USD in Indian rupees and goods across the nine nunneries.

A big heartfelt Thank You to all donors and supporters who made it possible.

It was an honor and privilege to deliver aid to Zanskar nuns on behalf of Gaden Relief Projects.

Gaden Relief Projects is committed to the ongoing support of Zanskar Nunneries.

Photo Blessing