Deep within the folds of the Indian Himalayas in Zangskar (or Zanskar on many Indian maps), a subdistrict of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, are ten nunneries supported by Gaden Relief’s Zangskar Project. Until their absorption into the Indian state in 1947-8, Zangskar (often spelled Zanskar) and Ladakh were two west Tibetan kingdoms which had shared and contributed to the wider Tibetan Buddhist culture and religion since the 10th century. Zangskaris still speak a west Tibetan dialect, and roughly 95% of the population is Buddhist in addition to a small population of Sunni Muslims. Two major sects of Tibetan Buddhism, the Gelugpa and the Kagyudpa, are both well represented in Zangskar, where there are monasteries, nunneries, or small temples located in nearly every village and hamlet. The harsh climate, remote terrain, and heavy winter snows leave Zangskar cut off from the rest of Kashmir for several winter months when roads and footpaths are impassable.
Gaden Relief has been helping Buddhist nuns in Zangskar since 1991. After funding Karsha’s Chuchikjall (or ‘Chuchikzhal’) nunnery as a pilot program, the Zangskar Project now covers all ten nunneries that are spread across Zangskar’s 7000 sq. kilometers. The Zangskar Project has funded the following projects at local nunneries using local technology, skills, and materials.
Classroom, Residential Cells, Assembly Halls
At Karsha, a classroom was built which is now used as a meeting and seminar room. At Sani, traditional stone and mud mortar cells were built to house new nuns. At Skyagam, Tibetan wall paintings were completed in a new assembly hall. Future goals: Construct passive solar classrooms at all nunneries.
Sponsoring Ritual Assemblies & Individual Nuns
All nunneries receive annual subsidies to help defray the expense of ritual assemblies, secular training sessions, and individual stipends to help nuns purchase books & food. Future goals: Help nunneries become self-sufficient in operating expenses and help nuns promote women’s health and sustainable technologies
Medium sized fixed solar panels were bought and installed at three nunneries in Zangskar. Future goals: Bring solar power to all nunneries and train nuns to advocate for solar and sustainable technologies.
Smokeless stoves were commissioned and built by local blacksmiths according to a design developed by a local NGO. Future goals: Purchase stoves for the remaining nunneries in Zangskar.
Orchards, Garden, Greenhouse
At Karsha, nuns have built contructed vegetable gardens, poplar orchards, a garden courtyard, and a greenhouse. Future goals: Repair/construct gravity-fed water piping and storage facilities at all nunneries and train nuns in public health and clean water issues.
At Karsha, a local compost toiled was built to decompose human waste matter and provide a much needed source of biomass for the local gardens and orchards. Future goals: Build similar compost toilets at all of the nunneries that need such facilities.
To date, several nuns have been trained in maternal and child health at Leh Hospital. Zangskar has some of the lowest infant and maternal mortality rates in India and all Asia. Future goals: Train nuns further in maternal and child health and other women’s health issues.
Volunteering in Zangskar
It is possible to volunteer at a nunnery for the summer. If you are interested in helping the nuns, please read below our Rules of Engagement for Summer Volunteers in Zangskar.
Rules of Engagement for Summer Volunteers in Zangskar
Summer Volunteer Internships at Zangskar’s Nunneries
Gaden Relief is looking for volunteers who are interested in working at a Zangskari nunnery on our projects, which may include the construction of passive solar buildings, greenhouses, poplar plantations and small gardens, water delivery and water storage systems, compost toilets, rudimentary healthcare, and other forms of appropriate technology in a high altitude desert climate. While we take volunteers who have a broad range of skills, we are especially keen on individuals with skills in appropriate technology, passive solar design, greenhouses and gardening, women’s healthcare, and other related fields. Please know that Zangskar is only accessible by vehicle between May and November so you will need to plan your arrival and departure accordingly.
Summer volunteers must agree to spend at least 4 weeks working with Gaden Relief. We cannot take volunteer for less than 4 weeks as there is so much set-up and work required of that it does not make sense for us to accommodate volunteers for shorter stays. Each of the ten nunneries that we support has space for one volunteer at a time. Each volunteer should be comfortable living on their own with a community of very welcoming nuns who are used to having foreigners in their midst. You will have a 1-2 day orientation to learn what is required of you.
Prospective volunteers should write a paragraph about themselves, what they are looking for from this summer experience with Gaden Relief, and what they hope to do after the work is completed.
Please email us for more information.
There is one ABSOLUTELY CRUCIAL rule for any Gaden Relief volunteer. Volunteers must pay their own food and board expenses at the nunnery. Volunteer are expected to contribute 100 rupees a day for room and board. This works out to about $2.50 dollars a day. Volunteers should expect to donate 1500 rupees up front to the nunnery on arrival and 1500 rupees every two weeks thereafter.
More Information on the Zangskar Project
Gaden Relief has been funding nunneries in Zangskar since 1991, with the assistance of Professor Kim Gutschow, Lecturer in the Departments of Anthropology and Religion at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Kim Gutschow visited Zangskar every year between...read more
Kim Gutschow has coordinated the Zangskar Project at Gaden Relief since 1991 and has been working in Zangskar since 1989. She visited the region every year between 1989 and 2002 and every few years since. Her most recent reports from 2009 and 2006 and her earlier...read more
By Konchok Choskit (Lauren Galvin) Lauren Galvin is an American student studying in Khachodling Nunnery in Zangskar. She was inspired by American nun Karma Lekshe Tsomo to travel to India to live among the Zangskari nuns. She is serving as Zangskar Field Manager for...read more