Karsha nuns performing rituals
Laying roof at Zangla Nunnery
Mixing mortar at Zangla Nunnery
Former head nun laying mortar at Zangla Nunnery
Prayer hall at Tungri
Pishu Nunnery interior
By Kim Gutschow with Lauren Galvin and Jenn O’Boyle
Between 1991 and 2010, Gaden Relief raised roughly $100,000 to assist Zangskari nuns. These funds are delivered annually or bi-annually by Kim Gutschow, the Zangskari Project Coordinator, or Lauren Galvin, Field Manager.
Over the last 2 decades years, Gaden Relief funds were used to institute construction projects including passive solar classrooms, compost toilets, greenhouses, and passive solar water storage tanks, as well as provide support for ritual and scholarly activities at nunneries throughout the wintertime, when funds are limited and Zangskar is cut off by road from the rest of Ladakh and India. Gaden Relief only sponsors those nunneries that have a permanent sangha in residence that meets on a regular basis. Funds are sent to individual nunneries annually to provide basic foodstuffs and other materials necessary for communal rituals and collective meals.
From 1991 through 1998, Gaden Relief focused on the Chuchizhall (Chuchikjall) nunnery in Zangskar, where it built a classroom, toilet, greenhouse, and helped fund wintertime prayer assemblies. The classroom facilitated the study of Tibetan logic, debate, philosophy, and other topics under the guidance of a Tibetan Geshe. The compost toilet was modeled on those used in Zangskari homes to provide valuable compost for fields and gardens. Finally, the addition of a greenhouse near the assembly hall has enabled nuns to grow vegetables that would ordinarily not have thrived in Zangskar’s cold climate. Funds were also used to purchase over 40 locally produced “smokeless” stoves. These dung-burning stoves substantially reduced the amount of smoke in the communal kitchens and residential cells at several nunneries where they were installed.
In 1998, Gaden Relief began sponsoring other nunneries after repeated requests by their members. As of 2010, Gaden Relief sponsors all ten nunneries across Zangskar, including those located in Karsha, Sani, Zangla, Skyagam, Tungri, Pishu, Rizhing, Manda, Bya, and Chumig Gyartese. It helps support appropriate techonology at each nunnery including passive solar constructions, water delivery systems, and prayer sessions where the assembled nuns can meet and younger nuns learn the many of required prayers and ritual texts used during regular rites held at the nunnery. Besides the benefits of education, winter prayer sessions provided an ongoing communal gathering during which nuns could meet to discuss community affairs, group finances, village ritual requirements, and other administrative matters.
Gaden Relief supports the most remote and newest nunneries in Zangskar including Manda, Bya, and Chumig Gyartse, which are still under construction and in the process of building up their membership. Most nuns in Zangskar would spend more time engaged in ritual activity and prayer if they had the food and material means to support themselves. Gaden Relief helps promote ritual training and literacy at the nunneries by providing the material means necessary for those efforts. With the changing social and economic conditions, education will continue to be an important priority in many areas of monastic life.
Karsha Chuchikjall Kachod Grubling is situated high above the village, connected by a winding concrete pathway and also by a road. Stunning views of the surrounding valley and mountains as wells as views of the famous Karsha Monastery await visitors. This nunnery is the largest in Zangskar with 28 nuns in the assembly – 20 currently residing there, while the remainder are doing advanced studies in other parts of India. A large, well-decorated prayer hall is used each morning for prayers as well as all day for six days of the month and a 21-day puja in the spring. Nearby is a school building which contains two classrooms, a small kitchen, and a residential cell for the teacher, who is a monk supported by the Central Institute of Buddhist Studies. There are 27 young girls enrolled in the school from several nearby villages and courses include math, English, and Hindi. Also on-site is an amchi (traditional Tibetan medicine) clinic available to the nuns and villagers. The resident nuns engage in Tibetan grammar and writing studies with a teacher from Dharamsala. In the past, during winter the nuns must go downhill to search for running water. However, the most recent development at Karsha was the completion in the fall of 2009 of a passive solar water house just behind the nuns outdoor dry compost toilet in which a cement water storage tank is housed and prevented from freezing year round. The inner window of the double windowed passive solar house is painted black to absorb as much of the sun’s heat. The winter of 2009-2010 the nuns experienced flowing water at the nunnery even during the coldest winter months. Although Karsha has electricity year round, electricity throughout Zangskar is never entirely dependable. Therefore, several solar panels are used for communal rooms and outdoor lighting. The nunnery is in need of a guesthouse for visitors and a new kitchen – the current one is small, window-less and blackened from open-pit fire stoves.
Sani Kachod Ling is located high on a rocky mountain slope, a 30 minute walk from the village, but with easy access to the main road. The nunnery is relatively new and already quite large with an assembly of 15 nuns, ranging in age from 7 to 44. The youngest remains with her family in order to attend school in the village so only 14 nuns reside at the nunnery at this time. Compared to other nunneries, the Sani nuns receive adequate support from their families and foreign donors. Residential cells have been built over the last several years. The nuns recently completed the construction of their prayer hall and kitchen, and even more recently with Gaden Relief funds the nuns completed the construction of a large commercial size greenhouse. The nuns also completed half of the construction of a rock wall fence that will eventually surround the entire nunnery compound. In the future the nuns hope to construct retreat rooms. The nuns have a philosophy teacher from a nearby monastery and are studying in the Drukpa Kagyu tradition. All of the nuns balance long retreats during the winter with Tibetan grammar and writing studies. The nunnery is fortunate to have access to running water all year supplied by a good system of pipes and there are also several irrigation ditches to water the newly planted trees and small vegetable gardens.
Zangla Byangchub Choling is nestled into a mountainside at the end of the village road. A concrete courtyard surrounded by tall flowers is at the center of the nunnery, which has an unusually large 500 year old prayer hall with freshly painted wood floors. Twenty-one nuns are members of the assembly, ranging in age from 15 to a spirited 85 years old. Only 12 nuns live at the nunnery and the remainder are doing advanced studies elsewhere. The resident nuns are currently studying Tibetan grammar and writing with a teacher from Dharamsala. Fifteen girls, ages 7 to 9, attend the school at the nunnery sponsored by the Central Institute of Buddhist Studies. Their coursework includes math, English, Hindi, and Buddhist philosophy. There has been no ritual instruction available to the older nuns for several years since their last teacher died. The nuns eat most of their meals communally, prepared in a kitchen that was intended to be a guest room, until their originally kitchen collapsed. They would very much like to build another guest room and also get mattresses and tables for the large prayer hall, which is used when important monks visit the nunnery. They are currently building a new guest room with government funds and a passive solar room for winter study with Gaden Relief funds. The nuns are in need of mattresses and tables for the large prayer hall, which is used when important monks visit the nunnery. They are also in need of a classroom since the students are currently taught outside or in a room intended for prayer sessions. Group prayers are offered every morning, all day on special days, and for 26 days in the winter. Electricity is available, but only when the water for the hydraulic system is not frozen so the nuns rely on four solar panels for almost 8 months of the year. The Zangla nuns also have three thriving greenhouses.
Skyagam Phagmo Ling is at the edge of the village, just off the main road. There are 17 nuns, ages 16 to 43, and for two winters they acquired a well-educated young monk from South India as their teacher. At that time their teacher established a detailed study schedule for the nuns that included debate and Tibetan writing and now the nuns are eager to obtain more books to supplement their studies. Their teacher unfortunately had to leave for South India, but the nuns hope to acquire a new teacher with whom the nuns can continue their studies in philosophy and debate. Like the other Zangskari nunneries, the Skyagam nuns have a teacher from Dharamsala who teaches Tibetan grammar and writing. They would also like to build a proper summer classroom because currently they have class in the glass-enclosed entry way to the prayer hall and it is too cold in the winter. Although the residential buildings were built around 1998, all of the rooms leak when it rains and one roof has already collapsed. Normally the nuns are able to grow some vegetables or get produce in the village, but recently the region has been plagued by insects and residents have been unable to sustain crops. The summer of 2010 the nuns constructed a 16ft by 20ft passive solar room attached to their kitchen for winter ritual and study. The nunnery has only one solar panel and no electricity. Prayer sessions are held on a daily, monthly and annual schedule. The nuns hope to soon build a greenhouse next to their prayer hall in which vegetables can be grown year-round.
Tungri Phuntsog Ling can be reached after a short hike up from the village, which is a short distance from the main road. The nunnery compound is relatively large so the buildings are spread apart and big chortens sit on the perimeter. Although only eleven nuns live at the nunnery, 16 nuns are part of the assembly – a few younger nuns are at school in the village and a few older nuns have left to receive necessary care. A new prayer hall, guest rooms, and a spacious kitchen were built around a 500 year old prayer room. One guest room is still empty because the nuns could not afford to buy any furniture. Many of the nuns’ homes are in need of repair and some rooms have even collapsed. Since there is not enough money in the nunnery funds for repair work, a home can only be repaired if the individual nun is able to secure the help of her family. Two elderly sisters (ages 73 and 76) inhabited until one of the sisters, who was blind and deaf, passed away in the winter of 2009. The home is in great need of repair and the surviving sister nun is in desperate need of proper mattresses, blankets and warm clothes for the winter. She depends on herself for collecting food, water, and cooking/heating fuel for both of them. Water was a problem at the nunnery when the nuns’ pipe broke and they had to go uphill to collect water or go down to the village during the winter. Fortunately, the government constructed a new pipe system in the fall of 2010 that carries water directly to the nunnery. Whether water will flow winter-long is still uncertain. Day-long prayer sessions are held for seven days each month and a one month puja is performed in the winter. There has never been a teacher at the nunnery and it is very important to the nuns to acquire a teacher in order to learn rituals, prayers, meditation, and the Tibetan language, although at the end of the summer of 2010 the nuns were fortunate to acquire a teacher from Dharamsala with whom the nuns are currently studying Tibetan grammar and writing.
Pishu Namgyal Choling was built at the base of a multi-colored mountain not too far uphill from the village, which is reached by crossing a bridge from the main road and then trudging for 45 minutes across undulations of loose rocks and sand. There are eleven nuns in the assembly, including three charming and quick-witted elderly nuns. One prayer hall existed long before the nunnery began and the other buildings have a broad range of ages. A newer building constructed in 1998 contains a small prayer hall, assembly room, kitchen, and teacher’s residential cell. Two guest rooms will be completed next year. The summer of 2010 the nuns repaired with Gaden’s funds their summer kitchen that was heavily damaged by unprecedented Spring rain storms. Although there has been no teacher at the nunnery since 1981, a few of the elderly nuns received very good teachings of the Nyingma tradition in the past and have been able to pass these on to the younger nuns. Young girls from the village, who intend to become nuns, can attend school at the nunnery in Zangla, but it is uncertain which nunnery they will join after completing their studies. Prayer rituals are undertaken on important days each month and for a full month during the spring. The nunnery has a very difficult problem with the water supply, which often runs dry by August and during the winter when the local supply is frozen the nuns must travel a long way down to the river to get water. The nuns have four solar panels, but no electricity. They would like to receive more solar panels and are in need of funds to repair older buildings. They expressed a need for ongoing support for basic necessities because they do not get enough donations from the village or their families. Like most other nunneries in Zangskar, Pishu also has a teacher in residence from Dharamsala who daily teaches the nuns Tibetan grammar and writing.
Rizhing Dorje Dzong requires a steep climb uphill to reach and is far from the main part of the village, although a road has been built to provide easier access to the nunnery. Several old chortens crowd around the buildings and the two prayer halls are both several hundred years old. There are now only eight nuns in residence, but the nunnery used to be almost twice that size. Lack of a teacher has forced several nuns to leave the nunnery and attend philosophy schools in other parts of India. The remaining nuns are disorganized and somewhat discouraged, explaining that they spend a lot of time in the village with their families since there is nothing to do at the nunnery without a teacher. The nuns only hold prayer sessions two times each month along with month-long rituals for two months of the year. Recently the nunnery received a heritage site grant from the Indian government and the nuns purchased a new set of prayer books. Electricity is often available and is from the same source as Karsha’s, but just as it the case throughout Zangskar, problems with electricity, both summer and winter, are very common. The nuns have two solar panels, and unlike most of the nunneries they have water available year-round. Also uncommon is the fact that the nunnery owns land on which they grow peas and barley. The nuns would like to build a new greenhouse and start a school at the nunnery in order to encourage young girls to become nuns and receive a good education at the same time. However, the nuns and Gaden will have to determine whether there are enough young nuns to carry out and maintain such large projects.
Manda Padma Choling is a relatively new nunnery located very close to the village and the main road. The nunnery is comprised of seven young nuns and the buildings are 6 to 7 years old. The nuns built a prayer hall and continue to expand this building with new construction. There is no kitchen and the nuns have created an awkward cooking space in the enclosed entrance to the prayer hall. Presently all the residential cells are shared until the families of the youngest nuns build new rooms for them. The three youngest nuns attend school in the village during the day. There is no philosophy teacher available to the nuns, although a few nuns studied for a short while at Skyagyam when there was a monk from South India in residence there. Manda has electricity but like all villages in Zangskar, electricity is very unreliable. The nuns often depend on small solar lanterns made by and purchased from the Sani nuns and a larger lantern purchased by Gaden in Leh. Most of their food comes from their families and the nuns spend 1 to 2 days per week helping their families in the village. Prayer sessions are held on a daily, monthly and annual basis. The nuns have a strong desire to expand the nunnery and get a teacher, but in the short term they are in need of prayer books and supplies to complete the prayer hall.
Bya Dolma Choling is very small and isolated. Comprised of five young nuns, the nunnery is a 2 to 3 days walk from the main Zangskar valley and is even a 45 minute walk from the nuns’ village along a narrow cliff-side trail. The nunnery itself is perched precariously up against a giant rock outcrop; they selected this site because an image of Tara appears in the rock. The nuns are very determined to expand their nunnery, but most villagers will not allow their daughters to become nuns because there is no education available at the nunnery. In 2007 the nuns, with the help of their families, built a new prayer hall and the nuns are quite desperate to complete it with carpets, paint, prayer books and butter lamps, but they have no source of money other than donations from Gaden Relief and the Jamyang Foundation. The nuns engage in daily, monthly and annual prayer rituals and they are eager to obtain more prayer books to expand their knowledge. There is no electricity and they have only one solar panel, a solar lantern from Leh and 4 small solar lamps made by and purchased from the Sani nuns. The summer of 2010 the Bya nuns constructed a small kitchen next to their prayer hall. They wish in the future to attach a passive solar room to the front of their kitchen for winter study and ritual.
Chumig Gyartse Namtak Choling is still under construction as it is a new nunnery created in 2006 out of the assemblies of nunneries at Yarshun and Satak, which housed 6 and 4 nuns respectively, in 1999, and are now largely abandoned due to water shortages. While there are still villagers residing at Yarshun and Marshun villages, many have moved their fields and houses to a newer settlement called Chumig Gyartse, which lies near the Leh-Manali road. Because this settlement and the region lies within the Kargil district and Zangskar subdistrict as well as development block, but is more easily accessible from Leh proper than from Padum Zangskar, it remains the one of the more remote and least developed regions in all of Ladakh.