Nuns of Zangskar (Ladakh)

Zangskar is in a mountain range south of Ladakh. It is still an isolated place, cut off by snow for 7 to 8 months of the year, but the ancient cycle of rituals to mark the seasons, moon cycles, and events in the religious calendar continues. Winters are harsh, with temperatures falling below 30 degrees C, and the snow is often deep, and has to be daily swept off the roof tops. There are still few cars or motorised transport and the only phones are found at military or security posts.

Many of the traditional livelihood practices and basic self-reliance continue. Crops are cultivated and animals taken to higher slopes in summer. The growing season is limited to 3 months of the year, with barley and peas as the main crops. Animals such as yak, sheep and goats are a means of transport, and provide milk, meat and clothing. In most villages, women spin the wool, men weave and the cloth is sewn into clothes. Winter is a time for retreats, teachings, and festivals for both monastics and laypeople.

Over the last 2 years, the snowfall has been greatly reduced. In some of the monasteries, water supplies are very limited, with only a trickle flowing through the pipe. The nuns have planted trees around their monasteries, but some have had to be abandoned due to recent water shortages. Other changes result from outside influences. The closing of the border with Tibet and the poverty of the region have all made it difficult to maintain the unique spiritual and cultural heritage of Zangskar.

The monks’ monasteries are in a better position than nuns’ monasteries, because the villagers are more likely to support monks. Historically, monasteries have been well endowed with land holdings and regular donors. The situation in most of the monasteries is one of great need. Prior to 1988, the nuns of Zangskar were mostly working in their families’ homes, where they cooked, cleaned and looked after the children and animals. They practice meditation mostly in the winter months when their families provided tsampa for retreats.

Surveying the Monasteries

The Ladakh Nuns Association (LNA) visited eight monasteries for nuns in Zangskar in 2002. Much of the information here is taken from their survey. Overall, there have been significant improvements for nuns in Zangskar in recent years, but their needs are still great. The nuns have have a strong yearning to deepen their study of the Dharma. Prior to 1988, most of the nuns of Zangskar worked in their families’ homes or in their fields, with practice basically restricted to the winter retreat. Since 1988, the monasteries (Zangla, Pishu and Karsha) have received financial support from Jamyang Foundation for basic food, robes, Dharma texts, and the construction of rooms. This support has given some nuns the opportunity to live in a monastery and have more time for the study and practice of the Dharma, which they greatly appreciate.

Jamyang Foundation currently supports nine monasteries. Prior to 1988, virtually none of the nuns had been to school. Over the last 15 years, however, schools have been opened in Zangskar and these days most parents want an education for their children. One problem is that the medium of instruction in most schools is Urdu, so children are forgetting their own language. Now all the nuns have learned Tibetan script and can read the Dharma texts. Some of the monasteries have periodically had a resident lama and regular teachings, but most of the nuns had received only occasional teachings. Changchub Choling Monastery in Zangla and Khacho Drubling Monastery in Karsha have study programs provided through CIBS (Central Institute of Buddhist Studies) with classes in Hindi, English, Ladakhi, math and Buddhist philosophy. Other monasteries have made strong requests for similar study programs.

Many of the nuns are requested to work in their family fields over the summer months, which takes time away from their Dharma study and practice. Due to limited access to Dharma teachings, the nuns generally lacked confidence and the knowledge they need to be able to give even basic teachings to their families and communities. Some of the monasteries had active community assistance in repair work, etc., and all were involved with their nearby villages. The local villagers came to offer and sponsor pujas on auspicious days or asked the nuns to read texts for them.

The vision and hopes for the future of the nuns of Zangskar was seen mainly in terms of a longing for teachings and the need to attract younger nuns. These two needs are connected. If there were more young nuns, they felt there was a greater chance of attracting a teacher; having a teacher would enrich the monastery and attract more young women to become nuns. However, funds are needed for this vision to be achieved, especially funds to build facilities, such as classrooms and rooms for teachers, and to purchase thankas, Dharma texts, and further construction projects.

Over the last 20 years, some young nuns from Zangskar have been studying in Dharamsala, Mundgod, and Bhutan. The monasteries hope that these nuns will return to Zangskar to teach younger nuns when they complete their studies. They also hope that these nuns will return to Zangskar during the summer months to give teachings and encourage the younger nuns.