Kung Fu nuns to the rescue

Meet the winners of the Asia Game Changers Award


November 4, 2019

/ By / Kolkata

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Wearing their traditional maroon robes, the Kung Fu nuns are acing physical fitness, endorsing gender equality by defying centuries old ban on exercise by nuns.

This year, by winning the prestigious Asia Game Changers Award by the Asia Society, the Kung Fu nuns of the Drukpa lineage, have joined the list of change makers for inspiring and applying their unique talent to make the world a better place.

The Kung Fu nuns are the nuns of the Drukpa lineage which is a thousand-year-old Buddhist tradition that began in the Himalayas. His Holiness the Gyalwang Drukpa, the spiritual leader and founder of the Drukpa order, encouraged his nuns to train in Kung Fu to build confidence as leaders. In doing so, he flouted centuries of Buddhist tradition that barred nuns from physical exercise. Today, they are over 700 and are the only female to practice the art of Kung Fu in the existing Buddhist patriarchal system. With their monasteries settled in Himachal Pradesh, Leh and Ladakh, and Delhi, their main training centre is in Nepal called the Druk Amitabha Mountain Nunnery. They majorly belong from the diverse mountain ranges of Himalayas, coming from Spiti Valley to Ladakh region.

Kung fu practice

Nuns practicing the brick technique in Kung Fu

These women believe that they all have a unique story in the journey of becoming a nun and they collectively share the common belief of helping others. Apart from praying and meditating they teach Kung Fu to young women along with practicing meditation.

“Ever since we started learning Kung Fu, it has become a very important part of my life and has opened up a whole new world of self-empowerment and confidence for all of us here. Kung Fu for the nuns is not only something that they do it for physical and meditation,” Jigme Rupa Lhamo, a Kung Fu nun from Spiti Valley tells Media India Group.

These nuns have devoted their lives in helping their community, protecting the environment and advocating for girls rights. They also served as the first responders during disasters like the 2015 Nepal earthquake. They also started an initiative called the Eco-pada yatras (rally), an awareness campaign which they cover on foot to pick litter, plastic and aim to educate the locals on using more environment-friendly ideas across India and Nepal. Since 2006, they have organised these annual walking tours. These are normally over 400 km long, starting in Kathmandu and proceeding to cities as far away as Delhi. In 2014, the nuns walked 800 km from the Nepalese border to the Indian city of Varanasi, picking up trash along the way. In 2016, 500 nuns along with their bicycles glided along the roads from Kathmandu to the Indian city of Leh, 5,000 kms of bicycle yatra only to highlight the plague of human trafficking.

Practice with the traditional weapons

Practice with the traditional weapons

Why Kung Fu?

For decades, Buddhism occupied the positions of power giving the nuns to perform the meagre chores. It all changed in the year 2008 when the leader of the lineage during his visit to Vietnam saw nuns receiving combat training. It was from there he got the idea of encouraging the nuns to learn the art as a form of self-defence. He had just one simple motive – to promote gender equality and empower the young women, who mostly come from poor backgrounds in India. The nuns, aged between 8 and 35 years, reside and train at the nunnery and other residential monasteries around India, practice and use martial arts to challenge the gender roles. The self-defence is a mixture of martial arts and meditation, hence the name Kung Fu nuns.

The Kung Fu practice

Early morning practice

Early morning practice

Their everyday routine starts at 3 am with two hours of meditation, daily prayers, followed by breakfast and individual academic lessons throughout the day, ending with Kung Fu classes from 8 pm to 10 pm.

“We follow a very tight schedule when it comes to practicing Kung Fu. Every day we practice Kung Fu for two hours before going to bed. And when our teacher is present from Vietnam we take up several sessions throughout the day. These sessions are generally of two hours each. A typical day in the life of a Kung Fu nun starts at 3 am and ends at 10 pm, and includes meditation, puja, classes, and Kung Fu practice,” Jigme Migyur Palmo, another nun from Ladakh tells Media India Group.

Around 350 nuns every day, take part in three intense training sessions practicing the exercises taught by their teacher, who visits them twice a year from Vietnam. Along with gaining their expertise in Kung Fu, they also handle traditional weapons such as the small dao (sabre), big dao (halberd), tong (lance) and nunchako (chain attached to two metal bars). Most of them practicing Kung Fu, have agreed that this martial art form makes them feel safe, confident and empowered.

The Kung Fu nuns shared the Asia Society award with former chairperson and CEO of PepsiCo, Indra Nooyi (awarded in 2018), actor and activist Dev Patel (2017), iconic architect IM Pei (2016), internet entrepreneur Jack Ma (2014), Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai (2014). The Asia Society is the leading educational organisation dedicated to promoting mutual understanding and strengthening partnerships among people, leaders and institutions of Asia and the US in a global context.

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