Atop a quiet mountain in the Himalayas, a revolution is taking place.
In an incredible demonstration of energy and strength, a group of young nuns from the Drupka lineage of Himalayan Buddhism have adopted the ancient art of Kung Fu to champion gender equality and empower young women, as reports of rape rise in India.
The inherently patriarchal Buddhist system traditionally sees nuns as second class citizens, assigned to cook and clean, leaving monks to take on leadership roles. But in 2008, the revolutionary leader of the Drupka lineage, His Holiness The Gyalwang Drupka, radically changed the position of women in his order. Breaking the centuries-old ban on exercise, he encouraged them to travel the world, train vigorously, and become advocates for women’s empowerment and protection.
‘You have to be your own hero’
The Kung Fu Nuns of the Drupka Order began learning the martial art to promote self-defense in a community where women are disproportionally affected by rape, trafficking and violence. Stories of assault feature in Indian newspapers daily; but the figures do not tell the whole story, as many are afraid to report cases in fear of being shamed by their family and community.
“No one is coming to save you. You have to be your own hero,” said Jigme Wangchuk Lhamo, co-captain of the Kung Fu Nuns.
Nearly 100 women aged between 13-28 trained under the nuns this August, by following a demanding three-hour daily schedule. The course included techniques on handling attacks from behind, and discussions about how to react in potential sexual assault scenarios.
Today, the Kung Fu Nuns of the Drupka Order are adept in weaponry and hand-to-hand combat, and they have become a household name in many Himalayan regions.
Epic acts of service
Carrie Lee, president of Live to Love International, a charity that works closely with the Kung Fu Nuns to support marginalized communities, calls them “exceptional role models.” She adds, “they are fiercely compassionate and incredibly brave. Not even landslides and earthquakes could stand in their way.”
Lee isn’t wrong.
In addition to being advocates for women’s rights, these young women are also known for their epic acts of service. In 2015, they refused evacuation after the Nepal earthquake, and instead, delivered relief aid to neglected villages. It killed almost 9,000 people, leaving over 40,000 orphaned children to live perilously. The result was increased trafficking of children and women. Gangs deceived the impoverished into bonded labor, selling them as slaves in restaurants, hotels and shops, and many girls and women were sold into brothels.
Using their expert knowledge of the region’s landscape, the nuns biked, trekked and travelled for days to ensure safety to as many victims as possible, powering through treacherous terrain and hostile conditions.
Unlike other nuns, their prayers and chants are accompanied by punches and kicks. And between meditation sessions, they give lectures on gender equality. The Kung Fu Nuns of the Drupka Order are not only changing the lives of women in the region, but they are also changing the stigma attached to women. The progressive attitude of the Gyalwang Drupka has produced the next generation of strong, independent and physically-capable leaders.
“We have to go out and act on the words that we pray,” said Jigme Konchok Llhamo. “After all, actions speak louder than words.”