By Sameer Yasir
Photographs and Video by Saumya Khandelwal
For this article, Sameer Yasir spent two days in a nunnery in Nagarjun, Nepal, on the outskirts of Kathmandu.
- Feb. 26, 2023
As the first rays of sun pierced through the clouds covering snowcapped Himalayan peaks, Jigme Rabsal Lhamo, a Buddhist nun, drew a sword from behind her back and thrust it toward her opponent, toppling her to the ground.
“Eyes on the target! Concentrate!” Ms. Lhamo yelled at the knocked-down nun, looking straight into her eyes outside a whitewashed temple in the Druk Amitabha nunnery on a hill overlooking Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal.
Ms. Lhamo and the other members of her religious order are known as the Kung Fu nuns, part of an 800-year-old Buddhist sect called Drukpa, the Tibetan word for dragon. Across the Himalayan region, and the wider world, its followers now mix meditation with martial arts.
Every day, the nuns swap their maroon robes for an umber brown uniform to practice Kung Fu, the ancient Chinese martial art. It’s part of their spiritual mission to achieve gender equality and physical fitness; their Buddhist beliefs also call on them to lead an environmentally friendly life.
Mornings inside the nunnery are filled with the thuds of heavy footsteps and the clanking of swords as the nuns train under Ms. Lhamo’s tutelage. Amid a soft rustle of their loose uniforms, they cartwheel, punch and kick one another.
“Kung Fu helps us to break gender barriers and develop inner confidence,” said Ms. Lhamo, 34, who arrived at the nunnery a dozen years ago from Ladakh, in northern India. “It also helps to take care of others during crises.”
This nunnery has an empowering claim to fame—it’s the only one in Nepal where the nuns practice martial arts. The nuns of the Buddhist Drukpa Order train three hours a day, and they break bricks with their bare hands. Heroes in the Himalayas, these strong women delivered supplies to hard-to-reach villages after an earthquake struck Kathmandu in 2015. The kung fu nuns have also taught self-defense classes for women and biked 14,000 miles to protest the human trafficking of women and girls.