Life on the Edge: Kung Fu Nuns
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KUNG FU NUNS
By Steve Bradshaw, 'Life on the Edge' series editor
A majestic building rises from the plains of the dry Ladakh plain in the Indian Himalayas.
Many revolutionaries have cherished their dreams in remote mountain hideaways - but few with such peaceful intent as the nuns of Naro Photang nunnery in Shey.
50 nuns of the Buddhist Drukpa lineage are learning ancient skills forbidden to women for centuries. They've been allowed to do Kung Fu for two years now.
But what's making these otherwise serene young women slightly nervous is the fact they're also now being allowed to perform the sect's sacred dances.
At the Annual Drukpa Council this summer they'll be responsible for the venerable Dragon Dance itself.
Bearing aloft and bringing life to five unwieldy golden beasts - aided by sticks, synchronized steps and an intricate drum pattern - is much tougher than it looks.
"It will be the first Dragon Dance performed by the nuns in the world," says Kunzang, the nunnery's Geyok, or deputy discipline master.
The nuns' Vietnamese Kung Fu master Dang Dinh Hai is firm but polite - and maybe kidding a little. "You people are not doing very well. So you will have to practise more... and understand much more!"
Under Dang Dinh Hai's tutelage, the nuns are already skilled at Kung Fu, a martial art previously reserved for monks.
"Kung Fu helps us concentrate when we meditate," says 26 year old Kunzang, who left home to study here. "Secondly it helps keep us healthy and strong."
The guru of this revolution in Tibetan Buddhism is the urbane Head of the Drukpa Lineage, His Holiness Jigme Padma Wangchen.
"My karma," he says modestly, but with feeling, "is I think that I have to really look after the nuns and women."
"This is the kind of culture that the women come second," he says of Ladakh generally. "From a point of view of Buddhist teaching, it is perfectly OK to put them together - the men and women, on the same level."
Revoking the ban on Kung Fu also has a more practical motive.
"The nuns have to have a little bit of - defence: to protect themselves from attack."
However gently expressed, the 12th Gyalwang Drukpa, his Holiness' official title, knows his rebalancing of gender roles is indeed a small revolution - and one he hopes will echo far beyond the nunnery.
Interrupting his Kung Fu class, Dang Dinh Hai agrees. "The women may not be as physically strong... but if they practise a lot and put in some effort there'll be no difference between men and women."
His Holiness has another revolutionary way of emboldening the nuns, which is to teach them in groups personally. That means that monks have to turn to the nuns, "to learn something that they have learnt from me".
"So, if I may say, it's kind of a trick that I am playing," he says with a smile, "so that the nuns automatically will have a little bit of better status."
As for the Dragon Dance itself, the 10 nuns who form each of the serpent-like beasts don't need extra strength - just the confidence that's sometimes elusive after centuries of exclusion.
"It becomes very difficult," says Kunzang, "because all the 10 people have to move together at the same time." And the dragon shouldn't touch the ground.
Kunzang herself ran away from home, 50 kilometres away in Chemdey village, to join the nunnery.
"When I was a child I always wanted to become a nun. I didn't ask my parents about it. After nine years of school I ran away..."
"She never asked us," says her dad Kunzang Dorje as they sip tea together on one of her rare visits to the modest but comfortable family home. "In the beginning I was very upset."
But like Kunzang's mum Tashi Youron and two sisters, he's now used to the idea.
The Himalayan society Kunzang left behind is changing itself. Back home her old school-friends are becoming graduates, doctors, policewomen. But His Holiness the Gyalwang Drukpa believes many other women still face tough lives.
"Girls often come to me to be accepted as nuns, actually with a great deal of sufferings. They have sufferings within their own family... especially in our culture or in the Himalayan region."
He pauses for the merest instant of reflection, "or maybe not only in the Himalaya region. I think everywhere in the world [women] are a little bit looked down on, you know."
After listening to His Holiness a while, you do begin to wonder what your own karma is.
Kunzang and the Drukpa nuns themselves have now performed the Dragon Dance at the Annual Drukpa Council in Ladkah.
We can report Dag Dinh Hai was proud of his pupils' performance - that the dragon never touched the ground, and that next year the nuns plan to perform other activities - for centuries reserved exclusively for the monks.
Life on the Edge is produced by tve for BBC World News.