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The Kung Fu Nuns of Nepal

The Druk Gawa Khilwa (DGK) nunnery in Katmandu teaches its nuns a mixture of martial arts and meditation.

By Ahmer Khan for
The Kung Fu Nuns of Nepal

Himalayan Buddhist nuns practice kung fu at the Druk Gawa Khilwa nunnery on the outskirts of Kathmandu on September 18, 2017.

Credit: Ahmer Khan
The Kung Fu Nuns of Nepal

Young nuns watch senior nuns practicing kung fu at the nunnery.

Credit: Ahmer Khan
The Kung Fu Nuns of Nepal

After a visit to Vietnam by His Holiness, where he saw nuns receiving combat training, the 12th Gyalwang Drukpa decided to bring the idea back to Nepal and began encouraging his nuns to learn self-defense. He also brought in four experienced Vietnamese Drukpa nuns to serve as teachers.

Credit: Ahmer Khan
The Kung Fu Nuns of Nepal

Every day at 4 aam, nuns assemble outside to practice kung fu.

Credit: Ahmer Khan
The Kung Fu Nuns of Nepal

The youngest nun in the nunnery is 9 years old, while the oldest is 42.

Credit: Ahmer Khan
The Kung Fu Nuns of Nepal

The nuns train with swords, sticks, machetes, nunchucks, and more.

Credit: Ahmer Khan
The Kung Fu Nuns of Nepal

Nuns engage in an intense two-hour training session complete with hand chops, punches, and high kicks.

Credit: Ahmer Khan
The Kung Fu Nuns of Nepal

These nuns used their skills and energy in providing relief to victims of the earthquake that hit Nepal in 2015.

Credit: Ahmer Khan
The Kung Fu Nuns of Nepal

The 12th Gyalwang Drukpa, Jigme Pema Wangchen, is an active environmentalist, educator, and the spiritual head of the Drukpa Lineage, one of the main Buddhist schools of the Himalayas founded by a saint Naropa (1016–1100CE) with a thousand-year legacy in India.

Credit: Ahmer Khan
The Kung Fu Nuns of Nepal

16-year-old Jigme Yangchan from Nepal poses for a picture inside a coffee shop in the Druk Gawa Khilwa nunnery. She has been training for the past six years.

Credit: Ahmer Khan
The Kung Fu Nuns of Nepal

A nun gets ready for the morning prayers after a two hour training session.

Credit: Ahmer Khan
The Kung Fu Nuns of Nepal

The nuns of the Drupka Order also learn the same skills as the monks — like plumbing, electrical fitting, using computers, riding bicycles, the English language and, of course, praying — in defiance of traditional monastic mores.

Credit: Ahmer Khan
The Kung Fu Nuns of Nepal

The nunnery has its own libraries where nuns learn English, religion, and read other books. Twice a week they travel around in Nepal to educate people about cleaning and women’s empowerment.

Credit: Ahmer Khan
The Kung Fu Nuns of Nepal

The nuns operate libraries, a food store, and goods shop at the nunnery.

Credit: Ahmer Khan
The Kung Fu Nuns of Nepal

Every day, the nuns put on the same style clothing as their predecessors, perhaps known best in the West via classic 1970s and ’80s martial arts movies.

Credit: Ahmer Khan

In most Buddhist orders, monks lead prayers and occupy powerful positions, while nuns are assigned the menial jobs of cooking and cleaning for the monks. But in 2008, the leader of the 1,000-year-old Drukpa lineage, His Holiness The Gyalwang Drukpa, the 12th Gyalwang Drukpa, changed all that.

The Druk Gawa Khilwa (DGK) nunnery in Katmandu teaches its nuns a mixture of martial arts and meditation as a means of empowering the young women.

The nunnery is now home to about 400 nuns aged 9-42, from Nepal, India, Tibet, and Bhutan.

Last year, five hundred nuns – led by His Holiness himself – completed a 4,000-km (2,485 mile) bicycle trek from Nepal’s Kathmandu to Leh in India with message of women empowerment. The expedition also sought to raise awareness about environmental protection and human trafficking in the remote region.

The nuns are active in the communities where they live, mainly in Nepal and Ladakh, treating sick animals and organizing eye care camps for villagers.

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Most importantly, they are now using their martial arts expertise to challenge gender roles in this conservative culture and teach women self-defense, as reports of rapes and sexual assaults rise in India and elsewhere.

Ahmer Khan is a freelance documentary photographer based in Kashmir. He tweets @ahmermkhan