Jessica Mack, Joan Moonen, Sonam Angmo (translater), Aniek Jaartsveld
The purpose of our trip
The purpose of our trip was to visit 6 nunneries in the remote Zanskar region to show them the Tibetan version of the Our Bodies Our Selves book, an American health book for women. An other purpose was to present a gift of 5000 rupees from DFLN to each nunnery. The gift was meant 'to plant a seed for the future' so that the nuns would realize that there would be further contact with LNA and activities in the future. That our visits did not last longer than a few hours it gave us only a very general impression of the current situation of the nuns and the nunneries; in most cases many of the nuns were out working or studying elsewhere.
'Healthy Body, Healthy Mind' was translated to Tibetan by traditional Tibetan doctors, Amchi’s, and western medical doctors in order to give Tibetan nuns and lay women a source for health and body knowledge in their own language.
Zanskar is situated south west of Ladakh and is a very dry and isolated area. Winters are severe and can last for 7 or 8 month. The growing season is only 3 month.
Our trip just from Kargil to Padum (230 km.) took about 16 hours over unpaved road.
It is important to mention the troubles when we arrived,we were confronted with between Muslims and Buddhists in Padum. That our Muslim driver from Kargil was not allowed to drive us to the Buddhist nunneries. And ultimately we had to obtain a Buddhist driver. Special permits were also needed to visited the nunneries.
In order to introduce us and the purpose of our visit Ven. Dr. Tsering Palmo wrote a card to each nunnery. In each nunnery we were most welcome. We could not announce our visit because there are no telephones.
At most of the nunneries we were given tea and cookies, and often they generously served us tsampa and curd. Tey als presented us with gifts of cheese and butter for Dr. Palmo.
Many pictures were taken, and at the end of each visit we visited the temple and other important rooms of the nunneries.
Of course we could not leave without receiving Katags.
Changchub Choling Zangla nunnery
On the morning of June 21 st we visited Changchub Choling Zangla nunnery
We were able to reach this nunnery rather easily by jeep. It is situated just above Zangla village. The nunnery is well kept and clean. About 20 nuns live in Zangla and there is one abbess. The oldest nun is 85 years old. There is a small school, and for the young children who come from far away (20-30) they would like to build rooms for them to sleep and study.
Jessica explains the purpose of the health book and asks if they think the book might be helpful to them, and they respond positively. They would like to meet with other nuns in Zanskar and some of them would like to participate in a training or workshop hopefully to be held next year. Some would like to read the book by themselves. Some nuns look a bit shy looking at the pregnancy and birth part of the book. They agree that if they become informed on health matters they can help local people.
In Zangla village there is one nurse to help them in case of illness, but there is no Amchi or doctor and the nuns have to go to Padum in case they need one.
When talking about meeting other Zanskar nuns they mention a lot of practical problems such as the distance and transportation.
Talking about a possible future ZNA (Zanskar Nuns Association) the nuns are supportive and interested but again they come up with a lot of practical problems.
Namgyal Choling Nunnery
In the afternoon we visited Namgyal Choling Nunnery in Pishu.
We had to leave the jeep near the bridge and we walked for 45 minutes to the nunnery. The area is a real dessert with some bushes growing here and there. Compared to Zangla the nunnery has visibly fewer resourses. While we met mostly elderly nuns when we were there. There are two young nuns aged 13 and 15 years. Except for Sonam Angmo we try to avoid the butter tea.
When looking through the book the nuns try Joan’s glasses because the older nuns are not able to read the book. Unfortunately it doesn’t help.
The nuns talk about their need for money to build and repair rooms. In the village there is no village-head so there are no decisions made. There is no teacher, and the Amchi has died. There’s no access to medical treatment unless they go to Padum by bus, but that is expensive (80 rupees). They go to Padum for groceries once in a while, and in winter the nuns go by chaddar (walk across the frozen Indus river).
The nuns think the book is useful as they do not have much knowledge about general health.
They would like to meet other nuns but there are problems with transportation. For the older nuns physical problems with their heads and knees are most important, the younger nuns mention that they would like more information on food and nutricion. The older nuns wish that a young nun will become Amchi in future
They like they idea of having a ZNA.
On the morning of the 22nd we visited PhagmoLing nunnery in Skyagam.
It is apparent that the nunnery has few resources, the buildings are in need of repair.. On our way to the room where we will meet with the nuns we even find it loking like a cave.
There are 16 nuns living at the Skyagam nunnery. Not one of the nuns present is able to read the card from Dr.Palmo. So instead Sonam Angmo explains to them about the purpose of our visit. The head nun is very shy about siging the receipt for the donation from DFLN, it seems literacy is a major problem. There is a new student who wants to become a nun and she can read the book a little bit.. There are only 2 nuns present in the room. There is a lady visiting, but she is too shy to come in. The 3 youngest nuns are 15 years old. There is no teacher for the nuns in Skyagam and they would especially like to have a teacher for the younger nuns. In the village there is a Buddhist teacher to teach the children.
The difficulty in obtaining a teacher is providing food and accomodations for the teacher. We try to make clear that some problems they can solve themselves and they decide that maybe they are able to provide food for him or her.
They would like to meet with the other Zanskar nuns.
In Syagam village there is an amchi who is able to assist with health problems. The nuns think the most important parts of the book for them are about food, hygiene and the body.
They hope that some of them can begin training to become Amchi in the future.
After visiting Skyagam we drove to Phuntsogling nunnery in Tungri. They were building and workers going in and out. At first one of the nuns showed us a beautiful old temple.
There are 12 nuns living in Tungri. The youngest nuns are 16-17 years old and the oldest is 85. She has an eye problem. Not one of the nuns present is able to read the card and other nuns are out.. One of the younger nuns present will write the receipt for the donation but she is very shy about it and it is difficult for her to write.
They remember Dr. Palmo’s visit last year. Sometimes they visit other nunneries in Zanskar and they would like to meet with other Zanskar nuns.
Some of the older nuns are looking through the book with a lot of interest although it is difficult for them to read due to either problems with their vision or illiteracy. The book will be very useful to the nuns they think.
They plan to use the DFLN donation for food and prayers.
Kachot Grubling nunnery
The last nunnery we visited that day was Kachot Grubling nunnery in Karsha.
Karsha nunnery was looking well taken care of and so did the nuns. There are 30 nuns living in Karsha and most of them come from the Karcha area. To reach the nunnery we had to climbup a steep hill.
The nuns are able to read the card from Dr. Palmo. The head nun receives the donation and signs the receipt written by Sonam Angmo. There was a teacher at Karsha nunnery but he left because of lack of funding so the nuns plan to use the 5000 rupees for a new teacher. There is one very young nun, 11 years old and there are about 20 elderly nuns.
The Karsha nuns are in contact with LNA and two nuns from LNA came visit Karsha last year. Sometimes the Karsha nuns visit other Zankari nuns.
Some of the nuns present are reading the book with a lot of interest and they think many of the topics are very useful. The nuns think the part about pregnancy and childbirth can help to inform the local women. They think that for the nuns the most important part of the book is about the body. Some of them have had a little health-training previously.
In Karcha there is an Amchi and a western medical doctor.
The last nunnery we visited is on June 23 rd, it was Dordjezong where 10 nuns are living. It is a 45 minute drive from Padum and on our way up we meet one of the nuns and we give her a ride to the village.
The room where we meet the nuns is very spare. A cute little puppy is walking around. A 75 year old nun tells us about her hearing problems and the pain she is suffering from old age. Her eyes are also giving her trouble to see a doctor or Amchi she would have to go to Padum. The oldest nun came to live in this nunnery since she became a nun along time ago. Nobody can tell how old the nunnery is. Most of the nuns living in Dordjezong are young. One of the young nuns can read the card a little bit.
The nuns are busy preparing tea and tsampa for us and at first they hardly look at the book. Later on they tell us about the problems they are having repairing the buildings of the nunnery. The statue room needs new windows because the wind blows out the butter lamps. They Think they may use the 5000 rupees for this.
Later on they have a look at the book and tell us that when they have medical problems they talk about it. The nuns all think the book is interesting.
Sometimes they meet with the Karsha nuns, They would like to meet with the other nuns in Zanskar but they think it is too far away.
They do not have a teacher and we ask if it is possible for a teacher from Karsha to come? It is not possible because they do not have money to pay him. We ask the nuns if repairing the window in the statue room is more important then having a teacher? And after some discussion they decide that a teacher is most important, but that the two hour walk to and from Karsha in winter is very hard.
A final question we ask what would the nuns do if they were to become millionaires ? They would hire a teacher to teach them how to read and write.
We ask a young nun if she ’s too shy to go to the Karsha monastery and ask if a monk can teach them? No, she ’ll go !