Kung fu nuns on a cyclethon

Chitra Narayanan | Updated on January 19, 2018 Published on January 01, 2016

Breathing fire: Famous as the 'kung fu nuns' of the Drukpa (Dragon) lineage, 250 of them are on a cyclethon across north India to raise awareness on environment protection and women's empowerment   -  Vijay Kutty

The idea is to show by example that if 250 women can cycle thousands of kilometres, all the way from Kathmandu, through tough terrains, then people living in the cities here can walk a bit more and cycle a bit more   -  Vijay Kutty

Buddhist women with flying kicks are pedalling 2,000 km across India with a clear message

Are they on the trail of the Buddhist monks Fa-Hien and Hiuen Tsang? On the outskirts of Kannauj, the once imperial city where the scholarly travellers halted and hobnobbed with Chandragupta II and Emperor Harsha, the locals gawk at the sight of 250 Buddhist nuns pedalling past in dashing red-and-black cycling gear. Not just any nuns, they’re the famous ‘kung fu nuns’ of the Drukpa (Dragon) lineage, well versed in martial arts. They are on an epic cyclethon across north India to spread the dual message of environment consciousness and women’s empowerment on behalf of the Live to Love Foundation, the international non-profit founded by the head of their order, Gyalwang Drukpa.

“The idea is to show by example that if 250 women can cycle thousands of kilometres, all the way from Kathmandu, through tough terrains, then people living in the cities here can walk a bit more and cycle a bit more,” says Gyalwa Dokhampa, second in command in the order, who is cycling alongside the nuns.

Jigme Konchok Lhamo, a 22-year-old nun, chips in saying, “We also hold meetings in village schools and towns, telling people how to reduce pollution.” Their expedition certainly could not get timelier. When they arrive in Delhi on January 9, the Capital will be bang in the middle of a radical experiment to reduce the number of vehicles on its roads through an odd-even number-plate policy.

In Delhi, the nuns will also ring in the Ladakhi year and sound the bugle for the Naropa Festival — known as the Kumbh of the Himalayas as it is observed once every 12 years — to be held in July 2016 in Ladakh.

They will then cycle onwards to Lumbini, in Nepal, before dispersing to their respective convents in Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh, Darjeeling and Kathmandu. What binds this motley crew of nuns, some of whom speak Hindi and others Ladakhi, is the Tibetan language, which all of them have learnt in order to read Buddhist scriptures.

By the end of their yatra, which began in Nepal, they would have traversed over 2,200 km, taking in the sights — especially Buddhist spots — at places like Gaya, Varanasi, Allahabad and Kanpur. No strangers to long expeditions, most of them have been on long padayatras across the Himalayas. Cycling trips, however, are a relatively recent activity for them.

Arriving in Kannauj at sunset, the colourful contingent led by Gyalwang Drukpa decides to pitch camp for the night under a large peepul tree adjacent to a potato field, as there is a handy water pump nearby. Within minutes, with the discipline of an army, everything is unloaded from the jeeps and vans, tents are pitched and gas burners lit. Tea gets brewed.

The Kannauj of today is a nondescript dusty UP town, though it is famous as the perfume capital of India. Potato farmer Indrajeet Singh, on whose fields the group has pitched camp, gapes at them and then furiously dials a few friends to come over and watch the goings-on. Not only do the monks in maroon garbs and nuns with shaved heads and jaunty steps attract attention, but they are also accompanied by an interesting menagerie. Out springs the Holiness’s little dog Ting. Two nuns can be seen feeding a pair of fluffy yellow chicks.

“Whenever we see an animal being tortured or in trouble we take it along with us,” says Jigme Yudron Lhamo. “During a walking trip through Ladakh, a horse, four goats and a sheep had tagged along,” she says with an impish grin. A dog that followed them from Nalanda, all the way back to Kathmandu, was named, what else, but Nalanda!

The nuns are divided into 10 teams. Each group sticks together, cooking and cycling.

Have people been receptive to their messages? “We are showing them by example,” says Dokhampa. “When we set up camp, we not only do not litter, but we also clean up other people’s rubbish and leave the place better than before,” says Jigme Wangchuk Lhamo.

At most places, people ask them if they are from China. “We point to the Indian flags on our cycles and say we are very much from this country,” says Jigme Migyun Palmo. At other places, they just ask the villagers if they have watched the movie 3 Idiots and explain that they are from the same order that runs Rancho’s school in the movie. The solar energy-powered Druk White School is totally environment-friendly. Actor Aamir Khan, who played Rancho, is today a patron of the Live to Love foundation as are Hollywood stars Susan Sarandon and Michelle Yeoh.

A few years ago, the foundation earned a Guinness record for planting 99,103 trees in 53 minutes flat in Ladakh.

Started in 1161, the Drukpa order is involved in running schools, clinics and so on, like any spiritual sect. Where it broke the mould, however, and drew world attention was through its kung fu nuns. “We wanted to introduce gender equality in our order, so threw open our doors to women in 1992,” says Dokhampa. From 21 nuns in 1992, today there are well over 500. It was the Gyalwang’s idea to teach them kung fu, both for self-preservation and to instil confidence and focus. “Kung fu is close to meditation,” says Dokhampa.

It’s an ascetic life, but the nuns — whose ages range from 12 to 50 — are far from being grave women. They crack jokes, horse around and rib each other.

By 8 the following morning, everything at the camp is neatly loaded back, and the nuns are on their cycles, ready to hit the road again. The potato farmer offers them (and us) a sack of potatoes. “Everywhere in India, the villagers are so hospitable — if we were to do this in the US, we would be shooed away for trespassing, here we are gifted vegetables too,” grins Dokhampa.

As they depart, Singh looks around his field, blinks and says there’s no sign that the monks and nuns were here. Not like the mundan ceremony held a few days back on the same spot, after which paper plates had littered his field.

Published on January 01, 2016
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