Voyage of the Kung-Fu Nuns

Voyage of the Kung-Fu Nuns

By KARAN CHOUDHARY | | 16 January, 2016
photo: IANS
A group of 250 nuns and kung-fu adepts from Buddhist monasteries across Nepal, Ladakh and Himachal Pradesh recently set out on a unique cycling expedition, traversing the breadth of north India, and targeting to clock some 4,200 kilometres on their bicycles. Karan Choudhary met them at their stopover in Delhi.

Travellers on the streets of a thriving metropolis like Delhi are inured to unusual sights, but even the most stolid of its citizens would have had to do a double take at the sight of a group of nuns, in cycling gear, making their way through traffic.
The nuns were marking the end of their 52-day, 2,500-kilometre cycling expedition from Kathmandu. A part of the monastic order following the Drupka lineage, the group, comprising mostly women, was led by the Gyalwang Drupka.
Having traversed a major portion of the Gangetic plains, from Rajgir in Bihar through Uttar Pradesh to Delhi, the girls accomplished something that few, if any, have managed before, and had an experience that few would be able to boast.
The diversity of landscapes which they encountered through the route — with the foreboding mountainous terrain of the Himalayas, the green hills of rural north Bihar, the farmlands along the plains, the densely populated industrial towns of Uttar Pradesh, and at last, the urban cityscape of Delhi — in itself bears testimony to the immense distance that they have covered.
The journey took them through cities and towns where India was forged: the cradles of the ancient empires and sites of early history which form an important part of the Indian identity. The nuns entered India at Sunauli, the border town between India and Nepal, and went through Gorakhpur, where the bhakti poet Kabir is said to have composed his hymns. After this, they went through Patna, the nerve centre of cultural and political activity of the entire subcontinent during the Ashokan era. Then through the ancient university town of Nalanda; to Bodh Gaya, where the Buddha achieved enlightenment; Varanasi, fabled to be the oldest city of the world; Allahabad, home to Sangam — meeting point of the two most important rivers in the region; and, finally, to the national capital.
They cycled through the countryside, stopping at villages along the route, taking advantage of the hospitality of the locals, observing the subtle shifts in culture as they moved across the region. Exploring the rural idyll of the Hindi heartland, the nuns witnessed a way of life which is rapidly changing, with urbanisation and technological innovation eroding traditions and mores, which have existed for centuries.

The members of the expedition, all of whom are residents of different monasteries of the Gyalwang order, maintain an austere lifestyle, not given to the indulgences which are prevelant among modern urban youth. They are trained in both religious texts as well as provided a secular education. Jigme Konchak, one of the nuns who are pursuing a detailed study of English, related how she needs to maintain an equal level of dedication to both her English studies and the study of the religious texts. They also follow a thorough regimen of meditation and prayers, and are adepts at the martial art of kung fu. The untarnished natural surroundings where these monasteries are located, along with their rigorous meditation schedule provide these women with lives which are very close to nature.
The nuns, none of whom had previously done any significant travel on bicycle, needed to employ all their resolve to get accustomed to the arduous physical work, which such an expedition demanded. According to the Jigme Migyur, one of the participants, it was the years of meditation and their active lifestyle which allowed them to acclimatise to the rigours rapidly, further stating that within a few days the daily cycling stopped tiring her. The average day involved 50 kilometres of cycling, but the task was more exacting than what that number may suggest, as a large part of it was over difficult topography and rural roads of varied levels of upkeep.
Despite this, the nuns did not allow this expedition to impede their meditation practice and prayers. Talking of how an average day was spent during the trip, Jigme Konchak recounted that the cyclists would start out at 7 a.m. with prayers, followed by breakfast. After this, they would ride till lunchtime, and after eating, would further ride on until sundown. They would then pitch their tents and conduct evening prayers before dinner.
Through this journey, the nuns got to know the changing topography of the region, and were able to understand India in a far more intimate manner than most have. Their tents were pitched in valleys, by the side of rural roads, along villages of the hinterland and sometimes even in the wilderness. Jigme Konchak describes one such site, in the Himalayas, where the nuns could hear wolves baying in the thickets along the hillsides.
The idea of undertaking this journey was exciting for the participants, but also a bit daunting. Jigme Yudron, another nun, described her initial feelings upon learning that they would undertake this trip as follows: “It was very exciting, but at the same time, we were a little concerned about how we will manage to cover the entire journey, and whether we would be able to cycle so much every day.” But these concerns were unfounded, as the nuns unanimously attested to how exhilarating their journey has been thus far.

The group’s stay in Delhi would be only a short one, as the journey from Kathmandu to the Indian capital was only the first leg of their travels. Covering another 1,600 kilometres, the nuns will now head to Lumbini, the Buddha’s final resting place. Considering the ease with which they managed the first leg, there is little chance that the second-half would pose too many difficulties to this very resilient group.

There were also a spate of challenges that confronted the nuns, with a constant source of stress being the traffic they encountered in cities and towns they travelled through. The smaller Indian towns, the nuns say, had even rowdier traffic than the metros, and the cyclists needed to be extra vigilant to navigate in these parts. The polluted air of Western UP and Delhi was also a major concern for these women, more accustomed to the cleaner air of the Himalayas.
Talking about the less enjoyable aspects of the expedition, Jigme Konchak said, “The traffic was really bad at times, especially in some of the smaller cities. Other commuters would quickly pass us by, like those on motorcycles, who often overtook us from quite close.” Aside from this, the nuns, who mostly stay confined to their respective monasteries, relished this opportunity to visit India. “We got an opportunity which not many people get, and we feel lucky that we had the chance to undertake this unique trip,” Konchak further added.
The trip was meant to spread a message of gender equality, and the Gyalwang Drupka — the head of the Drupka order, who lead this expedition — said having only women participants in this journey was a conscious decision on his part, and was meant to underline the social message behind it.
“Women’s equality and security is an essential issue which needs to be addressed to ensure a fairer and more humane world,” he said.
The significance of this expedition was not lost on the nuns either, with Jigme Konchak saying, “This trip allowed us to spread a message, to help the sentient being in a more direct fashion than what we do by our meditation and prayer. We can create an impact which could lead to change.”
The nuns who comprise this group are also exponents of kung fu, and are therefore proficient in techniques of self-defence. So the voyage of these nuns across states still rife with incidents of gender inequality and crime against women, held more than mere symbolic significance.

The nuns have already covered a distance of over 2,500 kilometres on their bicycles. The use of bicycles was also designed to spread the message of cleaner, more eco-friendly living. The Gyalwang Drupka discussed the need for more concentrated efforts to preserve the environment. “We have a duty to leave this world in the same state in which we received it.”
The group’s stay in Delhi would be only a short one, as the journey from Kathmandu to the Indian capital was only the first leg of their travels. Covering another 1,600 kilometres, the nuns will now head to Lumbini, the Buddha’s final resting place. Considering the ease with which they managed the first leg, there is little chance that the second-half would pose too many difficulties to this very resilient group.
The cycling expedition was a part of the continuing work on environmental issues that the Gyalwang Drupka has undertaken. He has formed the Live to Love humanitarian movement to apply Buddhist techniques to solve modern-day problems. The movement which began in 2007 has undertaken other such drives, form the Bihar Padyatra in 2014 to promote cleanliness, the drive to plant 1,00,000 trees in Ladakh, to bringing attention to the growing loss of trees in the region.
The uniqueness of the journey, along with the commitment displayed by the nuns to the cause which they seek to promote has ensured that their “cycle yatra” manages to garner the level of attention they desire. The need to take more proactive steps to achieve gender equality has been an issue which has been thoroughly discussed in recent years, and the statement made by the nuns has demonstrated that this is one goal which can be achieved easily enough, if only the society desires so.

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