On January 8, an unusual group of mountain bikers reached New Delhi, after a gruelling 2500 km journey from Kathmandu. Wearing black suits and red windcheaters, armoured with helmets, riding gloves and knee caps, they looked like any other cycling tour. Except that the entire contingent was made up of Nepal’s famous ‘kung fu nuns’.
These Buddhist nuns first came into spotlight during the Nepal earthquake in April 2015, when they refused to be evacuated, instead choosing to stay back and help. The nuns volunteered for everything - from physically clearing heavy pieces of rubble to providing shelter to the homeless.
The Kung Fu nuns belong to the 800-year-old Drukpa order, which rebelled against the monastic Buddhist framework and founded the liberal Druk Amitabha Mountain Nunnery in Kathmandu. The present Drukpa leader Gyalwang Drukpa also decided to lift the ban that prevented women from practising the ancient Chinese martial art of kung fu, giving them equal status as Drukpa monks.
In most Buddhist orders, monks can lead prayers and occupy powerful positions, while nuns are assigned the menial jobs of cooking and cleaning. But at the Druk Amitabha nunnery in Kathmandu’s Ramkot village, the nuns learn the same skills as the monks, in defiance of traditional monastic mores.
The nuns’ daily routine is packed with action and activity. Their day begins at 3 am in the morning before the Himalayan sun is out. After the prayers and meditation, the nunnery buzzes with activity, from kung fu routines to English classes, as well as classes in managerial skills and leading prayers. The chores are distributed equally and by 10pm, they usually retire to their beds.
The nuns also actively engage in community work, leading from the front. The cycling tour from Kathmandu to New Delhi is one of their initiatives to promote environmental awareness and women empowerment.
“We just wanted to show people that we are capable of doing more than just sitting in the monasteries and meditating,” says Jigme Yudron, who is part of the tour. Led by their head Gyalwang Drukpa, a team of 250 nuns from Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh, Darjeeling, and Nepal have come together to cycle.
Their journey in India has already taken them through the cities of Gorakhpur, Gaya, Patna, Rajgir, Varanasi, Allahbad, Kanpur and Agra before they hit the brakes at Delhi. Locals have been generously offering shelter and food to the nuns as they spread their message of gender equality.
Of course, the kung fu nuns themselves are the best advertisement for their campaign. As they ride single-file one after the other, it is hard not to admire their discipline and precision. The stamina and strength needed to cycle for long distances is possible only because of their extensive training in martial arts.
“Kung fu gives us both physical and mental strength. The exercises we practice daily have come handy in helping us cycle this far. In many ways, the strain that kung fu puts on our muscles is quite similar to that of cycling for long periods of time,” explains Jigme Kunchug Lhamo, who is from Himachal Pradesh.
Watch | Meet the Kung Fu Nuns cycling for a cause
Kunchung joined the nunnery in 2006. She says that there are plans to expand the cycling tour further. “Next year, His Holiness is planning to rope in more girls and nuns into the tour. There were only 250 nuns this year, I think he wants to nearly double the amount. Maybe 500 or 600 nuns can take part in the cycle yatra. That way we can carry a stronger message to the people,” she says.
While the gutsy nuns are not daunted by anything, the state of traffic on the Indian roads has been a minor hurdle.
“One night on the highway, we had a mishap. One of our colleagues met with an accident with a truck. Her cycle was completely smashed but by God’s grace, she escaped any sort of injury,” says Jigme Tenzin Zhamo from Ladakh.
While they have managed to cover the Kathmandu to New Delhi stretch in 52 days, according to Gyalwang Drukpa, that is only half their journey. The cycle tour still has to cover another 1600 km stretch on their bikes to Shravasti and Lumbini before it reaches Kathmandu.
“It started off as a symbol for environmental preservation, which the cycle symbolises. But our aim was to speak to people in the villages of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar about women’s rights, to make them aware of the opportunities that can be given to women,” says spiritual leader Gyalwang Drukpa .