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Hidden from plain sight

Kongkona Sarma discovers a nunnery tucked away in a fir forest that houses the elusive nuns of Bhutan

travel Updated: Dec 07, 2009 18:26 IST

It was the last night of my stay in Bhutan. We -- my sister and I -- had done it all from trying the national dish of cheese and chili with red rice and watching a traditional archery contest to getting blessed by a wooden phallus and climbing for several hours up a hill to reach a monastery. We'd browsed through antique masks and ancient manuscripts written in Dzongkha in the weekend market. We'd played a few tentative notes on flutes made of thigh bones and we'd been suitably awestruck by the Dzongs (fortress/ monasteries) that dotted the landscape.

Peering out of a book
I was browsing over a few coffee table books on Bhutanese life in our hotel lobby. Almost all the books had a picture of a monk or a Dzong on the cover. Understandably so, since they were all written by the 'White Man' for whom the mystique of Tantric Buddhism is still a big draw to this Himalayan kingdom.
Then, one book caught my eye. Looking closely, I realised that the silhouettes on the cover I mistook for monks were actually nuns. Marie Venø Thesbjerg's Women of Buddha offered a sneak peek into the closely guarded world of the nuns in Bhutan. A few calls later I managed to convince our trusted driver Kindsay Lodhay to accompany my sister and me one last time to Kila Goemba, a Buddhist nunnery about an hour's drive from Paro.

The trespassing tourist

Unlike the Dzongs, this nunnery definitely did not wish to be on the tourist circuit. The nunnery itself is tucked away in the forest. The signboard to the nunnery and the hiking trail are inconspicuous. Clearly, pesky onlookers like us are not encouraged.
Ten minutes into our climb, we spotted a group of five nuns walking in a straight line ahead of us. We tried to catch up with them but the nuns didn't seem too enthusiastic about our company. The watch dogs accompanying them began barking ferociously at us. Luckily Lodhay managed to convey to the nuns that we meant no harm. If by setting the dogs on us, the nuns were testing our perseverance, we had clearly passed.
In an hour we reached the gates of Kila Goemba. Unlike the impressive Dzongs, the nunnery was in shambles. Nestled in a craggy patch of a mountain and surrounded by tall firs, the rooms of the nunnery seemed precariously perched along the rock face. In these rooms the nuns, called Anims, live a life of contemplation and seclusion.

The abode of Anims
The nunnery seemed almost deserted. The Anims we'd met earlier were nowhere to be seen. Walking around, we reached a small stone flagged courtyard surrounded by rooms. A couple of young nuns, in maroon habits and red sweatshirts stepped out gingerly. Loday introduced us in Dzongkha, as the nuns were not conversant in English. He must have done a good job of fielding their concerns because they soon warmed up and the young Anims, Tenzing Choden and Tshering Wango led us to their small cramped room with a tin bukhara in the middle. The warmth inside the room was a pleasant change from the cold mountain winds outside. We made ourselves comfortable on the floor as Choden made tea for us in a hot plate.
This felt like a typical hostel room! It had hot plates, packets of biscuits and noodles, a radio, books stacked up on a table and posters all over the room. The posters were those of the King and Queen of Bhutan but the radio was tuned in to Bhutanese rap.
Over tea and biscuits we got talking -- broken English, a bit of sign language and lots of translation by Loday.
Kila Goemba, built in the early 9th century is one of the oldest of the seven nunneries in Bhutan. A fire destroyed most of the original structure. It was rebuilt and officially established as an Anim Dratshang (religious community of Buddhist nuns) in 1986. Currently there are around 40 Anims in this nunnery, ranging in age from 13 to 80.

A life of hardship
"Where are the rest?" we asked. One of the nuns had fallen sick and many had gone with her to the nearest hospital in Paro. The group we'd met earlier was returning from the hospital.
Life is definitely not easy for the nuns. Getting up as early as 4 am, the first half of the day is set aside for Dzonghka, English, basic Math, scriptures and musical instruments which are played in religious functions. They spend the rest of the day in meditation. Many of the younger Anims pursue Buddhist studies and perform religious ceremonies.
Many nunneries are seriously dilapidated. They have to manage with the 1,700 BTN they get from the government per month. The closest shop is in Paro which involves walking downhill and waiting for a car to give them a lift.

Personal stories
Tenzing herself joined the nunnery at 9 and Tsehring at 4. My obvious question was 'Why?' They smiled and said, "Because we wanted to". Is it as simple as that, I wondered, musing about how a 4-year-old could take such a drastic decision. While some are inspired to become nuns, for a few, joining a nunnery is but a refuge from extreme poverty and loneliness. Many nuns go meet their families every few months, or have them come down to meet them. The girls get more cordial now and show us their belongings -- books, posters and even a scrap book with the first page bearing the lyrics of Kaho Na Pyaar Hain. Who says nuns should not appreciate God's finer creations like Hrithik Roshan.
When we ask them about the other nuns they take us to meet Anim Dukhon, who, at 88, is the oldest in the nunnery and is fondly referred to as Ange (grandmother).
Ange's hut is further away on the cliff and she has an entire house to herself, which she shares with four cats. Ange, who had been staying alone in a small village near Paro, joined the nunnery at 40. "Now I feel very peaceful and happy being here. I want to die here," Ange said.
Her tiny hut had a small altar lined with butter lamps. The dark polished wooden floor in front of the altar had a clear imprint of footprints. I wondered aloud about them and Loday said it was Ange's footprints -- she has stood and prayed on that spot everyday for the past four decades. Ange gave me a toothy grin and stepped on the imprint. It fit perfectly, like Cinderella's shoes. For the past 40 years Ange has been getting up every morning to pray and prostrate before the altar a 1000 times.
After taking leave of Ange, we went around the nunnery. A visiting family just came in to meet their daughter who is one of the youngest Anims. They were lugging up a basket of goodies all the way up the mountain. Yes, there was going to be a midnight feast in one of the dorm rooms of Kila Goemba.

Kongkona is ever on the look out for her next destination and the next bargain meal

Getting there
You could take a Druk Air flight from Delhi or Kolkata to Paro. From Kolkata there's a bus that goes up to Phuentsholing, a town on the border of Bhutan. You could also take a flight to Bagdogra and then on to Paro. Bagdogra is a four hour drive from Phuentsholing.
Kila Goemba falls on the way to Chele La, the highest motorable pass in Bhutan. A small nondescript signboard in Dzongkha, pinned onto a tall pine tree is the only indication of the hiking trail to the nunnery.

Important information
The Ngultrum is the currency of Bhutan and its value is pegged to the Indian Rupee. The Rupee is also accepted. Entry is free for citizens of India and Bangladesh.