Documentary

Journey to Buddhahood: Inside A Nunnery

© Gautam Doshi
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Journey to Buddhahood: Inside A Nunnery
India

On reaching Dorje Zong, a remote establishment in the Greater Himlayas of Zanskar in Kashmir that looks plain, white and dull from the outside, this window was rather colorful and vibrant – Zanskar, August 2018

Amid the collossal but barren Greater Himalayan ranges surrounding the picturesque valley of Zanskar, at an elevation of approximately 14,000 feet, in the remote nunnery of Dorje Zong for novice Buddhist nuns who begin their journey very early in life to practice infinite compassion, away from their respective families and villages. Zanskar is the subdistrict of the hotly contested Kargil district in the eastern half of Jammu & Kashmir.

Along with our help, Neema Dolma, a 48-year-old nun, is repainting the exteriors and the classroom of the nunnery before the rest of the novice nuns return from their short summer break. Neema-ji works hard as a caretaker catering to the needs of the 2 in-house teachers and 17 novice nuns. When the nunnery shuts in the winter, Neema-ji often spends her time in Dharamshala furthering her knowledge as a devoted Buddhist nun. In the background is the half-built guest house where the nuns and the volunteers rested at night in separate rooms – Zanskar, July 2018

In a world where stereotypes are being shattered every day, my photo essay showcases how young girls – under the supervision of a caretaker nun – lead self-sustaining lives and follow stringent routines in harsh conditions and pristine environments high up in the Himalayas. Away from their families and villages from a young age, these precious, compassionate and diligent nuns are a symbol of strength and they’re diligence is inspirational to all regardless of gender.

All the girls are up between 5:30-6 a.m. and begin their daily routine. Before school at around 9:30 a.m., the nuns clean, sweep the floors, brush, prepare tea and breakfast, and pray for some time too. Here, at around 9:15 a.m., novice nuns line up for ‘Assembly’ under the supervision of Gyen (teacher) Jigmet who mainly teaches the younger (aged 6-9) nuns Math, English and Science. – Zanskar, August 2018

Along with the neighboring region of Ladakh, Zanskar formerly belonged to Western Tibet or Guge. His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama has stressed on the fact that in areas of modern subjects, Tibetans lag behind. His Holiness further explains that these modern subjects are taught in English and even many Indians can’t specialise in any of the modern subjects like Science, Economics, Environmental Studies, unless they pursue it in English. Even though the nuns don’t necessarily specialise in any of the modern subjects, it’s important to note that even the basics of Science and Geography are all taught from textbooks inscribed in English and there aren’t textbooks in Bodhi/Ladakhi for this. Even if there are such textbooks, the nuns in remote monasteries and villages have no access to them. Hindi isn’t prominent too but its basics are taught. They are hungry to learn the ways of the world but are not able to due to the lack of a decent educational institute. Jamyang Foundation bridges this gap by sending in volunteers for a month.

After school, the nuns often play for an hour outside before its time to do homework, pray and prepare dinner. – Dorje Dzong Nunnery, Zanskar, July 2018

Like Dorje Zong, are extremely remote and far away from villages, health centers and even simple grocery/vegetable markets. Volunteer teachers arrive sporadically, rarely one after the other, disrupting the progress the novice nuns make and this is without factoring in the harsh winters where temperatures fall below -30 degrees Celsius, blocking all the roads to and from Zanskar with a thick layer of snow and ice. (The infamous “Chadar Trek” happens on the frozen Zanskar River).

Undoubtedly, reaching Dorje Dzong is an adventure by itself. The only way to reach Padum by road is from Kargil, taking over 14 hours to travel around 240 kilometers on a road cutting across the mountains (running adjacent to the base of the insurmountable peaks of Nun & Kun) which was constructed around 4 decades ago thereby connecting Zanskar to the rest of the state. Despite it’s benefits, this road has caused a massive influx of tourists and researchers, and is arguably responsible for altering the relatively simple, peaceful and spiritual existence. From Padum, Dorje Dzong is another hour’s drive uphill. On the way lies the famous Karsha monastery which was established in the 11th Century.

Inside the nunnery – With no guarantee of electricity, some days do get harder. Here the nuns are reciting their prayers together and memorizing it with the help of a lamp as there was no electricity that evening. This was around 8 p.m., after the nuns finished their homework for the next day. – Dorje Dzong Nunnery, August 2018

With no classes during the weekend, the nuns convinced us to take some time off and go for a wedding function in a village an hour away on foot. Here, on a hot Friday afternoon and against the winds blowing heaps of dust into our faces, the nuns were guiding us as we made our way to the wedding. On weekends, the nuns do have the option to go home to their families too or have some fun together. – Zanskar, August 2018

This series provides a short-term narrative on the selfless, hardworking, humorous and precious novice nuns pursuing a spiritual journey, leading self-sustaining lifestyles and showing nothing but love to one-another and all in their path. Through these photos, I hope some viewers embark on an adventure, and go to such remote nunneries at such beautiful locations to help educate nuns to further empower them with knowledge.

At the wedding function, the nuns and I witnessed the newly wedded young bride in traditional wear leaving her home village in tears before she embarks on a married journey with her husband in another village. – Khassar, Zanskar, August 2018

Novice nuns are instructed to shout out their prayers with all their heart and this is exactly what 9-ear-old Stanzin Dakar was doing while praying right before dinner. – Dorje Dzong Nunnery, August 2018

Not all days were fun and games. With the storm approaching, the nuns wrap up their mattresses and belongings in plastic and put down boxes of weight to hold them. They were sleeping on the roof because while they were away on their 2-week vacation to see The Dalai Lama, the windows of their room had been shattered by a bear who had come in search for food and now, their room was being redone by labourers. – Dorje Dzong Nunney, Zanskar, August 2018

Sleeping on the roof of the guest house, where the winds of the night can chill one’s bones, the nuns look down to check if their belongings, bed sheets, and/or blankets had flown away due to the rare approaching storm. – Zanskar, August 2018

The elderly nuns wait on one of the youngest members of the nunner, Mentuk, to catch up with them as they go for a walk to the next village before heading out for the wedding. – Zanskar, August 2018

Night – the village of Padum in Zanskar Valley as seen from Dorje Zong. It’s over 4 hours away on foot. Padum, which serves as the administrative center of Zanskar, is the only village that has a community health center and a telegram office. – Zanskar, August 2018

Gautam Doshi
the authorGautam Doshi
I'm an aspiring documentary and portrait photographer based in Mumbai. Unknowingly, photography has helped me through the hardest phase in my life. I strongly believe that the camera is the key to many untold stories and this is what makes me delve deeper into the unknown.
I am determined to push his limits in the creative documentary and slow journalism space and create compelling stories on issues and nuances that capture my curiosity about this complex world we live in.
Currently, I'm also studying "Deep Learning" and hope to document the various impacts of modern computing technology on different structures of society. I enjoy browsing through photographs and love making portraits while striving to find my voice as a visual artist and contribute to the fantastic storytelling culture of India.

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