A glimpse into the life of Anims in Bhutan
It was the last night of our rather extended stay in Bhutan. From trying the national dish of cheese and chili with red rice, watching a traditional archery contest, getting blessed by a wooden phallus, to climbing hours to reach a monastery perched on a cliff, we tried it all. We spent hours browsing over the weekend market- flutes made of thigh bones, antique masks and ancient manuscripts written in Dzongkha. We were suitably awed by the impressive Dzongs (fortress- monasteries) and just as stunned by the scenery.
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. One book which caught my eye was Marie Venø Thesbjerg’s Women of Buddha, and looking closely I saw that the silhouettes I had mistaken for monks were actually those of nuns ,sitting on a rocky peak overlooking the valley. By the time I leafed through the book, which gave a sneak peek into the obscure world of the nuns in Bhutan, I knew I had to unpack my bags yet again. A few frantic calls later I managed to convince our trusted driver Kindsay Lodhay to accompany me and my sister to the Kila Goemba nunnery, about an hour’s drive from Paro.
The nunnery falls on the way to the more famous Chele La, the highest motorable pass in Bhutan. A small nondescript signboard in Dzongkha, pinned onto a tall pine tree at a hairpin bend of the main road, is the only indication the hiking trail to the nunnery. Unlike the Dzongs, this nunnery definitely did not wish to be on the tourist circuit and the signboard and the trail were as inconspicuous as possible. From the main road, if you peer through the tall trees you can see the nunnery tucked away in the forest. A perfect place for a meditation centre as it was intended to be. Made as inaccessible as possible precisely to avoid pesky onlookers like us!
Ten minutes into our climb, we see a group of five nuns walking in a straight line up ahead in the hills. We tried to fasten our pace so that we can go with them to the nunnery. But the nuns were not as enthusiastic about our company, and the next thing we knew, a couple of watch dogs came barking towards us. I was all set to jump off the cliff rather than face a pack of ferocious canines. Loday managed to convey to the nuns that we mean no harm. Thankfully they relented and the dogs retreated to join the nuns. If by setting the dogs on us, the nuns were testing our perseverance, we clearly passed.
An hour later we reached the gates of Kila Goemba. Far removed from the impressive Dzongs we have seen till then, the nunnery was in shambles. The entire structure nestles on a craggy patch of a mountain and is surrounded by a lush forest dominated by tall firs. It is a series of rooms perched precariously along the rock face. Here the nuns, called Anims, live a life of contemplation and seclusion, with daily prayer and spiritual practice
The nunnery seems almost deserted. We went snooping around and 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 to the nuns in Dzongkha as the nuns were not very 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 attic room. It was a 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. A huge tawny cat seemed to agree with me as it curled up next to the bukhara. We made ourselves comfortable on the floor as Choden made tea for us in a hot plate. This was a typical hostel room!! Hot plates, packets of biscuits and noodles, a radio, books stacked up in a table and posters all over the room. Though the posters were those of the King and Queen of Bhutan, 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 and was rebuilt and officially established in 1986 as an Anim Dratshang (religious community of Buddhist nuns). Currently there are around 40 Anims in this nunnery, ranging in age from 13 to 80.
“Where are the rest?” we ask. It seems one of the nuns have fallen sick and many went with her to the nearest hospital in Paro. The group we met earlier was returning after dropping off the rest who accompanied the sick nun.
Life is definitely not easy for the nuns. Their routine sounded a tad too ruthless to me. Getting up as early as 4, the first half of the day is set aside in learning Dzonghka, English, basic Math, scriptures and musical instruments which are used for religious functions. The rest of the day is spent in meditation and self learning. Some of the older nuns have retired into meditation, while many of the younger ones pursue basic Buddhist studies and perform religious ceremonies. While some are inspired to become nuns, for a few it is but a refuge from extreme poverty and loneliness. The physical structures of many nunneries are seriously dilapidated and some are even structurally unsafe. They have to manage with the 1700 Nu they get from the government per month which they supplement with some earning form conducting private ceremonies. The closest shop is in Paro which involves walking down the entire hill and waiting for a car to give them a lift from the main road.
Tenzing herself joined the nunnery at the tender age of 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 am still a bit skeptical about 4 year olds taking such drastic decisions and most importantly being allowed to do so by their families. They do go over to meet their families every few months. Though Gembo Zan, 17, who came here all the way from Bhumtang in Central Bhutan goes home only once in two years. She is the quietest of the lot and was busy making cotton wickers for lamps. As a rule they all had to shave their heads when they joined the nunnery, and only the very senior monks are allowed to grow their hair long.
The girls get more cordial now and show us their belongings- books, posters and even a scrap book. The first page of the book was not a religious chant but the lyrics of ‘Kaho Na Pyaar Hain’. Who says nuns should not appreciate God’s finer creations –like Hrithik Roshan’s rippling muscles.
Choden takes us to meet the nun, Anim Dukhon, who at 88 is the oldest Anim in the nunnery and is fondly referred to as Ange(grandmother).
Ange’s hut is further away on the cliff and she has the entire house to herself, which she shares with around four cats. She was immediately thrilled to have us as visitors, definitely a first for us that day. Ange was a spinster staying alone in a small village near Paro when she decided to join the nunnery, rather late, at the age of 40. “I was alone and with no one to care for me, so I chose to come to this nunnery. Now I feel very peaceful and happy being here.” Ange tells us. 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 a pair of footprints. The outline was more prominent near the toes and faded away towards the heels. I wondered aloud how she got it done. Loday laughed and said it was Ange’s footprint and she didn’t get it ‘done’. That is the precise place where she stands and prays everyday and over the years the wood got molded into the exact shape of her feet. I simple refused to believe that just by standing at the same place over years, a frail lady can manage to press down the hard wooden floor. As if sensing my cynicsm, Ange gave me a toothy grin and stepped on to the imprint. It fit perfectly, somewhat like Cinderella’s shoes!! For the past 40 years Ange has stood on the same spot and in typical Buddhist way of praying, prostrated before the altar, by lying face-down on the ground and stretching out her arms and legs. For the past 40 years, she has been getting up every morning to repeat this routine for precisely 1000 times. And to prove that age has not stopped her, the old lady did four quick successions right in front of us. She was faster and more agile than I was. When we asked permission to take pictures, her womanly vanity took over and the 88 year old nun spruced herself up, wore a few beads and finally deigned to have her picture taken with us.
The private rooms were off limits but we saw a few curious tonsured heads peering out of the windows. A visiting family just came in to meet their daughter, one of the youngest Anim. And typical of any mother, the woman was carrying a basket of goodies for her daughter, lugging it all the way up the mountain. Something told me that at night there would be a secret midnight feast in one of the dorm rooms of Kila Goemba.