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Zangskari Nunneries Needs Assessment Survey
October 30, 2007

By Jennifer O'Boyle

During July and August 2007 two volunteers, Jennifer O'Boyle and Lauren Galvin, visited 9 of the 10 Zangskari nunneries supported by Gaden Relief Projects. Zangskar Project Coordinator Kim Gutschow asked Jennifer and Lauren to carry out a needs assessment survey. The detailed survey results are found here: Zangskari Nunnery Survey. Below is Jennifer's summary report. -Ed.

During the months of July and August 2007 I visited nine of the ten nunneries in the Zangskar region of Ladakh, India, at the request of Kim Gutschow. Longtime researcher and supporter of the Zangskari nunneries, Kim is working towards the establishment of a registered Indian NGO called the Zangskar Nuns Association (ZNA), which would provide a support base for the ten Zangskari nunneries. Kim was unable to visit the nunneries in 2007 and as her volunteer substitute, the purpose of my visits were as follows:

  1. Explain why ZNA is being established and how ZNA will be organized; summarize the ZNA Constitution; suggest how ZNA can benefit the nunneries;
  2. Remind the nuns that donations distributed by Kim come from a Canadian NGO called Gaden Relief; briefly explain this organization and their support to the nunneries;
  3. Emphasize that as a result of new laws, the nunneries must provide receipts and detailed accounts for expenditures of donations received from Kim in 2006 and for all future donations;
  4. Assess the needs for future funding by interviewing the nuns and surveying the facilities to better understand the conditions under which the nuns live and study.

The nunneries all received advance notice about the survey visit, except for two nunneries which were visited on two separate occasions – the first time without advance notice and the second with notice. The goal was to have all members of the nunnery present during these visits, but at all nunneries there were a few to several nuns who were absent.

The nuns were also informed in advance to prepare their receipts for the 2006 donation money. Despite the advance notice, some nunneries still had no accounts prepared and we had to explain what was needed so they could provide something to us at a later date. Some nunneries had an itemized account book or a stack of receipts that I was shown during my visit, but often the accounting scheme was unclear and the receipts were vague or illegible. In most cases the nuns took a few more days to itemize their spending and then delivered new documents to me instead of the originals.

Besides myself, most of the nunnery visits were undertaken with Skalzang Lhamo, President of ZNA, Lauren Galvin, an American student living at Sani Kachod Ling, and Sonam, a nun also from Sani. The interviews required an interpreter (usually Lauren) or in some cases two interpreters of different languages and as a result I am not fully confident in my understanding of the interviews. There were also situations where the nuns’ answers were contradictory or confusing and for the two nunneries that I visited twice, a few answers (or perhaps the translation) changed completely between the first and second visit.

I have written complete survey results for each nunnery to document the interviews and evaluations from my visits. This report provides a summary description of each nunnery. In general, all of the nunneries are quite small, ranging from 5 to 28 nuns each, and most have no teachers of Buddhist philosophy and rituals. All nunneries are part of the Gelug Buddhist tradition, except for one that is Nyingma and another that is Drukpa Kagyu. Some nunneries receive a lot of support from donors and/or their villages, while others receive very little support even from their own families. The two issues that seem most pressing are the need for teachers (both secular and Buddhist) and for water storage during the winter time when most streams near the nunneries are frozen.

Bya Dolma Choling is very small and isolated. Comprised of five young nuns, the nunnery is a 2 to 3 days walk from the main Zangskar valley and is even a 45 minute walk from the nuns’ village along a narrow cliff-side trail. The nunnery itself is perched precariously up against a giant rock outcrop; they selected this site because an image of Tara appears in the rock. The nuns are very determined to expand their nunnery, but most villagers will not allow their daughters to become nuns because there is no education available at the nunnery. In 2007 the nuns, with the help of their families, built a new prayer hall and the nuns are quite desperate to complete it with carpets, paint, prayer books and butter lamps, but they have no source of money other than donations from Gaden Relief. The nuns engage in daily, monthly and annual prayer rituals and they are eager to obtain more prayer books to expand their knowledge. There is no electricity and they have only one solar panel.

Karsha Chuchikjall Kachod Grubling is situated high above the village, connected by a winding concrete pathway and also by a road. Stunning views of the surrounding valley and mountains as wells as views of the famous Karsha Monastery await visitors. This nunnery is the largest in Zangskar with 28 nuns in the assembly - 20 currently residing there, while the remainder are doing advanced studies in other parts of India. A large, well-decorated prayer hall is used each morning for prayers as well as all day for six days of the month and a 21-day puja in the spring. Nearby is a school building which contains two classrooms, a small kitchen, and a residential cell for the teacher, who is a monk supported by the Central Institute of Buddhist Studies. There are 27 young girls enrolled in the school from several nearby villages and courses include math, English, and Hindi. Also on-site is an amchi (traditional Tibetan medicine) clinic available to the nuns and villagers. During winter the nuns must go downhill to search for running water. There is no electricity available, but several solar panels are used for communal rooms and outdoor lighting. The nunnery is in need of a guesthouse for visitors and a new kitchen - the current one is small, window-less and blackened from open-pit fire stoves.

Manda Padma Choling is a relatively new nunnery located very close to the village and the main road. The nunnery is comprised of seven young nuns and the buildings are 6 to 7 years old. The nuns built a prayer hall and continue to expand this building with new construction. There is no kitchen and the nuns have created an awkward cooking space in the enclosed entrance to the prayer hall. Presently all the residential cells are shared until the families of the youngest nuns build new rooms for them. The three youngest nuns attend school in the village during the day. There is no philosophy teacher available to the nuns, except at the nunnery in Skyagam, where a few of the Manda nuns studied previously. This nunnery has no electricity and no solar panels. Most of their food comes from their families and the nuns spend 1 to 2 days per week helping their families in the village. Prayer sessions are held on a daily, monthly and annual basis. The nuns have a strong desire to expand the nunnery and get a teacher, but in the short term they are in need of prayer books and supplies to complete the prayer hall.

Pishu Namgyal Choling was built at the base of a multi-colored mountain not too far uphill from the village, which is reached by crossing a bridge from the main road and then trudging for 45 minutes across undulations of loose rocks and sand. There are eleven nuns in the assembly, including three charming and quick-witted elderly nuns. One prayer hall existed long before the nunnery began and the other buildings have a broad range of ages. A newer building constructed in 1998 contains a small prayer hall, assembly room, kitchen, and teacher’s residential cell. Two guest rooms will be completed next year. Although there has been no teacher at the nunnery since 1981, a few of the elderly nuns received very good teachings of the Nyingma tradition in the past and have been able to pass these on to the younger nuns. Young girls from the village, who intend to become nuns, can attend school at the nunnery in Zangla, but it is uncertain which nunnery they will join after completing their studies. Prayer rituals are undertaken on important days each month and for a full month during the spring. The nunnery has a very difficult problem with the water supply, which often runs dry by August and during the winter when the local supply is frozen the nuns must travel a long way down to the river to get water. The nuns have four solar panels, but no electricity. They would like to receive more solar panels and also need funds to repair older buildings. They expressed a need for ongoing support for basic necessities because they do not get enough donations from the village or their families.

Rizhing Dorje Dzong requires a steep climb uphill to reach and is far from the main part of the village, although a road has been built to provide easier access to the nunnery. Several old chortens crowd around the buildings and the two prayer halls are both several hundred years old. There are now only eight nuns in residence, but the nunnery used to be almost twice that size. Lack of a teacher has forced several nuns to leave the nunnery and attend philosophy schools in other parts of India. The remaining nuns are disorganized and somewhat discouraged, explaining that they spend a lot of time in the village with their families since there is nothing to do at the nunnery without a teacher. The nuns only hold prayer sessions two times each month along with month-long rituals for two months of the year. Recently the nunnery received a heritage site grant from the Indian government and the nuns purchased a new set of prayer books. No electricity is available, but they do have two solar panels, and unlike most of the nunneries they have water available year-round. Also uncommon is the fact that the nunnery owns land on which they grow peas and barley.

Sani Kachod Ling is located high on a rocky mountain slope, a 30 minute walk from the village, but with easy access to the main road. The nunnery is relatively new and already quite large with an assembly of 22 nuns, ranging in age from 5 to 42. The youngest remain with their families in order to attend school in the village so only 13 nuns reside at the nunnery at this time. The nuns receive very good support from their families and foreign donors. Residential cells have been built over the last several years. Now the nuns are constructing a prayer hall and have plans for a kitchen, retreat rooms, and greenhouse. The nuns have a philosophy teacher from a nearby monastery and are studying in the Drukpa Kagyu tradition. However, the current construction work serves as a major disruption from studies and prayers. All of the nuns undergo a three month retreat during the winter. In the future the nuns hope to start an income generation project by making carpets. The nunnery is fortunate to have access to running water all year supplied by a good system of pipes and there are also several irrigation ditches to water the newly planted trees and small vegetable gardens.

Skyagam Phagmo Ling is at the edge of the village, just off the main road. There are 17 nuns, ages 16 to 43, and they recently acquired a well-educated young monk from South India as their teacher. He has established a detailed study schedule for the nuns that includes debate and Tibetan writing and now the nuns are eager to obtain more books to supplement their studies. They would also like to build a proper classroom because currently they have class in the glass-enclosed entry way to the prayer hall and it is too cold in the winter. Although the residential buildings were built around 1998, all of the rooms leak when it rains and one roof has already collapsed. Normally the nuns are able to grow some vegetables or get produce in the village, but recently the region has been plagued by insects and residents have been unable to sustain crops. The nunnery has only one solar panel and no electricity. Prayer sessions are held on a daily, monthly and annual schedule.

Tungri Phuntsog Ling can be reached after a short hike up from the village, which is a short distance from the main road. The nunnery compound is relatively large so the buildings are spread apart and big chortens sit on the perimeter. Although only eleven nuns live at the nunnery, 16 nuns are part of the assembly - a few younger nuns are at school in the village and a few older nuns have left to receive necessary care. A new prayer hall, guest rooms, and a spacious kitchen were built around a 500 year old prayer room. One guest room is still empty because the nuns could not afford to buy any furniture. Many of the nuns’ homes are in need of repair and some rooms have even collapsed. Since there is not enough money in the nunnery funds for repair work, a home can only be repaired if the individual nun is able to secure the help of her family. Two elderly sisters (ages 73 and 76) inhabit a home that is in great need of repair and they themselves are lacking in proper mattresses, blankets and warm clothes for the winter. One sister is blind and deaf and the other must collect food, water, and cooking/heating fuel for both of them. Water is a problem at the nunnery because their pipe broke and now they must go uphill to collect water and always need to go down to the village during the winter. Day-long prayer sessions are held for seven days each month and a one month puja is performed in the winter. There has never been a teacher at the nunnery and it is very important to the nuns to acquire a teacher in order to learn rituals, prayers, meditation, and the Tibetan language.

Zangla Byangchub Choling is nestled into a mountainside at the end of the village road. A concrete courtyard surrounded by tall flowers is at the center of the nunnery, which has an unusually large 500 year old prayer hall with freshly painted wood floors. Twenty-one nuns are members of the assembly, ranging in age from 15 to a spirited 85 years old. Only fourteen nuns live at the nunnery and the remainder are doing advanced studies elsewhere. Fifteen girls, ages 7 to 9, attend the school at the nunnery sponsored by the Central Institute of Buddhist Studies. Their coursework includes math, English, Hindi, and Buddhist philosophy. There has been no ritual instruction available to the older nuns for several years since their last teacher died. The nuns eat most of their meals communally, prepared in a kitchen that was intended to be a guest room, until their originally kitchen collapsed. They would very much like to build another guest room and also get mattresses and tables for the large prayer hall, which is used when important monks visit the nunnery. They are also in need of a classroom since the students are currently taught outside or in a room intended for prayer sessions. Group prayers are offered every morning, all day on special days, and for 26 days in the winter. Electricity is available, but only when the water for the hydraulic system is not frozen so the nuns rely on four solar panels for almost 8 months of the year.

 
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