Two persons don the same red robes of the Tibetan Buddhist monastic; their “faces look the same”, their “vows are the same”. Yet, one is “ample-bellied” and “dashing around in a Toyota”. And the other, “the frail, sad looking little one” is “selling postcards by the roadside”. The reason for the contrast: “the big one is a monk and the other only a nun”.
These lines from a poem by Tibetan writer-activist Lhasang Tsering describes a regular day in the hill town of McLeod Ganj, the seat of the Central Tibetan Administration, or government-in-exile.
The disparity between the two monastics predates the exile and the religious repression under Chinese control that necessitated it. Nunneries in Tibet were fewer, poorer, and less prestigious than monasteries. Most nuns were taught exclusively by male teachers and many received no formal education at all.
The act of renouncing family life and traditional gender markers such as hair and clothing is supposed to neutralise gendered stereotypes, and make available to nuns and monks alike what anthropologist Charlene Makley describes as “monastic androgyny”, or the third gender of the renunciate. However, examples abound of nuns getting “resexed” in the misogynistic conceptions of their communities.
As recently as the 1990s, Makley registered their marginality in the gossip at the Labrang monastery in the Amdo region of Tibet: “They don’t like nuns, you know; the laity here, if a monk is going by, say, ‘Ama, a monk went by, take off your hats!’ As for nuns, they compare us to (Chinese) Muslims and stray dogs!”
Historian Hanna Havnevik describes this as “a triple subordination” — discrimination by the Chinese, negotiating a monastic structure made by and for monks, and the inferior position of being women in a patriarchal society.
It might come as a surprise then that the nuns have organised guerrilla movements, distributed pamphlets, and led protests in prisons. The first three Tibetan women to self-immolate were all nuns.
Six decades of resistance
March 17 marks the 60th anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s escape from Lhasa. His move was preceded by the failed armed uprising on March 10,1959. Between the two days is another less-remembered anniversary. On March 12, thousands of Tibetan women organised a non-violent demonstration outside the Potala Palace, the seat of the Dalai Lama; among the leaders were several nuns.
Nuns continued to hold protests during the Cultural Revolution, which unleashed a large-scale destruction of monastic institutions. In a 1984 survey, the Council for Religious and Cultural Affairs of His Holiness the Dalai Lama estimated that there were 818 nunneries in Tibet before 1959, most of which were destroyed.
Geden Choeling, the oldest nunnery in Dharamsala, was started by nuns who fled Tibet’s Nechungri Nunnery after it was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. When Nechungri reopened in 1988, there were only five nuns. Geden Choeling now has 170 nuns.
One of them is Gyaltsen, who at 20 joined the Gari Nunnery in Lhasa. When the nunnery was destroyed, the nuns moved into caves. Gyaltsen, whose story was made available through the Tibetan Nuns Project, was jailed for seven months and tortured before she escaped to India.
Nuns remained at the forefront of political activity in the ensuing decades. Several took to the streets during protests that rocked Tibet from 1987 to 1989. Since then, 50 per cent of the demonstrations in Tibet have been organised by young nuns, says Tibetologist Robert Barnett. A large number of them were arrested. Many of them faced physical and sexual torture, including the use of electrical batons on sensitive body parts. Some were sentenced to reform through labour or were executed.
In September 1989, Ngawang from Chubsang Nunnery went with 22 nuns to a protest at the Dalai Lama’s summer palace of Norbulingka. She recounts her experience to the Tibetan Nuns Project: “The Chinese police soon arrived with electric cattle prods and arrested nine of us… I was stripped naked and searched… After two years of continual beatings, underfeeding, and forcible blood extraction, I was weakened to the point of death… I suppose the Chinese officials wanted to avoid the embarrassment of having me die in prison, so they released me…”
Even those who escaped are traumatised and fear for the safety of their families back home. Many prefer not to recount their stories or identify themselves. Their accounts have to be published through aliases, mismatched particulars, and fiction.
Rebuilding in exile
In addition to lingering trauma, air pollution and the crowded conditions of makeshift dwellings led many nuns to contract ailments such as impetigo and tuberculosis. To house the growing stream of new arrivals from Tibet, the Tibetan Nuns Project (TNP) was founded in 1987.
Spearheaded by TNP, exiled nuns advocated for, and secured, religious and educational parity with their male counterparts. This includes training in ritualised philosophical debate, instituting the geshema degree (equivalent of a PhD), and establishing a tantric studies programme, once a preserve of monks.
Tibetan nuns have joined others from South and Southeast Asia in seeking gender equity. From a position of ecclesiastical marginality, they have asserted themselves as rigorous scholars and teachers. Exactly a year ago, the 17th Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje began the process of revitalising full female ordination in Tibetan Buddhism, reviving a lineage that had been broken for about a thousand years.
I spent the summer of 2004 as an undergraduate fellow at Dolma Ling Nunnery, the headquarters of the TNP, and have gone back most years since then. I have noticed that the lives of nuns are embedded not only in their religious vows, but within a firm political resistance.
The nuns I met put badges, stickers and prints of the Tibetan flag on their bags and walls. They insisted they were in exile only to be able to keep their religious vows. They participated in vigils in Dharamsala and Delhi. Thus, as Havnevik has argued, in choosing to embrace monastic life under the threat of Chinese attempts to erase the Buddhist organisation of Tibetan society, they become “political nuns”.
This 60th anniversary provides a vantage point to assess the struggle for freedom and cultural preservation through the twin perspectives of those who escaped and the families they left behind, and also cross-generationally. As Ngawang said, “My parents, who were farmers, are now dead — my mother died of a broken heart when I left Tibet… I was not schooled, so I cannot be a teacher, but I can help through political activity.”
(Names of nuns have been changed to protect their identity)
(Swati Chawla is a historian and a fellow at the American Institute of Indian Studies)
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