Category Archives: Geden Choeling Nunnery

Slideshows and Updates from all the Tibetan Buddhist Nunneries

As 2020 draws to a close, we wanted to update you with slideshows and news from all the nunneries and institutions in India that we support. if you sponsor a nun, scroll down to her nunnery and find the associated slideshow.

Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute

HERE’S A SLIDESHOW OF LIFE AT DOLMA LING. Can’t see it? Click HERE.

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Due to the pandemic, the nunnery was put on lockdown from March 2020. Many of the nuns’ classes were put on hold until July, but the nuns continued to study on their own and also do prayers for all sentient beings during this difficult time. For safety, the nuns no longer gathered together for morning assembly, meals, or pujas. The nunnery has been closed throughout for outsiders, and staff and teachers were only allowed to go out of the nunnery complex once a week if necessary.

Dolma Ling Tibetan Buddhist nuns 2020

The main gate of the nunnery remains closed and notices have been posted to ensure that no one enters without permission. The nuns created a makeshift gatekeeper room and every day. two nuns wearing masks take turns to guard the gate, with an electronic thermometer, hand sanitizer, and materials to sanitize things such as food and fuel canisters ready to hand. Essentials such as vegetables, rice, flour, and fuel are kept at the gate under the sun for hours and sanitized properly before being brought into the nunnery.

During the holy month of Saga Dawa which this year ran from May 23 to June 21, the nuns once again read the Kangyur, the spoken words of the Buddha, and Tengyur, the Tibetan collection of commentaries to the Buddhist teachings. Together, the 108-volume Kangyur and the 225-volume Tengyur form the basis of the Tibetan Buddhist canon. The texts were divided among the nuns. The nuns maintained physical distancing while reciting the texts in their rooms, on the verandahs, in the dining hall, and in the prayer hall. It took about three days for the nuns to complete the reading of the whole set. The nuns also marked Saga Dawa with the burning of juniper branches.

On August 24, the nuns held their annual academic award ceremony, an event that usually takes place in late March or early April. It was the first time since the pandemic began that the nuns assembled in such a big group. Rinchen Khando Choegyal, Founding Director and Special Advisor for the Tibetan Nun’s Project, was the guest of honor and other special guests were Mrs. Nangsa Choedon, Director of Tibetan Nuns Project and Mr. Norman Steinberg. The nuns received awards for academic achievement in their classes, the inter-house quiz competition, the handwriting competition, and memorization exams.

Since good nutrition is crucial for health, particularly in times when the immune system might need to fight back. the nuns are regularly making tofu for meals. Fruits and vegetables and juices are given to the nuns. Meals are eaten in the nuns’ respective rooms or apart in the courtyard.

Shugsep Nunnery and Institute

HERE’S A SLIDESHOW OF LIFE AT SHUGSEP. Can’t see it? Click HERE.

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When the first lockdown of the year was announced, the senior nuns were in Bylakuppee, South India to where they were attending a special teaching from Khenchen Namdrol Rinpoche. With the travel restrictions, the senior nuns had to remain in south India for a couple of months. Eventually, the senior nuns were able to return to Shugsep they quarantined for the required period. After the quarantine, they took COVID-19 tests and all tested negative.

Tibetan Buddhist nuns gardening at Shugsep Nunnery 2020To prevent the disease from spreading inside the nunnery, we shut the gate to visitors and all the transactions for prayers were done online. We had the basic necessities delivered to our gate so that we could stay isolated. We also barred the staff and students from leaving the nunnery grounds until and unless it was urgent. Weekend outings for the students were cancelled and the staff were strictly instructed not to leave the premises without permission.

In mid-June, the results of the annual exams for 2019-20 were announced and classes for 2020 officially began in July. At the beginning of August, the summer retreat started and lasted for 45 days from August 4 to  September 17. During that period, we organized a lot of debates, essay competitions, and public speaking for the students.

Recently, Shugsep Nunnery and Institute had a drawing competition among the younger students and we are glad that all of them participated and showed their talents. Classes stopped on December 14th for the annual examinations with a study holiday of one week after every test. The examinations begin on December 24th and the last tests will be on January 25th.

December 7, 2020, marked the tenth anniversary of the inauguration of Shugsep Nunnery and Institute by His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

Geden Choeling Nunnery

HERE’S A SLIDESHOW OF LIFE AT GEDEN CHOELING. Can’t see it? Click HERE.

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At the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, all the major routine activities of the nuns such as in-person classes, debating practice, group religious activities, and other social and cultural gatherings were stopped. However, the ten nuns preparing for the Geshema exams continued to attend regular classes taught by the three Buddhist philosophy teachers. All the other nuns have been learning through online classes run by their respective teachers who also provide notes and homework. The nuns memorize texts and are doing well in their studies in their rooms and are always in touch with their teachers.

Tibetan Buddhist nuns at Geden Choeling Nunnery in Dharamsala

In terms of health care and emotional matters, all the nuns are in good health. They received frequent talks and advice from Geden Choeling Nunnery’s Abbot, office administrator, teachers, and Gekoe (Disciplinarian) to keep them mentally strong without any fear and anxiety during this pandemic period.

All the nuns and staff members are restricted from visiting outside places and the market area since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. No visitors are allowed in the institute, except for prayer offerings by the well-wisher. The nuns maintain daily hygiene and sanitation using sanitizing spray for COVID-19.

Finally, the nuns hold regular prayer sessions twice a day from 6-7:30 a.m. and from 3:30 to 4:30 pm.

Tilokpur Nunnery

HERE’S A SLIDESHOW OF LIFE AT TILOKPUR. Can’t see it? Click HERE.

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Here’s an update on the current condition of Karma Drubgyu Thargay Ling at Tilokpur and the nuns’ activities and initiatives over the last couple of months during this pandemic. In general, so far, the 87 nuns are mentally and physically healthy and doing well. To cope with this pandemic, they are strictly following all the basic instructions provided by the government and their medical assistant, such as hand sanitizing, wearing masks, and maintaining physical distancing. The nuns are still not allowed to leave the nunnery except for the kitchen runner. No visitors are allowed to enter the nunnery grounds.

Tibetan Buddhist nuns at Tilokpur Nunnery receiving wool items from Wool-Aid

Tibetan Buddhist nuns at Tilokpur Nunnery receiving handknitted sweaters, hats, and mittens donated by the volunteers at Wool-Aid

In December, the nuns received two large boxes of handknitted sweaters, hats, and mittens donated by the volunteer knitters at Wool-Aid.

In terms of education and other activities, the nuns are continuing with their philosophy classes, monastic debate practice, and computer learning in person, with only English classes being taught online. The younger nuns are also learning painting and drawing. The nunnery holds two prayer sessions each day, in the morning and evening, to pray for all sentient beings and for the betterment of this world.

The nuns wrote, “We are making our best attempt not to get caught with any virus in the community so everyone remains safe and healthy. We hope that this pandemic will finish soon and that everyone can enjoy normal living.

Sherab Choeling Nunnery

HERE’S A SLIDESHOW OF LIFE AT SHERAB CHOELING. Can’t see it? Click HERE.

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When the pandemic hit in mid-February 2020, 44 of the nuns from Sherab Choeling were away from the nunnery in the town of Hamirpur so that they could continue their philosophy classes with their philosophy teachers who were there. Shortly after, the coronavirus lockdown in India happened and all classes were suspended. Eventually, the nuns were able to arrange for two buses to take them and their two teachers back to Sherab Choeling.

The Tibetan Buddhist nuns at Sherab Choeling Nunnery in the remote Spiti Valley marked the holy month of Saga Dawa as always with prayers, the lighting of butter lamps, fasting, and vows. During the holy month, the nuns also received puja requests from villagers for their late family members and for their own well-being. The nuns also offered the Medicine Buddha ritual as requested by many people. Most of the nuns fasted during the entire month, taking no meals after lunch.

Dorjee Zong Nunnery

HERE’S A SLIDESHOW OF LIFE AT DORJEE ZONG. Can’t see it? Click HERE.

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Dorjee Zong Nunnery is one of the oldest centres of monastic education in Zanskar and has a long tradition of meditating nuns, some of who are famed for having reached high levels of realization. This remote 700-year-old nunnery now provides much-needed educational opportunities for young girls and women.

Young Tibetan Buddhist nuns at Dorjee Zong Nunnery in Zaskar

In 2019, Dorjee Zong began a major expansion project and good progress was made last year. The housing block and the structure of a multi-purpose two-story building were completed before extreme weather shut down construction in October. The two-story building contains the kitchen, dining hall, storeroom on the ground floor and, on the upper floor, the prayer hall and a conference hall.

When the coronavirus pandemic hit India in the spring, we feared that no construction would be possible because most of the labor force comes from Nepal and strict restrictions would prevent their travel. However, in July and August, the nunnery was able to move forward gradually with the building process.

As life after the nationwide lockdown in the spring began slowly getting back on track, the nuns’ committee decided to move forward to complete the interiors of the multi-purpose building with work such as plastering of the floors, electrical work fittings etc. They have also undertaken the construction of the bathroom and toilet block needed to go with the housing block. Around six to seven local village workers were hired for this job because outside laborers were stopped from coming to Zanskar. All labor work this summer was done by local village people under the guidance of the working committee.

Currently, the housing block is being used as living quarters on the ground floor for the young nuns, while the top-floor rooms are being used for multiple purposes including as temporary classrooms, office, and a meeting room.

During the lockdown, the younger nuns from nearby villages temporarily left the nunnery to stay with their families. These young nuns were not able to stay at Dorjee Zong because there is not enough space to house them in separate quarters or to follow safe physical distancing measures. Their elder siblings who have returned home are helping the younger children with their studies.

In 2019, generous donors funded the purchase of a school bus to enable the young nuns at Dorjee Zong to continue their education. The nuns needed a school bus to make the 12-mile round-trip journey to the government school to continue their education beyond Grade 5. The bus has arrived in Zanskar and is ready for use. Unfortunately, due to the coronavirus pandemic, the schools in India are currently closed. We will keep you updated.

Sakya College for Nuns

HERE’S A SLIDESHOW OF LIFE AT SAKYA COLLEGE FOR NUNS. Can’t see it? Click HERE.

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Sakya College for Nuns is situated in Manduwala, about 12 miles from Dehradun and is home to 55 nuns. It is one of the seven nunneries and institutes of higher learning in India supported by the Tibetan Nuns Project through our sponsorship program.

Like many other nunneries and monasteries, Sakya College for Nuns has been strictly observing lockdown since March this year. Although the lockdown has been lifted in many parts of India, the nuns consider to observe it with great care and caution. The College’s gates remain locked 24/7.

Since the start of the new academic session in July 2020, the nuns’ regular classes are proceeding as usual. Inside the campus, everything looks so normal, just as it used to be during the pre-COVID-19 times, that is with morning prayers, classes, debates, self-study and so on.

The only thing that is missing is the monthly outing that nuns enjoy every month. Because the nuns used to visit the market only about once a month, in that sense the pandemic and the lockdown has not greatly affected the nuns at Sakya College.

Tibetan Buddhist nuns learn yoga at Sakya College for Nuns Even so, as part of measures to provide emotional health care, a Vipassana meditation master and a yoga expert were invited to give workshops. The College invited Associate Professor Ramesh Chandra Negi from the Central University of Tibetan Studies and an expert in Vipassana meditation in the Theravada tradition to give a workshop for the nuns. The professor gave a 10-day course in Vipassana mediation and advised the nuns to continue the practice.

Some of the nuns claim the course has been of immense help in terms of maintaining tranquillity and peace of mind. They have continued to practice individually since the workshop. As meditation is all about dealing with the mind, the main purpose of the workshop was to help the nuns keep their minds in peace and stress-free throughout the lockdown period.

The College had previously invited Tibetan yoga trainer Tsering Yangzom and, on two different occasions, she conducted a 10-day yoga workshop. This greatly motivated the nuns in keeping their bodies in proper health and shape in order to lead healthy, happy lives.

In the special update in mid-December 2020, the College wrote, “We believe that with the introduction of yoga and Vipassana mediation we ensure that our nuns are relatively more relaxed, healthier, and stronger physically and mentally. This, apart from the daily academic activities and curriculums, always keeps their body and mind busy and active.”

The Tibetan Nuns Project is extremely grateful to all those who sponsor nuns and to all our supporters. Thank you for your compassion and generosity!

Life during the monsoon

In India, the monsoon starts in late June and lasts until September. While the torrential rains are vital for agriculture and bring relief from scorching summer heat, the monsoon can also be deadly, causing floods and landslides. Less disastrously, the monsoon brings daily obstacles to everyone. Here’s how the nuns cope with the challenges of life during the monsoon.

At times this summer, the northern state of Himachal Pradesh, was the rainiest place in India. In August, it was headline news when monsoon rains broke a 60-year record and 292.4 mm of rain (over 11.5 inches) fell in 24 hours in Dharamsala, home of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and location of Geden Choeling Nunnery. The nearby Tibetan Buddhist nunneries of Dolma Ling, Shugsep, and Tilokpur have also been hit by close-to-record rainfalls this summer.

The Challenges of Life During the Monsoon

Here’s a video taken in July 2018 by the Nuns’ Media Team showing the rains at Dolma Ling Nunnery. The deep drainage ditches that weave around and through the nunnery complex to prevent flooding were almost overflowing.

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Five of the seven nunneries supported by the Tibetan Nuns Project are located in parts of northern India that receive some of the heaviest rains in the country. Only Sherab Choeling Nunnery in Spiti and Dorjee Zong in Zanskar are spared the monsoon deluges, but they face other problems such as water shortages.

You Need a Good Roof

To cope with the monsoon, you need a good, solid, and well-maintained roof. In the early days of the Tibetan Nuns Project, before new nunneries were built, the nuns who had escaped from Tibet had to camp by the side of the road. The nuns were eventually moved into tents and a series of houses rented by the Tibetan Nuns Project, but the roofs couldn’t always cope with the monsoon rains. Dr. Elizabeth Napper recalls the house used by the Shugsep nuns: “Every available space was filled by a bed; even under the stairs there were beds. The structure was poorly built and rain would run down the walls during the monsoon. It was damp and moldy in there. It was awful.”

Now, thank goodness, all the nuns we support have more solid roofs over their heads. Their dormitories, classrooms, dining halls, kitchens, and libraries can remain dry. However, to remain strong these roofs must be maintained.

In September, we are launching a big project to repair and paint all the metal roofs at Shugsep Nunnery. We need help from our global family of supporters to make this happen. Learn more about the Shugsep Roof Project here. The roof is already rusting in places and, unless the painting is done this fall, the roof will fail.

Wear Plastic Shoes

Puddle jumping is a daily activity during the summer monsoon. There’s no point wearing leather shoes, which will only be destroyed by the damp. To keep one’s feet healthy and as dry as possible, plastic shoes and sandals are essential footwear for the nuns.

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Nuns shoes outside of a classroom at Dolma Ling Nunnery on a nice day in May. Photo courtesy of Brian Harris.

The Art of Drying Clothing

One of the biggest challenges of life during the monsoon is laundering and drying clothes. This is true for everyone in India, but the situation for Tibetan Buddhist nuns (and monks) can be even trickier. Nuns and monks are traditionally allowed only two sets of robes so washing and, above all, drying robes during the monsoon is hard. The nuns seize opportunities when the sun is out to hang their robes and other clothing on fences etc. and, during showers, under overhanging balconies. The humidity is so relentless that things just don’t dry.

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Nuns’ clothing drying on the nunnery rooftop. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam

The Challenge of Staying Healthy

Frequent rains make people more vulnerable to illness, especially through exposure to dirty water and the increase in waterborne diseases. During the monsoon, a number of illnesses increase. We are so grateful to the donors who helped with the urgent septic system repairs at both Dolma Ling and Shugsep. The repairs were completed in June before the onset of the monsoon, so this made both nunneries much safer for the nuns. Even so, the nuns must very careful about washing their vegetables during monsoon season to avoid contamination.

Secondly, getting partially wet or totally soaked from the rain water destabilizes your body temperature and makes you vulnerable to sickness. Fungal infections caused by wearing damp clothes and shoes are also a risk.

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Nuns washing vegetables. The monsoon rains bring an increase in water-borne illnesses. Photo courtesy of Brian Harris.

Making Friends with Animals and Insects

Just like humans, animals want to get in out of the rain. The nuns sometimes find that they have visitors to their nunneries, such as snakes, spiders, centipedes, and scorpions. Also, all that standing water becomes a perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes, which are vectors for many diseases such as malaria and dengue fever. Dengue fever is communicated through mosquito bites and the most common symptoms are sudden onset of fever, headache, muscle and joint pains, and skin rashes. Some patients also develop symptoms which include vomiting, diarrhoea and loss of appetite.

Previously malaria and dengue have not been a problem for the nuns, but the risk may increase as the climate warms up and the storms become more intense. On August 31 2018, the Hindustan Times reported that so far during this rainy season there have been over 1,500 cases of dengue in the northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, the location of five of the seven nunneries we support.

Drainage Ditches Are Essential

Without drainage ditches to channel the water away, the nunneries would be flooded. The nuns work hard year-round to keep these all-important drainage ditches clean and working. One of the projects we’re working on this fall is to improve the drainage in and around the 8 retreat huts at Dolma Ling Nunnery. Some of the Geshema nuns are staying in the retreat huts while taking their two-year course in Buddhist tantric studies. We need to add gutters and drainpipes to the hut roofs huts so that the rainwater does not damage the walls and we need to add drainage ditches all around to prevent flooding. You can learn more about the project here. 

Dolma Ling Nunnery, Tibetan Buddhist nuns, coping with the monsoon

The nuns of Dolma Ling Nunnery clean the nunnery paths and drainage ditches daily. Photo courtesy of Dustin Kujawski

The importance of debate in Tibetan Buddhist monastic education

Monastic debate is of critical importance in traditional Tibetan Buddhist learning. Through debate, nuns test and consolidate their classroom learning.

The following video is a great primer on Tibetan Buddhist debate by nuns. It’s taken from a longer video made by the nuns at Dolma Ling Nunnery in northern India and it answers many of the frequently asked questions about Tibetan Buddhist debate, such as the meaning of the hand movements.

Nuns Learning Tibetan Buddhist Debate

In addition to their daily debate practice, each year in India, hundreds of Tibetan Buddhist nuns from nunneries in India and Nepal gather for a special, month-long inter-nunnery debate called the Jang Gonchoe. This annual inter-nunnery debate takes place each autumn and is a critical part of the nuns’ education, allowing them to really “up their game” so to speak.

nuns debating in the debate courtyard

This photo shows the nuns during a night debate at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute. Thanks to generous donors, the new roof of the debate courtyard was completed in 2013. The special courtyard allows the nuns to debate year-round and in all weather, including during the heaviest storms and monsoon rains.

Prior to 1995, there was no Jang Gonchoe for nuns and this learning opportunity was only open to monks. The Tibetan Nuns Project, with the wonderful support of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, played a critical role in opening up this learning opportunity to women. Establishing a comparable debate session for nuns has been an integral part of the nuns reaching their current level of excellence in their studies.

The inter-nunnery debate helps bring the nuns closer to equality with the monks in terms of learning opportunities and advancement along the spiritual path. For many, the Jang Gonchoe is an essential component of working towards higher academic degrees, such as the Geshema degree, equivalent to a doctorate in Tibetan Buddhism.

“It all happened because of the kindness, generosity, and genuine concern shown by all the wonderful donors who supported us for so many years. Much as we had the blessings from His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the vision, determination, and courage to pursue this matter to the full, without their generosity we would not have been able to have the Jang Gonchoe every year, which was and is the moving force behind every step of progress in education the nuns have made,” said Rinchen Khando Choegyal, Founder and Director of the Tibetan Nuns Project.

The Jang Gonchoe Annual Inter-Nunnery Debate

The inter-nunnery debate has been supported since 1997 by the Tibetan Nuns Project. We hope that, with gifts to our Jang Gonchoe Endowment Fund and to help the annual debate, the inter-nunnery debate will be able to continue for many years to come. Donations help to cover costs such as transportation, food, and accommodation for the nuns who wish to attend.

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Nuns debate in front of His Holiness the Dalai Lama on the last day of the Jang Gonchoe in 2014. Photo courtesy of Tenzin Choejor, OHHDL

 

His Holiness the Dalai Lama has often spoken of the need to examine the teachings of the Buddha closely and with an inquisitive mind. “This is the 21st century and we need to understand the Buddha’s teachings in the light of reason. When we teach, we need to do so on the basis of reason,” His Holiness the Dalai Lama told the nuns at the end of the 2014 Jang Gonchoe.

His Holiness added, “Nowadays, the Nalanda tradition of approaching the Buddha’s teachings with logic and reason is only found amongst Tibetans. It’s something precious we can be proud of and should strive to preserve.”

Tibetan Buddhist nuns debating at the Jang Gonchoe in 2015

A teacher with the nuns during the 2015 Jang Gonchoe debate event in Dharamsala. 2015 marked the 20th anniversary of the inter-nunnery debate which draws hundreds of nuns each year.

If you would like to support the Jang Gonchoe, we would be most grateful. Gifts to our Jang Gonchoe Endowment Fund help to both preserve the Tibetan culture and open up this centuries-old tradition to the nuns, enabling and empowering them to become great teachers in their own right.

Daily Life of Tibetan Buddhist Nuns: Part 2

The other day we published Part 1 of Daily Life of Tibetan Buddhist Nuns.

Since we had so many great photos, we decided to do Part 2 to give you a better idea of the many tasks that the nuns do in addition to their studies and practice.

As we said in Part 1, nunneries are complex institutions requiring a lot of hands-on work by the nuns to function smoothly. As you will see from the photos below, the nuns take an active role in running the nunneries. For instance, at Dolma Ling Nunnery, the largest of the 7 nunneries supported by the Tibetan Nuns Project and home to over 230 nuns, there is a nuns’ committee that oversees the various aspects of nunnery life.

Geden Choeling Nunnery exams

Nuns at Geden Choeling Nunnery in Dharamsala taking exams. In addition to their studies and Buddhist practice, Tibetan Buddhist nuns perform many other tasks to keep their nunneries running smoothly.

These leadership roles include kitchen managers who do the purchasing for the kitchen and are often directly involved in cooking; treasurers who are responsible for nunnery finances, running the nunnery store, and making purchases for the nunnery; and the keeper of the temple who makes the daily water offerings, lights the butter lamps, escorts visitors, and keeps the temple clean.

Buddhist nuns handicrafts

Collage of photos showing some of the handicrafts and the shop at Dolma Ling Nunnery.

One of our goals at the Tibetan Nuns Project is to help the nuns achieve more self-sufficiency through skill building and income-generating projects. The nuns at Dolma Ling make a range of handicrafts such as prayer flags and malas for sale in the nunnery shop and through our online store. In spite of the various self-sufficiency projects, the nunneries still need outside support. The nuns are not in their own country. They are refugees and do not have access to major sources of revenue within India.

Tibetan Buddhist nuns shovel snow from the nunnery roof

Tibetan Buddhist nuns at Sherab Choeling Nunnery in Spiti shovel snow from the nunnery roof.

At Sherab Choeling Nunnery in the remote region of Spiti in the Indian Himalayas, the nuns must often shovel the snow in winter. This photo shows them shovelling the nunnery roof. During the winter of 2014/15, the weather was so severe that the nunnery ran out of cooking gas. For over two months the nuns had to rely solely on firewood to cook. The heavy snowfalls in the area meant that the nuns were unable to get supplies and all the local villages were cut off. In order to fetch water from the nearby village, the nuns had to clear a path through waist-deep snow. Continue reading