Cooking for about 250 nuns a day is a challenge, especially during the pandemic. This spring, the nuns at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute asked for your help to buy an electric rice cooker, a dough-making machine, a refrigerator, and two new gas burners.
The kitchen equipment has arrived now and the nuns are happy because their daily tasks are safer and easier.
Helping the Nuns Cook Rice Safely
“We are very happy with the new rice cooker. Now we just have to wash the rice, put it in the rice cooker, add water, close the lid, and press the cook button. So easy and safe! We don’t have to worry about the hot rice water,” said one nun. It also saves on fuel costs and produces better, more nutritious rice.
Venerable Samten Dolma, the nun in charge of the kitchen this year, said, “Before, I had to check regularly to see if the rice was cooked perfectly or not. Now, with the new rice cooker, I don’t have to worry about rice being undercooked or soggy.”
“The rice is so delicious now and every time it is evenly cooked.” The new rice cooker can cook up to 77 pounds of rice safely and efficiently. The nuns eat rice every day, so it’s a huge help to them.
“Every day five nuns have to prepare a day’s meal,” said a nun on kitchen duty. “In the morning while preparing lunch, we used to have two nuns in charge of the rice and three nuns to cut and prepare the lunchtime vegetables. But now, with the rice cooker, it is so much easier. All five nuns can cut and prepare vegetables for lunch. While we eat our lunch, we can use the dough machine to prepare the dough for the evening. Now we have more time on our hands.”
With the old way of cooking rice, the nuns were always in danger of being scalded by the boiling water and steam. Detail of photo by Brian Harris.
Before the nuns got the rice cooker, it took a long time to cook rice in a huge caldron over one of the two large gas burners. When the rice was half cooked, the excess water had to be poured off – a very risky operation. It took two strong nuns to pick up the pot and carry it across the kitchen to the drain. This operation had to be done quickly and carefully to avoid scalding from the boiling water and losing the steam.
Having the new electric rice cooker means that the rice cooks more evenly and keeps more of its nutritional qualities so it is better for the nuns’ health.
The New Dough Maker
Each day the nuns on kitchen duty prepare traditional Tibetan bread and steamed buns for hundreds of nuns. Until now, the nuns had to mix the dough by hand which was very labor intensive and less hygienic than using a machine.
“The dough machine saves us a lot of time and energy! I never knew it was this easy to knead dough.” The nuns bought a 55-lb (25 kg) capacity dough maker. Before photos by Brian Harris; after photos by Dolma Ling Media Nuns.
On special occasions, the nuns make paratha (fried flatbreads) and khapse which are fried Tibetan biscuits. At Losar, Tibetan New Year, every member of the nunnery gets a large bag of khapse to celebrate Tibetan New Year so preparing large quantities is a great deal of work.
Before, as in this photo, the nuns had to knead dough by hand. Now mixing dough by machine takes only 15 to 20 minutes, so it is much easier to prepare multiple batches for bread, buns, and noodles. Normally the nuns up to 20 kg (44 pounds) of flour at a time.
New Refrigerator Saves Costs and Prevents Waste
Dolma Ling’s refrigerator was very old and broke down in the spring. Thanks to our supporters, the nuns were able to buy a new fridge in time to store food during the summer heat.
When the old refrigerator broke down, you kindly helped the nuns buy a new one, just in time to keep food from spoiling during the intense summer heat. The temperature in the kitchen regularly reached 97 degrees.
The nuns follow a vegetarian diet. Without a fridge, vegetables, fruits, milk, butter, and tofu quickly rot. It is not possible for the nuns to get fresh supplies of everything daily so they need to buy for more than one day. They are happy to have the fridge to safely store perishable vegetables and fruit to avoid wastage and save money.
Without the fridge, they would be restricted in what they could buy and their diet would have been more monotonous. Especially during the pandemic, everyone looks forward to lunchtime. Now, the nuns can use different vegetables such as tomatoes, mushrooms, broccoli, and spinach which need to be kept chilled. With the new fridge, the nuns and staff are healthier and happier!
The heavy rains which fell on July 12th are set to continue for the next several days and the India Meteorological Department has issued a Severe Rainfall Alert. Authorities have told tourists to avoid Himachal Pradesh due to the present situation.
Dharamsala is the home of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the seat of the Central Tibetan Administration, the Tibetan government-in-exile. Many Tibetan refugees live there and it is the site of many Tibetan Buddhist nunneries and monasteries.
Dramatic videos after a cloudburst in McLeod Ganj, upper Dharamsala, show several cars being swept away as muddy water rushed through the hillside town. The rains also damaged many buildings. The local airport in Gaggal cancelled all incoming flights.
The Nuns’ Media Team at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute have helped capture the situation through video and photographs. Here’s a video of the rains at Dolma Ling. (Can’t see the video? Click here.)
Dolma Ling Water Supply Damaged
The monsoon damaged the water channels and lines that provide 80% of Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute’s water. As the rains abated on July 13th, the nuns, staff, and teachers from Dolma Ling worked all day with local people on repairs. Without these channels the nunnery could face an acute water shortage. By the end of the day, the supply lines were fixed and the nunnery was able to access the water that they needed. Here’s another video. (Can’t see it, click here.)
A senior Tibetan Buddhist nun from Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute has been selected for the Emory Tenzin Gyatso Science Scholars program. She is one of 7 monastics chosen to study science for two years at Emory University in Atlanta starting in September 2021.
A senior nun from Dolma Ling, Venerable Kelsang Lhamo (bottom right), has been selected as one of 3 nuns and four monks to study for two years at Emory University as part of the 6th cohort Tenzin Gyatso Science Scholars Program. She and the other 6 monastics are to start at Emory University in September 2021 following a preparation course in South India. Photo from Tenzin Gyatso Science Scholars Program.
Venerable Kelsang Lhamo was one of three nuns from Dolma Ling who applied for the program and sat qualifying exams. She has finished her studies at the nunnery and opted not to pursue a Geshema degree.
Born in 1988 in McLeod Ganj in upper Dharamsala, Venerable Kelsang Lhamo was studied at the Tibetan Children’s Village School in Choglamsar, Ladakh before becoming a nun at Dolma Ling.
The Tenzin Gyatso Science Scholars Program is part of the Emory-Tibet Science initiative started in 2010 to support monastic science education. Over the past 10 years, 30 monastic scholars have completed the program and returned to serve their monastic institutions.
On March 16th, the newly selected science scholars began intensive training in math, science, English, and computer skills at Drepung Losel Ling Meditation and Science Center in South India. This course aims to prepare the scholars with the knowledge they need in advance of their two-year residency program at Emory University.
The three nuns and four monks will join the university in the fall of 2021 and focus on deepening their understanding of the basic sciences.
Training Monastic Science Leaders
The Tenzin Gyatso Science Scholars Program is designed to develop and nurture Tibetan monastic science teachers by providing college-level science education at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.
The aim is to ensure the long-term sustainability of science education within Tibetan monasteries and nunneries in India. The scholars program, named after His Holiness the Dalai Lama, is supported by the Dalai Lama Foundation and Emory University. The program is part of the wider Emory-Tibet Science Initiative.
Tibetan Buddhist nuns taking part in the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative in 2019. Photo from the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative Facebook page.
As The New York Times wrote in 2013, a big challenge in teaching science is the lack of a Tibetan lexicon for many scientific terms. “How does one create new words for concepts like photosynthesis and clones, which have no equivalent in the Tibetan language or culture? How does one begin to name thousands of molecules and chemical compounds? And what of words like process, which have several levels of meaning for Tibetans?” Over recent years, thousands of new scientific terms have been added to the Tibetan language.
The ultimate goal of the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative is to build a bridge between two complementary systems of knowledge by educating future scientific collaborators who can contribute to new discoveries in the science of mind and body. The program is designed to give Tibetan monastics new tools for understanding the world, while also providing them with fresh perspectives on how to employ and adapt time-tested, Buddhist, contemplative methodologies for the relief of suffering in the contemporary world. Additionally, scientists and science educators are encouraged to learn more about the Buddhist science of mind and what it can contribute to the understanding of human emotions, the nature of consciousness, and integrative approaches to health and well-being.
The scholars are primarily selected from Tibetan monastic institutions participating in the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative science education program. They represent all the major Tibetan Buddhist schools, including Tibet’s indigenous Bon religion.
Since the start of the program in 2010, five cohorts of 30 scholars have completed the program. The fifth group graduated from their 2-year residency program in May 2021.
Upon the completion, the monastics return to their institutions to take up leading roles in the science education programs such as teaching science classes, serving as liaisons between Emory and their home institutions, and coordinating logistics for the annual summer intensives science courses that are part of the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative.
In addition, the scholars participate in Buddhism and science dialogues and seminars, collaborate on research projects with scientists, and give presentations on various scientific topics.
Tibetan Buddhist Nuns and Science
Since 2014, nuns from Dolma Ling have taken part in the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative, a four-week program held at Drepung Loseling Monastery in South India. During the course, Tibetan nuns and monks are taught the philosophy of science, physics, neuroscience, and biology. The course is presented by faculty members from Emory and other distinguished universities with assistance from the Tenzin Gyatso Science Scholars.
Nuns presenting science posters at a Dolma Ling science fair in 2019.
The nuns and monks attend classes for six hours a day and are tested on the last day of each course. Classes consist of lectures, discussions, demonstrations, and hands-on experiments. In 2018, eight nuns from Dolma Ling attended.
In 2017, in collaboration with the Department of Religion and Culture of the Central Tibetan Administration in Dharamsala and the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative initiated a 6-year science program for nuns from five major nunneries in India.
The first nuns selected as Tenzin Gyatso Science Scholars were two nuns from Jangchub Choeling Nunnery in Mundgod, South India. They were part of the 4th cohort of scholars to study science at Emory University and they completed their residency there in 2019. Both served as translators for the summer program of the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative held at Drepung Loseling Monastery in 2019.
Here’s the latest news from India about vaccinations and a COVID update from some of the nunneries.
Many Dolma Ling Nuns Get Vaccinated
As we reported on May 4th, the almost 250 nuns at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute had started registering for vaccinations in April. However, as coronavirus cases in India surged, vaccines ran out. We’re happy to report that in May, many nuns at Dolma Ling, the largest nunnery we support, were able to be vaccinated.
A nun from Dolma Ling receives her first vaccine in May. In May, 178 Dolma Ling nuns aged 18-44 from received first vaccinations. All nuns and staff over 45 have also received both dose of Covidsheild.
The vaccination roll out in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh was by age. The nuns and staff of Dolma Ling as well as the Tibetan Nuns Project India staff aged 45 and over have now received both shots of Covishield from the Tibetan Delek Hospital, the Zonal Hospital, and close by centers.
Himachal Pradesh opened up vaccinations for those aged 18-44 on May 17th. In the Kangra District of Himachal Pradesh, there are around 46 vaccination centers and 5 days in May for vaccinations: May 17th, 20th, 24th, 27th and 31st.
It was difficult in the beginning for the nuns to book appointments because the website kept crashing. Only a handful could book for vaccination. However, after downloading an alternative booking application, the nunnery slowly picked up the pace and around 70 nuns and staff were able to book and get their first dose of Covishield on May 27. A further 108 nuns were able to book for May 31st, the final day available for the vaccinations.
It was a Herculean task to get bookings for vaccines in May because the website kept crashing. The nuns persisted and many of the nuns at Dolma Ling aged 18-44 were able to get their first dose.
Tsering at the Tibetan Nuns Project office said, “I guess Tara has blessed us as we know others are facing a tough time getting themselves booked for vaccine.”
“Even those with high-speed internet and fastest fingers are at their wits’ end as there is no guarantee that they will get a spot,” the paper said. “Slots open for a fraction of second, one blink and they are gone.”
After overcoming obstacles of booking and transport, Tibetan Buddhist nuns from Dolma Ling wait to be vaccinated at one of the 46 vaccine centers set up in Kangra District in May 2021.
Booking vaccinations wasn’t the only problem the nuns faced. Safe transport was another major issue. None of the 46 vaccination centers was within walking distance of the nunnery. And since the state of Himachal Pradesh is still in lockdown, the nunnery had to organize safe transport for the nuns to and from the vaccination centers.
Vaccination centers were scattered throughout the region, ranging between 0.5 and 2.5 hour’s drive away. The nuns and staff successfully managed the complex logistics of safely transporting the 178 nuns to and from the various centers. Dolma Ling organized taxis for some nuns and the teachers and staff with cars or motorbikes also helped by taking as many nuns as possible. We are very grateful for their help.
On May 31st, 108 nuns from Dolma Ling were vaccinated. Coordinating safe transport to the various clinics in the region was a big task and we are grateful to the teachers and staff at the nunnery for their help in transporting the nuns and in taking these pictures for this update.
COVID Outbreak at Geden Choeling Nunnery in Dharamsala
In mid-May there was a small outbreak of COVID-19 at Geden Choeling Nunnery, the oldest nunnery in Dharamsala.
Nine nuns tested positive. Some had a fever and cough. The nuns were quarantined in a separate block of the nunnery and a committee of nuns were designated to care for them, providing meals and other needs. Medical staff from the Tibetan Delek Hospital visit regularly to check on them.
The Tibetan Delek Hospital in Dharamsala distributed Covid Health Safety and management Kits to Geden Choeling Nunnery and 15 other Tibetan institutions around Dharamsala. Items included PPE kits, a pulse oximeter, digital and infrared thermomters, disinfectants, N95 masks, surgical gowns and masks, disposable gloves, an oxygen flow meter with nasal prong, blood pressure machine, and hand sanitizer.
Tibetan Buddhist nuns at Geden Choeling Nunnery, the oldest nunnery in Dharamsala.
There have been no further outbreaks at the nunnery. One of the nuns who had tested positive had low oxygen level so she was taken to the Tibetan Reception Centre and kept under observation by Central Tibetan Administration Health Department. Fortunately, she is doing well and will return to the nunnery after she finishes 21 days in quarantine.
The other nuns who tested positive but showed no symptoms of COVID-19 will also be finishing quarantine soon.
We are very saddened by the passing of Munishwar Nath Ashish Ganju. He was the architect of Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute and long-time friend of the Tibetan Nuns Project.
MN Ashish Ganju passed away on May 5, 2021 due to COVID-19. He was 78. He is survived by his wife, Neelima, and daughters Tara, Surya and Chandini. One obituary said, “True to his love for nature, his daughters’ names translate as Star, Sun, and Moonlight respectively.” The nuns and everyone at the Tibetan Nuns Project send our deepest condolences to his family, friends, and colleagues.
Munishwar Nath Ashish Ganju, a long-time friend of the Tibetan Nuns Project and the architect of Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute passed away from COVID-19 on May 9, 2021.
About Munishwar Nath Ashish Ganju
Munishwar Nath Ashish Ganju trained at the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London and qualified in 1966. He returned to India in 1967 where he later taught at the School of Planning and Architecture and at the Indian Institute of Technology in New Delhi. MN Ashish Ganju was also a visiting professor at the UK’s University of East London and Italy’s Universita IUAV di Venezia.
He was highly respected and won many national and international design competitions. He was the founding Director of the TVB School of Habitat Studies in New Delhi and was a member of several Government of India committees.
Remembering MN Ashish Ganju, The Indian Express wrote, “For him, architecture was a deeply spiritual pursuit, where he combined his knowledge of Kashmiri Shaivism and Tibetan Buddhism.”
Tibetan children looking at the architectural model for Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute. Photo from the Tibetan Nuns Project archives.
“One never saw him as trying to be a legend or an architect, he just went about doing what he believed in,” said architect Henri Fanthome. “He had a refreshing spirit and an undying ability to go after what he believed in.”
“He brought an innovative perspective to design combining Eastern philosophy, local materials with a Western rigour,” said Sumita Singha, Director of Ecologic Architects. “In time, his body of elegant and masterful works included his own home, community centres, a Buddhist memorial and nunnery for the Dalai Lama and urban design projects.”
MN Ashish Ganju described his work as follows: “My architectural practice provided the ground for the exploration of architecture as a manifestation of ancient sacred principles, so much a part of our everyday existence. The practice made no distinction between architecture, interior, landscape, or urban design. The message from our cultural roots was very clear; our existence on Mother Earth was an interdependent process with all five elements of earth, water, fire, wind, and space manifest in the dynamic equilibrium of human activity and the physical environment, as found and as built.”
Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute in the monsoon. The region experiences heavy monsoon rains and is the second rainiest place in India. The design has a series of courtyards and terraced gardens drained by a network of water channels. Photo courtesy of Norman Steinberg
Architect for Tibetan Projects
MN Ashish Ganju did many projects for Tibetan refugees. “I was asked by Tibet House (the cultural office of HH the Dalai Lama) to design a memorial in Buddha Jayanti Park in New Delhi. The memorial was to house a two and a half metre tall statue of Buddha which was presented by the Dalai Lama to the people of India as a symbol of gratitude by the Tibetan people who were given refuge in India… The iconography of the canopy was worked out in close consultation with Tibetan Lamas and scholars, while the tectonics were decided with the stone masons who belonged to a tribe practising this vocation since time immemorial by building temples in Central India as well as Rajasthan and the North Indian plains.”
Tibetan Buddhist nuns helping to build Dolma Ling Nunnery. Architect MN Ashish Ganju said the design was “in keeping with Buddhist principles of harmonious interdependence of all living beings and objects.”
“This assignment led to my being asked to design a monastery for Tibetan refugee nuns in Dharamsala in the Kangra Valley. The project, sponsored by the Tibetan Nuns Project, was executed as an exercise in self-build by the user community. The design was worked out in close consultation with the users, and in keeping with Buddhist principles of harmonious interdependence of all living beings and objects. The construction, including materials and labour, was managed by the user community.”
The Tibetan Nuns Project has undertaken an extensive program to resettle many of the nuns fleeing their homeland in Tibet to escape persecution by the Chinese government.
The site for this Nunnery is piece of agricultural land, measuring about 6 acres, situated in the valley below Dharamsala where the Dalai Lama now lives. The requirement was to house 250 nuns along with teachers and support staff. The plan provides for 125 rooms and 12 classrooms, an assembly building containing a hall for religious assembly, a library, a large lecture room and a residential suite for the Dalai Lama; as well as common dining hall with kitchen, a workshop for craft activities, a health centre, an office, a guest house, and staff residences.
The site slopes to the south and was terraced for farming. This region experiences extremely heavy rainfall during the monsoon making it the second rainiest place in India. The design makes use of system of verandahs which distribute the built spaces around a series of courtyards and terraced gardens which are drained by a network of water channels lined with locally quarried stone.
An aerial view of Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute taken in 2018. MN Ashish Ganju was the architect for this large campus.
The common facilities are placed on a central axis across the contours with the office at the bottom near the entrance, the dining hall in the center, and the assembly building at the top. The nuns’ rooms are placed along the contours overlooking south-side terraced gardens and connected by north-side verandahs to the common facilities and the central courtyards. These courtyards are flanked by the main verandahs to form a ceremonial route rising up the slope and culminating in the assembly building.
A water reservoir on the north-east corner of the site and a water channel running along the northern boundary act as a moat to protect the buildings from the flash floods which inundate the fields above during the monsoon. The construction is being done by local masons and carpenters supervised by volunteers of the Tibetan Nuns Project. The construction techniques are chosen to be easily managed by a somewhat inexpert building team. The main building materials are locally quarried stone and slate tiles, as well as local bricks.
In February 2021, the Tibetan Nuns Project asked for help to fund solar lights at Shugsep Nunnery and Institute. You responded magnificently and the project was fully funded by the end of the month.
We’re delighted to report back on the completed solar light project and to share photos with you. The nuns and the head of the nunnery, Khenpo Namgyal, are very grateful to all those who supported this project. We’ll report back on other parts of the Shugsep project such as the dough machine as soon as possible.
Tibetan Buddhist nuns at Shugsep dig a hole to install some of the new solar lights at the nunnery.
Solar Lights for Safety and Education
Earlier this year, the nuns and staff at Shugsep Nunnery asked for a number of solar-powered lights. They needed this lighting both for security and to enable the nuns to study outside their rooms in the evenings.
The lights arrived at the nunnery this spring. The nuns and staff helped to install them so there was no need to bring outside workers into the nunnery. This was especially important because it helped to keep the nuns safe from COVID-19.
The balconies outside the nuns’ rooms needed two solar lights each. The nuns also installed lights in each of the two garden areas in front of the main temple. The road to the nunnery gate was very dark. Now the the solar lights on the road brighten the path, keeping the nuns safe and allowing them to study at night.
A Nyingma nunnery, Shugsep traces its rituals and practice to some of the most illustrious female practitioners in Tibetan history. In the previous century, Shugsep Nunnery was home to one of the most famous teachers of her time, Shugsep Jetsunma.
The majority of the nuns studying in Shugsep Nunnery near Dharamsala came from the original Shugsep Nunnery in Tibet. Their nunnery was destroyed following the Chinese Cultural Revolution and the nuns were forced to leave. Although in the 1980s the nuns partially rebuilt the original Shugsep, they faced frequent harassment by Chinese authorities and many escaped to India.
Now nuns have the opportunity to participate in a nine-year academic program of Buddhist philosophy, debate, Tibetan language, and English.
As cases of COVID-19 rise in India, we know that many are concerned about the health of the Tibetan Buddhist nuns. Here’s what we know now. We will try to provide updates as often as possible.
Tibetan Nunneries Observe Precautions
The majority of the nuns are Tibetan refugees and part of a wider Tibetan diaspora while others are from remote border areas of India. Living in close communities, with classes, prayers, and shared rooms and bathrooms means that nuns are very vulnerable to the coronavirus. If the virus were to enter a nunnery, it would spread rapidly.
In the nunneries that we support, the nuns chose to be very cautious from the beginning of the pandemic and have continued that care, with almost all the nuns remaining within the monastic compound and visitors from outside not allowed.
Tibetan Buddhist nuns at Dolma Ling register to get vaccinated. They began registering at the end of April.
So far, the nuns are safe. “All the nuns and staff are well here. We are being very cautious,” said staff at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute, home to almost 250 nuns. “As the situation in India is not good, we have decided to keep the office and classes closed for a week.” Dolma Ling is the largest nunnery supported by the Tibetan Nuns Project.
“Luckily nuns in all the nunneries are fine and busy with their day to day schedule,” we were told on May 2nd.
Tibetan Buddhist nuns at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute registering last week for vaccinations.
At the end of April, nuns began registering to get vaccinated. The nuns had to register in groups of four. Four is the most who can register under one phone number, according to guidelines.
The Tibetan nunneries in India have been taking strong precautions against the coronavirus since the pandemic first broke out. Some nunneries closed to visitors in the first week of February 2020, shutting their gates and monitoring anyone who came in or out.
The nunneries have benefited from an extra level of health care from the Department of Health of the Central Tibetan Administration. As early as January 24, 2020, the Department began issuing guidelines to the monastic communities and to the Tibetan diaspora as a whole. Just one week after the WHO declared COVID-19 as a pandemic on 11th March 2020, a special Tibetan COVID-19 Task Force began working to mitigate the potentially catastrophic impact of the disease, particularly in Tibetan refugee settlements.
His Holiness received his first dose on 6 March at the local government hospital. According to the Office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama (OHHDL), the entire staff and security details of His Holiness, including those living in the residence, were also vaccinated.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama again encouraged everyone to get the vaccine. He described it as “something helpful” for the greater good of humanity and he has tried to bolster public confidence in the vaccine.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama receives the first dose of COVID-19 vaccine on March 6, 2021 at the government hospital in Dharamsala, HP, India. Photo/OHHDL
His Holiness the Dalai Lama returning to his home in Dharamsala after taking the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine on March 6th. Detail of photo by Tenzin Jigme, CTA.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama used the opportunity of his first vaccine to make a strong public statement about the importance of getting vaccinated. He said, “In order to prevent some serious problem, this injection is very helpful and good. So those other patients should take this injection for greater benefit.”
View His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s statement about COVID-19 vaccines here.
Tibetans Caught in India’s COVID Wave
A Radio Free Asia report on May 3, 2021 provided an update on how Tibetans in India are being caught in the rising numbers of COVID-19 infections as another wave of the pandemic hits India.
With more than 300,000 new infections a day for over two weeks, India is struggling.
In Dharamsala, the home of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Central Tibetan Administration, Tibet’s exile government, there is a shortage of vaccines at Delek Hospital. Delek Hospital is the largest Tibetan hospital in India. A doctor told Radio Free Asia that the hospital has now put an end to a program aimed at inoculating Tibetans age 18 and over.
“For now, we don’t have any vaccines in Delek Hospital, but we have a few options we are working on,” Dr. Tenzin Tsundue told RFA’s Tibetan Service.
“One idea is for us to collaborate with larger hospitals, as the amount of vaccines we would need would be too small for us to order directly from the supplier.”
Since last week, almost 140 Tibetans living in Dharamsala have tested positive for COVID-19. The numbers of Tibetans infected are rapidly rising as the virus spreads through the community, Dr. Tenzin Tsundue said.
“I urge Tibetans to get vaccinated in government hospitals now if they get the chance,” Dr. Tsundue said, adding, “Don’t wait for the Delek Hospital to get more vaccines. This is a matter of necessity now, not of choice.”
Young Tibetan Buddhist nuns at the remote Sherab Choeling Nunnery in the Spiti Valley of northern India wear masks during class. Photo from July 2020.
Some Monasteries Hit by COVID-19
83 Tibetan Buddhist monks have tested positive at Sakya Monastery in Dehradun, capital of northern India’s state of Uttarakhand, according to Radio Free Asia and sources at the monastery said.
So far, we have no news that any nuns at nearby Sakya College for Nuns have been infected. The nunnery is situated in Manduwala, about 12 miles from Dehradun and is home to about 55 nuns.
According to Radio Free Asia, Sakya Monastery had under lockdown for a year, but staff had often gone out to purchase supplies in a nearby town.
“We are isolating our monks, and no one is in serious condition yet, but a few of them have shown low oxygen levels, and so we have had them admitted to the Dekyiling Tibetan Hospital,” one source at the monastery said.
“The 83 monks who were infected are among the 225 Tibetans in Dehradun who have tested positive for COVID-19 during this second wave of the pandemic in India,” the anonymous source told Radio Free Asia.
A Tibetan Buddhist nun sews cloth masks. When the pandemic broke out in 2020, the nuns in the tailoring section who normally make robes, prayer flags, Tibetan door curtains etc. began making cloth masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and to protect the nuns. Photo by the Dolma Ling Media Nuns
Earlier this year, 156 Buddhist monks at Gyuto Tantric Monastery in Himachal Pradesh tested positive for COVID-19. According to reports, most of the monks were asymptomatic. About 15 monks came from Karnataka and Delhi. The first cases were reported on 23 February.
The CTA COVID-19 Emergency Relief Committee continues to provide regular updates on the developing situation for Tibetans in India and elsewhere. In its update on April 30th, the COVID Task Force urged strict adherence to safety precautions.
“The monasteries and institutions are especially cautioned and they are advised to avail isolation rooms for unforeseen situations. Also, given the efficacy and safety of the vaccines, Tibetans are urged to get the vaccines in order to bring the normality back.”
Since late 2019, the Tibetan Buddhist nuns at Shugsep Nunnery and Institute wanted to proceed with two big repair projects, but both had to be put on hold because of the pandemic.
In February 2021, as the number of coronavirus cases in the area dropped, the nuns were finally able to undertake two projects with a significant impact on their daily lives. The nuns are so grateful to the donors that made this work possible.
What a Relief! New Security Wall for the Nunnery
The nuns are finally safe from prying eyes and dangerous intruders.
When Shugsep Nunnery was first built, it was in a small village at the end of a tiny road. However, over time, several new buildings have come up around the nunnery including a large private school with its entrance immediately behind the nunnery grounds.
Fortunately, in designing the nunnery, the plans left a 20-metre distance between the upper housing wing and the back boundary wall. This area is mostly covered in old mango trees. The trees form a buffer between the nuns’ living quarters and the activity of the nearby private school.
Privacy and security have been restored at Shugsep Nunnery and Institute thanks to this new wall funded by Tibetan Nuns Project supporters. The nuns are extremely grateful.
However, because the level of the road behind the nunnery grounds was raised by the school, the perimeter wall which was once an 8-foot-high wall and topped with barbed wire was reduced to just 4 feet above road level. This meant that the nuns lost their privacy and schoolchildren, bus drivers, and passers-by could clearly see over the wall into the nunnery.
Although the nuns tried to be tolerant of being stared at, they were reluctant to sit on their verandas to study and they felt inhibited about using the bathrooms at the end of the building. The situation also became dangerous. There were some frightening intrusions into the nunnery by youths who broke down the barbed wire and climbed over the wall. It was clear that the wall had to be improved as soon as possible.
However, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the nuns could not raise the height of the wall in 2020. Fortunately, the adjacent private school was closed for the whole year.
The nuns were able to start the work in February 2021, adding another 4 feet in height along the length of the wall in front of the school. Now that the neighboring school has reopened, the view into the nunnery is blocked and the nuns feel very relieved.
The nuns have tidied the area behind the newly repaired wall. They can now use this secluded, shady area under the mango trees as a place to practice Tibetan Buddhist debate.
It is gratifying to see how the nuns’ relief has translated into their efforts to make the area pleasant. The nuns have worked hard clearing and levelling the area under the trees so they will be able to use it as a shady debate yard.
The nuns are extremely grateful to have their security and privacy restored.
Project approved to start: 10/12/19. Start delayed due to the pandemic.
Project started: 15th January 2021
Project completed: 22nd February 2021
Total cost: Rs. 1,17,715 which is roughly US $1,620
Scope of work:
A. Raised wall height with dressed stone, sand, bajari, and cement. Rs. 1,01,715 ($1,400)
B. Provided and fixed poles Rs. 11,000 ($151)
C. Removed old fence wire and re-fixed wire Rs. 5,000. ($69)
No More Leaks: Water Tank Repair
Shugsep Nunnery depends on the large double-story concrete water tank on the slope behind the nuns’ housing wing. The municipal water lines do not provide enough water to cover the needs of the nunnery and the tank is fitted so that it can be supplied by pumping from the bore well. After 12 years, the tank itself was in a very dilapidated condition and was seriously leaking.
After researching the best way to repair the tank, the nuns hired a local contractor to re-seal the inside of the tank with marble chips and to re-plaster and paint the outside. They also needed to repair and replace the plumbing lines.
The nuns had to purchase the marble chip material as a truckload from Rajasthan. The plan was to use the same material to seal the Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute water catchment. The order for both nunneries was placed in October 2019 and, when the materials arrived, they were stored at Dolma Ling because their water project repairs had to be done first. The Dolma Ling work was completed in December 2019.
The newly repaired and painted water tanks at Shugsep Nunnery and Institute. The work was delayed for a year due to the pandemic and the nuns are very grateful that the work was able to be completed.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the work of repairing the Shugsep water tank was put off until the end of 2020 when, with the reduced virus caseload, the nuns felt secure enough to agree to allow workmen into the back of the nunnery compound. The work was done in stages, fixing one tank and then the other so that the nuns always had some water supply.
The new water tanks look very clean and professionally repaired. The nuns are very happy that the water tanks are working well and no longer leak. The nuns are very grateful to the Tibetan Nuns Project donors for making this improvement to their facilities possible.
Project approved to start 10/10/19. Start delayed due to pandemic.
Project started: 15th December 2020
Completed: 1st February 2021
Cost of contract: Rs.169,720 (approximately $2,335)
Scope of work:
A. Provided and laid marble chips including chipping off and cleaning the old plaster and flooring. Rs. 1,36,720 ($1,881)
B. Removed and replaced water lines and fittings, gate valves unions, etc. Rs. 19,000 ($261)
C. Painted external areas of tanks, pillars etc. using waterproof paint: Rs. 14,000 ($193)
We’ve just received a wonderful batch of photos of the nuns preparing for Losar, Tibetan New Year, and we wanted to share them with you.
This year, Tibetan New Year or Losar falls on February 12th, 2021. The year of the Iron Ox, 2148, begins on this day.
Losar-related rituals fall into two distinct parts. As part of the preparations for Losar, the nuns, like all Tibetans, say goodbye to the old year and let go of all its negative or bad aspects.
Here’s a slideshow for you. If you can’t see it, click here.
You’ll see photos of the nuns at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute being taught by Gen. Karma, the ritual arts master. Usually, in the past, the nuns were not tested on the ritual arts such as making butter sculptures, making tormas, and drawing, but this year their teacher wanted to test the nuns to see how seriously they have taken their classes over the years. It takes great practice, precision, and patience to keep up these sacred arts.
You’ll also see photos of the nuns making khapse for Losar. These deep-fried Tibetan cookies or biscuits are are a staple of Tibetan New Year’s celebrations everywhere. The nuns make them in a variety of shapes and sizes.
All the photos were taken by the Media Nuns at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute.
This year, because of the pandemic, Losar will be different from previous years. The Tibetan Health Department and the COVID-19 Task Force of the Central Tibetan Administration in Dharamshala have called for extreme precautions ahead of Tibetan New Year. They have urged Tibetans around the world to keep the gatherings small and safe.
The vaccine rollout began in India on December 16, 2020. As of the end of January, 152 Tibetan health workers and front line workers had received the first shot of the vaccine.
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.
COVID-life Dolma Ling
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.
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.
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.
To 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.
HERE’S A SLIDESHOW OF LIFE AT GEDEN CHOELING. Can’t see it? Click HERE.
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.
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.
HERE’S A SLIDESHOW OF LIFE AT TILOKPUR. Can’t see it? Click HERE.
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 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.
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.
DZyoung nuns 2
elder nuns working 1
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.
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.
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.
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!