Author: Azim, Saadia
Date published: July 18, 2011
Thimpu (Women's Feature Service) - "Sargi Chodden is a naughty young nun, who runs around this huge nunnery the whole day." That's how a smiling Sonam Chogen, the head nun of the Zilukha nunnery, describes one of their newest entrants.
It's been a month since Sargi came into this Buddhist nunnery, located on a scenic hilltop in Thimphu, the capital city of Bhutan, but she has not quite as yet adjusted to the changes that have come about in her life following this move. For instance, Sargi is not ready to cut her hair - a norm in the nunnery - and hence she is forbidden to attend the daily prayers. So these days she spends her time playing with other young nuns in the huge monastery complex.
Sargi is 13 years old and the eldest of three siblings. Her father works in the police force. It was her mother who convinced the teenager to join the nunnery saying that she would have a better chance of getting a quality education there. According to her mother, being in the nunnery would enable her "to finish her studies and understand the world better". Of course, there was an added attraction: Studying at the nunnery also creates a livelihood option - that of becoming a well-respected 'anim' (sister).
But Sargi is taking her time to get used to the ways of the nunnery and to understand what it means to become a Buddhist nun. "Mentally I am now getting ready to become a nun. I think that it would put an end to all my mother's miseries. I'll pray that she does not worry over me anymore. Moreover, I will also be able to support my family with my religious earnings," says the youngster.
Nine-year-old Yozer Dema, too, decided to become a nun because she wanted "to do something for her mother". Yozer thought that her "career" as a nun would not just bring her "closer to God" but would also be a great livelihood option. Yozer, who came to Zilukha nunnery from the East Bhutan hills, finds "Thimphu to be much less cold". Says she, "Until Class II, I studied in a regular school but then I thought that continuing my education at the nunnery would certainly make me more knowledgeable."
Rinzin Wangmo's parents were also prompted to send their six-year-old daughter to the Zilukha nunnery because it would ensure a better quality of education for their child. She may be the youngest nun here, but Rinzin is happy. She feels she is going to be better off than most of her friends back home in the East Lhuntse district. "I am going to be more educated than all of them," she maintains.
Many girls and women in Bhutan enter nunneries for varying periods to study and escape poverty and abuse. Over time, they become very involved in the local communities in the area, often helping impoverished families and serving as role models for other women. The Zilukha nunnery, the biggest nunnery in Bhutan - which shelters more than 200 nuns from across the country - is currently home to more than 20 young nuns like Sargi, Rinzin and Yozer. The girls have been sent here by their parents to gain not only a value-based education but spiritual knowledge as well. And, of course, the honorarium that priests and nuns get for providing religious guidance to lay people also comes in handy.
The Bhutanese are a deeply religious people, with two-thirds of the population practicing Buddhism. Vajrayana Buddhism is the national religion here. Interestingly, while the country has a well-balanced sex ratio and there is no overt discrimination of the girl child, it is the boys generally who had opted for the lucrative and valued option of religious work and study. Many boys get sent to monasteries at an early age. So far, women had shied away from becoming nuns. Today, however, things are changing, with an increasing number of girls being sent to nunneries.
There was a time when the Drubthob Goemba, or the Zilukha nunnery as it is known, was only a safe haven for distressed women. Becoming nuns was for them a way of turning their backs on their difficult lives and seeking self-enlightenment. Today, what seems to motivate many young girls to opt for this vocation is the chance it gives them to acquire a good education and a better social status.
Chime P. Wangdi, Secretary General of the Tarayana Centre, an NGO working with marginalised communities in Bhutan, elaborates on this trend, "Religion is an integral part of a common man's life here. Since there really is no apathy towards women in our culture, nuns are equally revered as the monks despite the fact that monasteries and nunneries are separate places of worship and practice for the communities. Traditionally, priests get involved in the day-to-day religious affairs of people, but now women are also actively taking up religious studies."
Bhutan indeed has a very intriguing and unique religious culture and the way children are named here is an example of this. Ever wondered why every third person in Bhutan is named Sonam or Tashi or Rinzin? With a smile, Tashi Wangmo, a local resident, unravels the mystery, "Our names are decided by the priests and they are usually after religious figures. This has been our practice and in a small country - we are just about seven lakh people - we are used to it, so there's no confusion." Of course, there are elaborate naming ceremonies organised. These events were earlier presided over by monks, but now nuns are equally sought after.
Minju, a 19-year-old nun, is happy that women like her now enjoy great respect within the country. She believes that her life was without purpose until she started learning about religion within the precincts of the Zilukha nunnery. Today it gives her great contentment to teach religion to the young kids who come in every morning from the neighbourhoods near Zilukha.
There are also a growing number of people from outside Bhutan who now seek spiritual guidance from these nuns. In enable a seamless interaction between the nuns and these foreigners, the Zilukha nunnery has included English as part of its curriculum. In addition to English, for three-and-a-half hours every day the nuns are taught subjects other than religion.
As Anim Ngwang Pal puts it, "We are doing all this to ensure that the nuns and the nunnery are a prime source of knowledge generation and education in our society. This, we believe, is our duty."
(© Women's Feature Service)