Zangskar Nunneries

In a remote region of Ladakh, India are the ten Buddhist nunneries of Zangskar in the villages of Karsha, Pishu, Zangla, Dorje Dzong, Tungri, Sani, Skyagam, Manda, Bya, and Chumig Gyartse. View a map of the nunnery locations.

View of Zangskar ValleyThe two oldest nunneries in Zangskar are Rizhing Dorje Dzong and Tungri Phuntsog Ling. Dorje Dzong was founded by Sherab Zangpo in the first half of the 15th century. Kim Gutschow (Being A Buddhist Nun, Harvard University Press, 2004: p. 99-101) notes that although Tungri Nunnery may have been built as early as the 17th century, it is unclear when nuns first began residing there. Nine of the 10 nunneries follow the Gelug tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, while Sani Kachod Ling follows the Drugpa tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. These are the only two schools of Buddhism prominent in the Zangskar region of Ladakh. However, the nuns at Pishu Namgyal Choling incorporate many Nyingma practices into their monthly and yearly ritual calendar. This variation began years ago when a monk practicing within the Nyingma tradition lived at Pishu Nunnery and taught the nuns many esoteric rituals from his lineage.

Some of the nunneries have a small membership, such as Bya Dolma Choling and Manda Padma Choling with only 6 and 8 nuns, respectively. Other nunneries have much larger memberships, such as Karsha with 20 resident nuns and 15 very young nuns who study at a Central Institute for Buddhist Studies branch school at the nunnery. The nuns of Zangskar "comprise one fourth of the resident monastic population, possibly one of the highest nun to monk ratios in the entire Tibetan and Himalayan realm." (Gutschow, p. 99) However, Gutschow continues: "Yet their [the nuns] numerical strength belies their social marginality in the local economy of merit" [ibid].

Each nunnery tells a different story of hardship and determination. Historically, the nuns of Zangskar, like the Tibetan region in general, have received less support from the local community than monks. The monasteries are strongly supported both monetarily and materially, allowing the monks to focus on their religious education rather than daily subsistence. The construction of the nunneries has required outstanding amounts of will power, defiance of traditional roles for women, and physical labor on the part of the nuns.

"Why did it take nuns almost half a century to accomplish a feat that monks could complete within a single year? Why must nuns travel all over Ladakh and Zangskar to build a tiny assembly hall, when a few Zangskari monks can build a small palace for the Dalai Lama during the space of summer? The answer to these questions is largely based on the fact that nuns perform a very different set of services for laypeople than monks do. Unlike Thailand, where monks concentrate on salvation, death rites, and other forms of collective merit making, Tibetan Buddhist monks perform a vast spectrum of ritual activities of soteriological, instrumental, and propitiatory nature. Monks are involved in a wide array of pragmatic merit making pragmatic rites that protect and secure the individual life cycle, the household, the fertility and purity of persons as well as spaces, and more generally ward off against danger, disease, and disaster. By contrast, nuns participate mostly in private or more mechanical acts of collective or unfocussed merit making which have less instrumental value. I use the term the economy of merit to describe the strategic nature of this ritual activity for both patrons and clients, or laypeople and monastics, in Zangskar." (Gutschow, p. 83)

Below you will find more details about the origins of the individual nunneries and stories shared by the nuns themselves. The Resources page provides access to more information about Zangskar including academic studies and published works.

Member nunneries of Zangskar Nuns Association:

  1. Karsha Chuchikjall Kachod Grubling
  2. Pishu Namgyal Choling
  3. Zangla Byangchub Choling
  4. Rizhing Dorje Dzong
  5. Tungri Phuntsog Ling
  6. Sani Kachod Ling
  7. Skyagam Phagmo Ling
  8. Manda Padma Choling
  9. Bya Dolma Choling
  10. Chumig Gyartse Namtak Choling

Karsha Chuchikjall Kachod Grubling

Kasha Nuns

Karsha Chuchikjall Kachod Grubling is situated high above the village, connected by a winding concrete pathway and also by a road. Stunning views of the surrounding valley and mountains as well as views of the famous Karsha Monastery await visitors. This nunnery is the largest in Zangskar with 28 nuns in the assembly - 20 currently residing there, while the remainder are doing advanced studies in other parts of India. There are also 27 young girls from nearby villages who study at Karsha as part of the Central Institute of Buddhist Studies.

Details about Karsha
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Pishu Namgyal Choling

Pishu Nuns

Pishu Namgyal Choling was built at the base of a multi-colored mountain not too far uphill from the village, which is reached by crossing a bridge from the main road and then trudging for 45 minutes across undulations of loose rocks and sand. There are eleven nuns in the assembly, including three charming and quick-witted elderly nuns. One prayer hall existed long before the nunnery began and the other buildings have a broad range of ages. A newer building constructed in 1998 contains a small prayer hall, assembly room, kitchen, and teacher's residential cell.

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Zangla Byangchub Choling

Zangla Nuns

Zangla Byangchub Choling is nestled in a mountainside at the end of the village road. A concrete courtyard surrounded by tall flowers is at the center of the nunnery, which has an unusually large 500 year old prayer hall with freshly painted wood floors. Twenty-one nuns are members of the assembly, ranging in age from 15 to a spirited 85 years old. Only 12 nuns live at the nunnery and the remainder are doing advanced studies elsewhere. The resident nuns are currently studying Tibetan grammar and writing with a teacher from Dharamsala. Fifteen girls, ages 7 to 9, attend the school at the nunnery sponsored by the Central Institute of Buddhist Studies.

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Rizhing Dorje Dzong

Dorje Dzong Nuns

Rizhing Dorje Dzong requires a steep climb uphill to reach and is far from the main part of the village, although a road has been built to provide easier access to the nunnery. Several old chortens crowd around the buildings and the two prayer halls are both several hundred years old. There are now only eight nuns in residence, but the nunnery used to be almost twice that size. Lack of a teacher has forced several nuns to leave the nunnery and attend philosophy schools in other parts of India.

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Tungri Phuntsog Ling

Tungri Nuns

Tungri Phuntsog Ling can be reached after a short hike up from the village, which is a near the main road. The nunnery compound is relatively large so the buildings are spread apart and big chortens sit on the perimeter. Although only eleven nuns live at the nunnery, 16 nuns are part of the assembly - a few younger nuns are at school in the village and a few older nuns have left to receive necessary care. A new prayer hall, guest rooms, and a spacious kitchen are built around a 500 year old prayer room.

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Sani Kachod Ling

Sani Nuns

Sani Kachod Ling is located high on a rocky mountain slope, a 30 minute walk from the village, but with easy access to the main road. The nunnery is relatively new and already quite large with an assembly of 15 nuns, ranging in age from 7 to 44. The youngest remains with her family in order to attend school in the village so only 14 nuns reside at the nunnery at this time. Compared to other nunneries, the Sani nuns receive adequate support from their families and foreign donors.

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Skyagam Phagmo Ling

Skyagam Nuns

Skyagam Phagmo Ling is at the edge of the village, just off the main road. There are 17 nuns, ages 16 to 43, and for two winters they acquired a well-educated young monk from South India as their teacher. At that time their teacher established a detailed study schedule for the nuns that included debate and Tibetan writing and now the nuns are eager to obtain more books to supplement their studies. Their teacher unfortunately had to leave for South India, but the nuns hope to acquire a new teacher with whom the nuns can continue their studies in philosophy and debate.

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Manda Padma Choling

Manda Nuns

Manda Padma Choling is a relatively new nunnery located very close to the village and the main road. The nunnery is comprised of seven young nuns and the buildings are 6 to 7 years old. The nuns built a prayer hall and continue to expand this building with new construction. There is no kitchen and the nuns have created an awkward cooking space in the enclosed entrance to the prayer hall. Presently all the residential cells are shared until the families of the youngest nuns build new rooms for them. The three youngest nuns attend school in the village during the day.

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Bya Dolma Choling

Bya Nuns

Bya Dolma Choling is very small and isolated. Comprised of five young nuns, the nunnery is a 2 to 3 days walk from the main Zangskar valley and is even a 45 minute walk from the nuns' village along a narrow cliff-side trail. The nunnery itself is perched precariously up against a giant rock outcrop; they selected this site because an image of Tara appears in the rock. The nuns are very determined to expand their nunnery, but most villagers will not allow their daughters to become nuns because there is no education available at the nunnery.

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Chumig Gyartse Namtak Choling

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Chumig Gyartse Namtak Choling is still under construction. It is a new nunnery created in 2006 out of the assemblies of nunneries at Yarshun and Satak, which housed 6 and 4 nuns respectively in 1999, and are now largely abandoned due to water shortages. While there are still villagers residing at Yarshun and Marshun villages, many have moved their fields and houses to a newer settlement called Chumig Gyartse, which lies near the Leh-Manali road.

Details about Chumig Gyartse



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