View of Zangskar Valley
Zangskar Nunneries

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



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Karsha Chuchikjall Kachod Grubling

|| Photos || History ||

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. A large, well-decorated prayer hall is used each morning for prayers as well as all day for six days of the month and a 21-day puja in the spring. Nearby is a school building which contains two classrooms, a small kitchen, and a residential cell for the teacher, who is a monk supported by the Central Institute of Buddhist Studies. There are 27 young girls enrolled in the school from several nearby villages and courses include math, English, and Hindi. Also on-site is an amchi (traditional Tibetan medicine) clinic available to the nuns and villagers.

The resident nuns engage in Tibetan grammar and writing studies with a teacher from Dharamsala. In the past, during winter the nuns had to go downhill to search for running water. However, the most recent development at Karsha was the completion in the fall of 2009 of a passive solar water house just behind the nuns outdoor dry compost toilet in which a cement water storage tank is housed and prevented from freezing year round. The inner window of the double windowed passive solar house is painted black to absorb the sun's heat. The winter of 2009-2010 the nuns experienced flowing water at the nunnery even during the coldest winter months. Although Karsha has electricity year round, electricity throughout Zangskar is never entirely dependable. Therefore, several solar panels are used for communal rooms and outdoor lighting. The nunnery is in need of a guesthouse for visitors and a new kitchen - the current one is small, window-less and blackened from open-pit fire stoves.


Kasha Nuns Karsha Buildings
Kasha Kasha

More Karsha Photos


History of Karsha Chuchikjall Kachod Grubling

"For Ani Yeshe and the other nuns from Karsha who traveled to Tibet, novice ordination was the key to a transition both personal and political. Upon returning from their lengthy pilgrimage and ordination by the illustrious abbot of Ganden monastery, the Karsha nuns took several decades build a community of nuns. (Read more about Ani Yeshe's Pilgrimage)

After a few decades developing rudimentary rituals and another fifteen years building a proper assembly hall, Yeshe has lived to see her nunnery become one of the largest nunneries in Zangskar. Yeshe returned from Tibet in 1956 to a desolate cliff in Karsha village which housed the ruins of an ancient village, a medieval Avalokitesvara temple, and several monastic cells. By the end of the century, this cliff was home to over twenty nuns who supported one of the most extensive ritual calendars in all of Zangskar. Yet the struggles that Yeshe and her companions face mirrors the difficulties that many Zangskari nuns face in the Buddhist economy of merit.

In the first summer after returning from their Tibetan pilgrimage, Yeshe and her companions had little time for religious retreats. While their vows were supposed to guarantee a lifetime of renunciation, there was little opportunity for meditation or study. From the time the spring snow thawed until the last of the harvest was stored in the houses before the winter, the nuns had hardly a moment to apply themselves to their newly held discipline. Without an nunnery or the ritual expertise which might provide a means of livelihood, they were resigned to working for families and fellow villagers. Yearning to dedicate themselves to their preliminary Tantric practices, they waited patiently for the frozen lull of winter. In the first few years, the nuns performed the requisite hundred thousand prayers and prostrations, throwing themselves to the floor until elbows and palms were rubbed raw. As they visualized the vast, interdependent emptiness described in their texts, they began to think in wider terms than the laywomen in their village. They emerged from their cells with an vision it would take decades to complete.

For the first few years after their return from Tibet, Yeshe and her companions received their devotional instruction from a few elderly monks at Karsha monastery. Their new abbot, the monk who had guided them to Tibet, taught them the Guru Puja (bla ma mchod pa). For the first several years they only held one formal ritual a year, on the full moon of the fifth Tibetan month. They gathered for four days, fasting most of the day so as to conserve the meager supplies of barley and butter they had saved up for the rite. Eventually, a Tibetan monk who had come to Karsha suggested that they gather once a month to renew their eight Mahayana Precepts (theg chen gso sbyong). The nuns agreed, but needed additional resources for the rite as well as cooking supplies and utensils. One of the founding nuns asked her father for a donation. He gave each nun five rupees as a loan, which they accepted with the understanding that future "payments" to fund subsequent rituals were a kind of "interest" paid on this loan. The offerings and the ritual payment that each nun brought and received this time––an annual payment of kilogram of butter, five kilograms of barley flour, a handful of tea, and a pinch of salt, as payment on a 5 Rupee loan––are still in effect today. Every nun who joins the nunnery accepts the so-called "empty exchange" (stong deb) of 5 Rupees in exchange for agreeing to manage and fund her share of the nunnery's rituals, turn by turn. Eventually, Yeshe and her companions were bold enough to hold a Great Prayer Festival, along the lines of the one they had seen in Lhasa. Although this festival was practiced by the Karsha monastery and countless others across the Buddhist Himalayas, it was not common for nuns to hold such a spectacular rite. Overcoming some resistance from suspicious villagers, the Karsha nuns were able to get monks to teach them the ritual for the first few years. Once they had mastered the ritual texts, the nuns no longer invited the monks but continued the rite under the leadership of their abbot.

By the early 1970's, the membership of Karsha nunnery had grown to over a dozen nuns who still lacked a temple of worship. The interventions of a powerful monk galvanized the nuns and the local villagers behind the construction of a new temple. While the process of fundraising and construction was driven to its conclusion by persevering nuns, the initial catalysts were powerful monks. Geshe Zodpa was not only recognized as an incarnation of the Tibetan saint, Milarepa but he was also the first Ladakhi to become the abbot of the Tibetan monastery Tashilhunpo, albeit in exile. A charismatic public leader and Tantric expert, he gave the esoteric 'Wheel of Life' or Kalachakra initiation and was elected honorary abbot of Karsha. Many of the nuns who joined the nunnery after Yeshe first renounced lay life and took novice ordination with him. When Geshe Zodpa gave the week long empowerment into the "Profound Teachings of Vajrayogini" (rdo rje rnal 'byor ma'i zab khrid) in Karsha in 1975 and 1978, he initiated the nuns into their central Tantric practice. He only admitted nuns who had attained novice status and a handful of fully ordained monks into these initiations of the Highest Yoga Tantra.

Eventually, the nuns invited the venerable Geshe Zodpa to attend their full moon ritual, held in the ancient Avalokitesvara temple owned by the hereditary Minister or Lonpo (blon po) of Karsha. Moved by their perseverance and mindful of the temple's aristocratic owner, he suggested that they build a new assembly hall where they might assemble in peace. It would take fifteen years to complete the task. For three years, the nuns hauled rocks to the site from the nearby ruins of Karsha's earliest settlement. They also collected dirt, silt, and water from the streambed far below to make mortar and plaster. When the senior most monks at Karsha monastery performed the earth ritual (sa'i cho ga) to anoint the construction process in 1978, the membership of the nunnery had risen to fourteen. The rite was a venue in which senior monks could authorize the nuns' religious construction as much as propitiate local spirits of soil and place (sa bdag, gzhi bdag). Over the next few years, the construction process continued sporadically, whenever their was time or labor on hand. Nuns solicited help from the villagers who offered their labor, hauling construction supplies up the cliff to the construction site and cooking for the carpenters and stonemasons who often worked free of charge. Begging beers were held in various villages to raise labor and cash, as well as gifts of wooden beams and roof lattices. Store bought construction supplies like glass, concrete, and wood to frame doors and windows were purchased on credit by a local monk named Tsetan. After Tsetan spent several years in the company of women, he eventually abandoned his monastic robes. He took not just one but two wives, the first a laywoman and the second a nun.

After four years of hard labor, the nuns had exhausted their supplies and the generosity of villagers who had been working largely without pay. The nuns traveled further afield to solicit donations for several winters, continuing the construction sporadically in summer months. Begging on foot for donations in cash or kind, they traveled through many of the Buddhist villages of Zangskar and the neighboring region of Ladakh. While some Ladakhi villagers turned them away with angry insults and not a single donation, they claimed that the Zangskari villagers were much more welcoming and generous. The fundraising was laborious as they received no more cup of flour or spoon of butter at each house. The flour and butter were sold to purchase supplies not available back in Zangskar. All in all, they solicited nearly thirty thousand Rupees, most of which were used to buy wood and pay laborers, especially the monks who performed consecration rituals and painted the assembly hall. A set of renowned artisans from Lingshed monastery came to paint the assembly hall at considerable expense. In 1990, fifteen years after the nuns began carrying stones for construction, the nunnery complex was completed. Known as the Land of Oral Accomplishments (bKa 'spyod sgrub gling), the Karsha nunnery includes an assembly hall, guest room for visiting dignitaries, winter and summer kitchens, assorted storage rooms, and a bathroom. Shortly after its completion, Geshe Zodpa returned to Zangskar in 1991 to give his third and final Vajrayogini empowerment to nuns several nunneries in Zangskar. After his untimely death in 1997, there is no monk in Zangskar qualified to transmit the Vajrayogini empowerment because none of the monks who took his initiations have undergone the obligatory meditation retreats. While most of the nuns who received the empowerment have taken these intensive retreats, they are deemed unfit to transmit the teachings because of their inferior training and status."

Excerpt from Kim Gutschow's Being a Buddhist Nun (Harvard University Press, 2004: p. 77-83)


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