Photo Essay: The nuns’ story


Photo Essay: The nuns’ story

Among the 30 nuns at the Ranka Ani Gompa (nunnery) in Sikkim, the youngest, Prema Lhasu, stands out—emotions dance riotously on her face. She is 13, curious, fidgety, smiles in spurts, going from blank to bubbly. Her radiant complexion and tonsured head are a striking combination of adolescence and detachment.

In the yellow, orange and maroon clad group of Buddhist nuns, some freckled, some wary of conversation, some intensely thoughtful and distant, Lhasu is the first to make friends with her expressive eyes.

Ranka village is a bumpy, 60-minute car drive up from Gangtok. The scenery makes you sigh deeply—curvaceous turns of the lush green valley, with the Teesta river snaking through it, gushing waterfalls, the scent of the forest, all beautifully serenaded by the mountains.

A cluster of white flags on a mountain landing connect to wide steps leading up to the nunnery. It’s a storybook scene—children playing on the hilly terrain, goats bleating happily, the sky a transparent sapphire.

Tenzing Landup, a monk and the nunnery’s head teacher, and Sonam Rinchen, a believer in Buddhism, usher us in through the large maroon-coloured gate. The nuns here aren’t used to chatting and the silence hangs heavy initially. Tea and biscuits are brought in as we relax on the grass in the garden while I try to initiate a free-wheeling conversation.

Landup talks about the guided emptiness meditation he teaches—a door nuns must pass through to become familiar with their chosen path. This initiation, as in any important study or series of rituals, lasts three years, three months and three days, considered a significant period before a big transition.

Owing to the hilly slope, the nunnery stands on different levels—there is a verdant garden with the multicoloured flags distinctive to a Buddhist shrine, a spartan dormitory, a simply equipped kitchen and a mesmerizing temple with colourful images and idols, Buddhist offerings, candles, fruits and musical instruments.

Ranka Ani Gompa opened its doors in 2006. “It is funded by local sponsors, besides having recently received a grant of Rs.20 lakh from the state ministry of culture to build a hostel,” says Kunzang Chungyalpa, the general secretary, and one of the local sponsors.

The oldest among the nuns here is 44, but many look older and weather-beaten. Tshering Norjay, who has questions about our lives in the city, says her grandmother’s devotion to Buddhist dharma prompted her to choose this path. “Family life is full of suffering. We want to leave that suffering behind,” she says, adding that it is easier for those who join at a mature age to settle down here.

For young ones like Lhasu, it is not easy initially to come to grips with the enormous upheaval. Not everyone chooses this life of their own volition. Some are provoked by disillusioning experiences, others are sent by families. The nuns are occasionally allowed to meet families or visit the Gangtok market but essentially, it is a life disconnected from the world. No television, no cellphones, no newspapers.

The daily rituals include sweeping, gardening, cooking, listening to teachings, and prayer, all at prescribed timings. The first round of meditation starts at 4am and the nuns retire to bed after 9pm. Housekeeping duties are rotated. On some days, special prayers and chants are offered.

The nuns eagerly show us their living quarters—small spaces with low ceilings built above the kitchen. Everyone has a mattress and a blanket, a soft bag and a suitcase. That’s all. The living areas are clean and minimal.

The mood has thawed and conversation now oscillates between the trials of penance and celibacy and my trinkets. Soon, it is time for afternoon prayers. As the chanting rises in the air and the cymbals clang in the temple, an infectiously positive vibe thickens its embrace.

After prayers, Landup and Rinchen take us to 97-year-old yogi Khamtrul Jigme Thinley Lhundup Rinpoche, who lives in a room on the terrace. Rinpoche, who is still quite alert, lived in the Himalayas for decades before coming to teach here. There is something unusually comforting about his tiny room, which has a single bed surrounded by holy images, including a large one of the Buddha.

As we prepare to leave, many of the nuns come out to wave goodbye. Lhasu, who has been exchanging quiet smiles with me, escorts us to the main gate. I hug her spontaneously. She is surprised, but hugs me back.

Her darting dimples and life in the nunnery linger in my mind as we drive back. Is it a life lost or a purpose found?