Encountering the Nuns of Zanskar

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by Dominique Butet

Photography by Olivier Adam
To view the original French version of this article (with photos) click here.
Zanskar, situated at the extreme northwest of India in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, is an isolated valley above 13,000 feet. It’s one of the most elevated areas to be populated in the Himalayas. There, in the heat of the summer on paths of wind and dust, it is not unusual to come across lively undulations of red fabric, capped by orange hats of felt—so go the nuns! Many nunneries have been established there, perched high over the valley.
Today, Zanskar has ten nunneries, nine of which belong to the Gelugpa order. Some, such as Karsha and Dorje Dzong, are close to Padum, the capital, while others such as Pishu are much more isolated. Some house up to twenty nuns, while others house barely seven or eight. Some have a school, others do not—or not yet. In the winter, when all pipelines freeze, the nuns have to travel far down to the river to fetch water, breaking the ice and then ascending again quickly to find refuge in rooms where the ceilings have so little insulation that snow and cold seep in. But it’s the profound isolation that one needs to survive, an isolation that only long rituals can transcend. Nonetheless, all have the uncompromising will to exist and flourish, mingling religious fervor with an incredible sense of collective life where all ages cohabit, from nine to over eighty-four!
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