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Tibet's Warrior Nuns

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Tibet | Dalai Lama | Panchen Lama | Great Thirteenth Dalai Lama
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Ngawang Sangdrol | Tibetan Diaspora | Tibet on Film | The Monks of Drepung | Tibet's Warrior Nuns
Tibetan Children's Villages | Why the Chinese are There

The term 'warrior nun' may conjure images of buxom young women in exotic armour leaping about with giant swords, probably assisted by a magic charm of some sort. Or it may suggest the existence of a reclusive sect, devoted to the harmony of the universe, which, inexplicably, happens to have spent most of its time perfecting an arcane and ultra-deadly martial art.

These are the warriors of the silver screen. But there is a different sort, a variety which doesn't possess magic powers or improbably exotic weapons. These are the Buddhist nuns of Tibet, who are fighting a war of survival, armed only with the truth and the strength of their convictions. No one is likely to make a feature film or even a television series about them, because they don't leap about slicing evil doers... but the danger they face is just as great. Their fight is one of quiet courage. They are heroines of a different sort.

Ani Pachen

Ani Pachen is a heroic figure by anyone's standards. She was born the daughter of a chieftain in Tibet's eastern province of Kham. As a girl, she wanted to become a nun and devote herself to practising Dharma. Unfortunately, as the only child of a powerful and influential family, she was expected to follow a more worldly path, marrying and cementing the bonds of local family ties. Nevertheless, she persisted; and, eventually, her father agreed to let her join an aunt at a nearby nunnery.

Her dream had come true... but, sadly, it was not to last. The Chinese had invaded eastern Tibet; and their oppressive policies had forced the local leaders to organise armed resistance. Ani Pachen's father was a key figure in the plan. Tragically, he had fallen seriously ill and died just as the uprising was to take place. This meant that she would have to return from the nunnery to take over as head of her family, and take responsibility for its role in the resistance.

The guerilla fighting in the mountains and valleys of eastern Tibet was ferocious. Whole villages had taken to the hills and were fighting desperately to survive. Chinese troops routinely punished anyone left behind. The Khampas struck back at supply caravans, camps, and whatever targets the Chinese offered. Inevitably though, the sheer weight of resources that the Chinese were able to bring to bear smothered the resistance. Many were killed, and many more were captured, as they struggled, half-starved, towards the relative safety of central Tibet. Ani Pachen was among those who were captured.

As Ani Pachen had played a leading role in the resistance movement, she was dealt with harshly after the Chinese soldiers captured her. She spent 21 years in various prisons, being beaten and tortured. At first, she was the only female political prisoner. But soon many other women joined her, as the iron grip of Mao's cadres tightened on Tibet. Very many of the prisoners were nuns. They were singled out for particularly savage treatment because they represented a challenge to Chinese authority in Tibet.

Against tremendous odds, Ani Pachen survived her ordeal in prison, and was eventually released. But tragedy was far from played out. Having survived the brutality and privation of prison life, she returned to her home village to find that nearly all of her friends and family were dead. Life on the outside had hardly been any better than life inside the prisons. All of Tibet was really one big prison, as Tibetans were forced to work for starvation rations, and were murdered on the mere suspicion of political transgressions.

And so, in 1988, Ani Pachen decided to escape into exile, even though this would mean dragging her damaged body through some of the most inhospitable terrain in the world, risking certain death if she were to be caught. Through good fortune and her relentless determination to see the Dalai Lama, eventually, she succeeded in reaching Dharamsala in India, where she lived for the next 13 years before she passed away at the age of 68.

The first impression one had of Ani Pachen was how radiant she was. Her diminutive form seemed to glow with life. As one who has spent a significant part of her life suffering terrible, unimaginable hardships and heartbreaks she might easily have been forgiven for becoming a shy and bitter introvert, showing a hard shell to the world that has treated her so cruelly. But this was far from the truth. Her smile was pure joy; and her love and zest for life was unmistakable. This was a woman who had triumphed over evil.

Up until her death, Ani Pachen contiuned to fight for truth and justice for Tibet. She travelled around the world, speaking to whomever was receptive to what she has to say. Her autobiography Sorrow Mountain: The Journey of a Tibetan Warrior Nun1 is a moving account of her life.

Our Only Weapon is Truth

Ani Pachen was a warrior nun who has survived her personal battle. But there are many more who have fought, and continue to fight, alone, anonymous, and with the certainty of having to pay a terrible price.

  • Ngawang Sangdrol - A political prisoner, held in the notorious Drapchi prison in Lhasa, Ngawang Sangdrol has spent most of her life in prison for choosing to defend her belief in a free Tibet and her right to practise religion unfettered by the Chinese state. She has been beaten, tortured, and starved by her oppressors. She has fought back with nothing but her strength of character and the moral support of her sympathisers. She has been nominated for the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in recognition of her bravery.

  • Ngawang Lochoe - She participated with Ngawang Sangdrol and others in the 1998 demonstrations in Drapchi prison. Her voice can be heard on a recording of protest songs smuggled out of Drapchi prison. It is available on a CD titled, Seeing Nothing but the Sky. She died in February 2001 from acute pancreatitis and heart failure, resulting from nine years of maltreatment, at the age of 28.

  • Sherab Ngawang - After serving a three-year prison sentence for taking part in a demonstration for Tibetan independence, Sherab Ngawang died on 15 May, 1995. Her kidneys and lungs were badly damaged by severe beatings, and she had been sent home to die. She was 15 years old.

And there are many others.

Nuns have reported being beaten severely with sticks and belts, being given electric shocks, and even being raped or sexually assaulted with electric cattle prods2. The lucky ones survive to tell about it in exile in India.

Most are arrested for nothing more menacing than shouting slogans; however, they are all aware of the brutal consequences of demonstrating. They know that they will certainly be beaten and may be tortured or even killed for their actions. But, like Gandhi's 'soldiers of civil disobedience', they realise that the brutal response to their peaceful actions will eventually undermine the oppressive policies of the People's Republic of China; and justice and freedom will eventually prevail.

Wandering Nuns

Sadly, the day when nuns can give up their fight against tyranny and live in peace may not dawn for a long time; and many will continue to suffer until then. Destruction of their shelters around the Yachen Monastery in eastern Tibet has resulted in hundreds of nuns being made homeless. Having vowed to leave their villages and family life to practise Dharma and barred by the authorities from seeking support from other nunneries, they are left with no recourse but to wander around in small groups, living off the land. With the onset of winter, many are in imminent danger of dying of exposure.

The only hope for many is escape into exile. The Tibetan exile community in India and Nepal supports many such nuns, who have given so much of themselves for the cause of justice and freedom in their homeland. Some of them are in very poor condition when they eventually reach safety; they may be in desperate need of psychological aid as much as physical care, after suffering torture and humiliation in prison. Unfortunately, resources are very limited.

We can help these brave women by contributing to registered charitable organisations such as The Tibetan Nuns Project, which helps to fund several nunneries through direct sponsorship and through the sale of a calendar featuring photographs of the nuns. In addition to the satisfaction one naturally feels as a result of contributing to a worthy cause, direct sponsorship provides a unique opportunity to establish a personal relationship via correspondence with a Tibetan Buddhist nun that is extremely rewarding.

1Kodansha (2000), Ani Pachen and Adelaide Donnelly, forword by HH the Dalai Lama2Palden Gyatso, a monk who spent 33 years in prison, displayed a collection of torture implements smuggled out of Tibet, including self-tightening handcuffs and devices used to give electric shocks, to the United Nations in 1995.

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