Crouching tiger, hidden nun: the kung fu sisters of Nepal training to help their country

At the Druk Gawa Khilwa nunnery in Nepal, nestled in mountains an hour's drive from Kathmandu, each day begins at 3am with the sound of a bell. Dawn will not seep across the highest Himalayan peaks for several more hours. As the young nuns stir from sleep, only a dim glow filters through the dormitory windows from lit pathways beyond.

No words are spoken and no glances exchanged as the young women slip from their beds and wrap their slender frames in burgundy and saffron robes. First, an underskirt and shirt without sleeves, worn even on the coldest of days. Over this, a wide lower robe is folded and tucked at the waist. Finally, a long shawl, a zen, is tossed around the shoulders to keep out the chill.

After smoothing out sheets and blankets, each woman steps up onto the firm mattress of her bed and sits cross-legged facing the wall against which her pillow rests. Each then turns within, entering the realm of meditation.

While most of the sisters spend the next two hours treading their own inner path, repeating secret mantras and recitations, alternating groups of nuns follow a very different form of practice. Instead of monastic robes, they lift a quite other set of clothes from the storage boxes under their beds: loose brown trousers and long-sleeved martial-arts jackets cinched at the waist with a cloth sash. Tying the laces of white canvas shoes, they pass quietly from their dormitories into the night air.

It is mid-October when I join them and together we snake up a stairway that leads along a steep incline, bordered on either side by scented flowers and shrubs. Today, it is warm enough to practise outside, so I follow the women as they climb three further flights of stairs onto the roof and space themselves out with a few low whispers. As their instructor brings the group to order they draw their feet together, pull two clenched fists back towards their waists and stand waiting.

At the opening command they raise their arms to shoulder height, thrust their right fist into their left palm and spring into such sharp action that it seems a temporary affront to the calm devotions of those meditating below. In the background, the only sound is a gentle symphony of cicadas, but high on the nunnery roof the peace is now pierced by shouted instructions in the practice of kung fu.

With each position counted out, the nuns move through a series of steps that flow from graceful hand gestures through fierce air punches and swinging chops to soaring kicks and acts of fighting.

Most of the exercises are carried out individually, either with bare hands or the long fighting sticks known as bo staffs. The most startlingly beautiful are performed with blood-red fans swirled above the head and around the waist. At times the fans are spun open, at others flipped closed, the effect more dance than martial art. Other exercises involve two nuns sparring, circling each other with clenched fists, thrusting, shoving, grabbing the other's neck in the crook of their arms and pushing their opponent to the ground.

What I am witnessing in this striking pre-dawn display is more than 1,000 years of tradition being turned on its head. For more than a millennium this kung fu was reserved only for monks, its roots lying far to the north in the legendary Chinese monastery of Shaolin.

It was there in the fifth century that kung fu was said to have originated, after Bodhidarma, an Indian prince turned Buddhist monk, set out to take the teachings of the Buddha to China. On finding temples there vulnerable to attack by thieves, and many monks struggling with the rigours of monastic life, Bodhidarma devised a system of fitness and defence that drew heavily on the ancient traditions of Indian yoga.

Like yoga, Shaolin kung fu developed from observation of the way animals move. Over the centuries the Shaolin monks incorporated many different animal postures into their practice until eventually the mastery of many styles developed into a form represented by the Chinese dragon, a powerful spiritual creature.

It is telling, then, that the nuns of Gawa Khilwa belong to the Drukpa order of Tibetan Buddhism, druk being the Tibetan word for both "dragon" and "thunder". Each day that passes, I make a request to meet the head of the Drukpa order, the Gyalwang Drukpa, whose introduction of the nuns to kung fu is only one aspect of a highly unusual degree of support he shows the women in his care. On the morning of my sixth day, I am granted an audience.

The décor inside the room in which he receives me is full of established Buddhist imagery. But as we begin to speak I quickly gain an impression of a man whose robes mask a forward thinker impatient with some of the constraints of tradition. Early on, he shows me a picture of his mother and I come to understand that her absence when he was a boy perhaps provides some key to his unorthodox views. After being recognised as a reincarnation of a previous holder of the title, at the age of four he was taken from the care of his Tibetan parents to a monastery near Darjeeling, in India. He admits openly to the hardship involved.

During his training, the Gyalwang Drukpa rarely saw his parents and enjoyed little female influence. The few nuns he encountered were regarded as inferior to monks and were invariably treated badly.

"By nature women embody the wisdom of the Buddhist teachings. They are more loving and compassionate than men because of their mothering instinct," he says. It seems quite a leap from this nurturing vision of womanhood to introducing his nuns to kung fu – a move that has been criticised in more conservative Buddhist circles.

The idea came to him, he explains, after seeing nuns in Vietnam being taught the martial art by police officers who had learned combat skills to fight the Vietcong. "Some people say kung fu, knocking somebody down, is the opposite of love. And I too wondered if I was doing the right thing, introducing my nuns to the practice," he says. "But love comes in many forms. Love is not accepting failure and it is not failing to defend against attack.

"I want the nuns that I teach to be strong and confident. Becoming a monk or a nun is not a comfortable experience, but it is good training for the skills they will need in life."

The essence of Buddhism, he continues, is a process for improving the quality of one's own life and that of others.

"Buddhism is not a religion. It is not an 'ism' at all," he says. "You can call it a philosophy of life. But there are many people who misunderstand this term too, thinking of it as something academic. I'm talking about a philosophy of how you stand, sit, drink tea and do everything in life with awareness."

Far from envisioning his nunneries as sanctuaries from everyday reality, his intention is that they should act as training grounds for spiritual warriors. And there are now more women queuing up for the privilege of this training than any of his nunneries are able to accommodate.

Gawa Khilwa, for instance, at the time of my visit, has a waiting list of between 50 and 60 women. "We need women now more than ever," says the Gyalwang Drukpa, as our meeting concludes. "The answer to many questions being asked in modern society is that more empowerment of women is needed."

His intention is that the nuns at Gawa Khilwa, and other nunneries over which he presides in India, will eventually go out into society to carry out practical work. "The nuns must see these nunneries as schools from which they will one day emerge, putting their strong female energy to good use."

Since Christine visited Nepal, the country was struck by the terrible earthquake of 25 April. The nuns of Gawa Khilwa refused to be airlifted to safety and used the strength derived from kung fu to help their community, administering medical treatment, constructing shelters and carrying more than 100,000 sacks of food to remote villages. This piece was excerpted from The Saffron Road: A Journey with Buddha's Daughters (€20, Portobello).

Field Guide

How to get there: Gawa Khilwa nunnery is generally open to visitors on Saturday. The nunnery is part of the Druk Amitabha Mountain monastic complex of His Holiness the 12th Gyalwang Drukpa. It is an hour's taxi ride north-west of the capital. Access is via a narrow mountain road with ever more hairpin bends and increasingly perpendicular inclines. Druk Amitabha has limited guest quarters but overnight stays can be arranged in advance with the nunnery's office.

What to read: The Gyalwang Drukpa's most recent publications are Everyday Enlightenment and Happiness Is a State of Mind.