Deep within the remote mountains of western Sichuan Province, known to Tibetans as Kham, the monastic town of Yachen Gar is home to 10,000 nuns and monks from across Tibet and China. These photos show a glimpse of religious life in the monastery.
Overlooking Yachen Gar
Deep within the remote mountains of western Sichuan Province, known to Tibetans as Kham, the monastic town of Yachen Gar is home to 10,000 nuns and monks from across Tibet and China.
Most arrive with nothing, and build their own ramshackle houses in a shantytown-like arrangement, using each others walls for support. Women far outnumber the men, who have only begun arriving in recent years and are confined to their own side of the river.
In 2016, Yachen Gar was relatively untouched by outsiders and unseen by the government. It’s residents were happy, friendly, and open.
Sadly, in 2019 Yachen Gar faced the same fate as it’s male-dominated counterpart Larung Gar. Police and armed personnel evicted 80% of the monastic town’s residents and began bulldozing their houses so they could not return. This is ongoing now.
On the way to prayers
Contrary to common western belief, nuns do not spend their entire day in meditation or peaceful rest. Much of their daily schedule is spent in class studying the sutra and tantra, learning to perform particular rites, studying philosophy, and - for many who never received an education at home - learning to read and write.
As in any school, there are those who study hard and complete the homework ahead of time, and those who leave it til the last minute. These nuns were memorising pages of scripture on their way to the assembly hall one afternoon, but whether they were getting ahead or falling behind I can’t say.
Due to the enormous number of nuns who have made Yachen Gar their home, they are divided into large classes who must share the different assembly halls on a rotating basis, each taking turns to gather and recite their twice-daily prayers.
Many nuns and monks alike are never without their prayer wheel in hand. Containing 100,000 repetitions of the mantra “Om Mani Padme Hum”, they believe that every rotation of the wheel is equivalent to speaking the mantra 100,000 times.
Boredom and education
Over on the men’s side of the river, they also gather twice a day to recite their prayers, prayer wheels in hand.
It’s common for boys as young as seven to be sent to monasteries to become junior monks, although as this image shows they don’t always have the attention span required to make it through prayers.
In the old days, it was expected for Tibetan families to send at least one son to the monastery, and if he did well it was a source of pride for the family. These days, boys are encouraged to go to China instead for education.
A natural young monk
While some younger monks struggle to remain focussed, others take to it naturally and even ask to join the monastery from a young age.
Tibetans explain this as being their karma - in a past life, they must have been very good and devout people, who are now blessed with strong faith, a smart mind, and steadfast devotion to the Buddha’s teachings.
These boys will attain much positive merit over their lifetime, becoming closer to enlightenment than the majority of their monk brothers.
The nunnery nursery
Not all women in robes at Yachen Gar have been nuns their whole lives. Women aren’t encouraged to become nuns in the same way that men are to become monks, so many don’t choose this path until later.
Some women arrive pregnant, or with small children. Their histories differ - husbands who died, husbands who beat them, unplanned pregnancies - yet they are all received the same by the community here.
Their children accompany them until they are old enough to attend the nunnery nursery and primary school, where they will learn reading, writing, math, and a variety of other subjects.
Nomads and nuns
In the nunnery primary school, the children are dressed in a mix of lay and monastic clothing, reflecting their different backgrounds.
Some are the children of nomads who live around the outskirts of Yachen Gar, there to provide the nuns with yak milk & butter. The nearest town is two mountain ranges away, too far for many to take their children.
Some children came to Yachen with their mother when she took the robes and became a nun. Some were even born here, and call it their home. These children dress like little Rinpoches in shining satin shirts and jackets, imitating the great teachers who lead the nuns in prayer.
The prayer wheels
Pilgrims from all over the region, and from as far afield as Lhasa and China, come to Yachen Gar to make offerings and receive blessings.
One of the main activities performed by pilgrims is to follow the looping trail of prayer wheels around the main assembly hall and mani pile, spinning each wheel as they go.
Similar to the handheld prayer wheels, these giant golden cylinders hold hundreds of thousands of printed mantra inside them, so that each rotation is as effective as speaking it that many times.
The outer kora
Around the outer perimeter of the monastic town is a trail, also lined sporadically by prayer wheels. This is called the kora, meaning “to go around”.
Walking a kora is an act of devotion and offering, but is also enjoyed as a social event by many who take the opportunity away from the crowds to giggle and gossip as they walk.
Others , meanwhile, use the opportunity to memorise their scriptures or practice recitations aloud.
Dancing on the hillside
In the evening, around the outer kora where the trail climbs the hill, these young monks and nuns were practicing a dance.
Although the men and women of Yachen Gar usually do not socialise together, this group appeared to be good friends and didn’t mind each other’s company.
The women sat on the grass, singing classic melodic tunes, while the men danced in the evening light, only occasionally realising how badly out of time they were.
Mentor and mentee
The same evening, an older monk and his young mentee wander slowly across the hillside, deep in discussion.
Beyond them, surrounded by a bright white fence, is the town’s charnel ground - an important place to meditate on impermanence, and for cutting apart one’s ego.
Guru Rinpoche atop the hill
On top of the hill, overlooking the entire Yachen Gar complex, stands this impressive statue of mighty Guru Rinpoche - the second most important figure in Tibetan Buddhism after the Buddha himself.
Close to sunset, a sun halo appeared, which perfectly framed the Guru in a rainbow - a motif frequently seen in Tibetan paintings.
Yachen Gar 2017
Inside Yachen Gar
The nearest town is two mountain ranges and an expansive plain away, yet here in the remote eastern plateau of Tibet a thriving nunnery of 10,000 has developed.
Gar literally means “camp”, which is how this now-epic institution began. Over the years as more people arrived, ramshackle buildings sprung up in disorganised clusters and roads were built through the middle.
These days the village has limited power and phone signal, but still lacks basic sanitary facilities and clean water, leaving it stuck between its old slum-like appearance and a modern liveable town.
In 2019 authorities began the destruction of Yachen Gar in the interest of public health and safety. It’s unknown what they will allow to remain.
Along one of the main streets, ramshackle houses lean against each other for support. Newly arriving nuns build with whatever materials and assistance they can find or afford.
Some nuns build small boxed on top of their houses, just big enough to sit upright cross-legged in, for private meditation purposes.
Personal space is not a luxury afforded to the nuns of Yachen Gar. Many share their shacks with one or two others, finding it cheaper and warmer to share resources, especially in winter.
The one paved street
While arrivals boomed at Yachen, infrastructure development fell behind.
Most of Yachen’s walkways and public areas remain muddy, or half-paved. The central artery through the houses is so far the only complete road-with-sidewalk paved street.
The exterior of a typical restaurant in Yachen Gar - made of the same makeshift material as the houses, and displaying the menu on a bi-lingual Tibetan and Chinese poster outside (with images for those who are illiterate).
The entire nunnery is vegetarian, an unusual move for Tibet where even senior monks eat yak meat on a regular basis. Here though, they believe that living a vegetarian life is an important way to practice compassion for living beings - an important tenet of Buddhism.
The convenience store
This little shack contains one of many convenience stores around the village. These are run by local laypeople to supply the nuns with their daily dose of snacks in the form of red bull, sprite, instant pot noodles, lollipops, and vegetarian fake meat.
Another small shop shack, this one supplies robes and clothing accessories for men and women in Yachen Gar.
Although the number of nuns in Yachen far outweighs the number of monks, both are catered for equally by this man’s shop.
Do not go this way
At an intersection outside the main assembly hall, which is shared by monks and nuns on alternate days so they don’t interact, is a sign which reminds each which way they should go.
To the left, monks are directed toward the men’s living area of Yachen Gar. To the right, nuns are directed to the bridge that’ll take them across the river to their part of the village.
Rush hour at Yachen
Around mid-morning, the nuns pour over the bridge from their houses across the river toward the main assembly hall, for the daily teaching led by their Rinpoche.
Nuns of all ages live at Yachen Gar, and attend the daily teachings and prayers. The women support each other as sisters, and playfulness is encouraged in the young.
This young woman was playing a game with her friend, pretending to hide behind her hat and not see her.
Across the river
On the other side of the river now, the steady stream of maroon-robed nuns continues on toward the main assembly hall.
One late-comer skips as she descends the hill to the teaching ground to join her sisters.
Alone in Yachen
With all the nuns already assembled for the daily teaching, this last straggler hurries alone down the main street of Yachen Gar. She’s still got a long way to go, to reach the gold-roofed temple in the distance.
Entering the assembly area
Around the gates of the main assembly hall and grounds, laypeople gather among the nuns to hear the precious teachings. The grounds and hall are packed tight, so the laypeople are left to find seats wherever they can.
The precious teachings
From a window halfway up the main assembly hall, the Rinpoche speaks into a microphone, delivering his daily teaching.
The crowd raise a sea of umbrellas to protect themselves from the harsh high-altitude sun, while they listen, take notes, read along, or become completely distracted on their phones.
The sea of nuns listen carefully and pray along with Rinpoche’s instruction.
Faces to the sky
Young and old, weak and strong, all attend the teachings with staunch faith that it will enable them to clear negative karma from their lives and progress toward Nirvana.
Help from technology
The Rinpoche’s microphone is not only for volume, it also transmits his words via shortwave radio so that nuns who are hard of hearing can tune in on personal devices and listen through headphones.
Homework in class
While others listen passively, some nuns toward the back scrawl notes and copy from books and scriptures, completing their homework or study for the day.
Sharing a joke
Like any school class, there are always those who whisper jokes or stories during the lesson, lifting the mood and lightening their friends’ serious expressions.
The young nuns and monks are the ones who struggle the most with paying attention during the lesson, which can sometimes go for hours on end in the hot sun.
Struggling to keep up
This young monk, sitting amongst the nuns, appeared exasperated as he struggled to stay awake, stay cool, stay focussed, and stay on top of where the Rinpoche was up to in his reading.
Free time, photo time
While the nuns are in the midst of their lessons, the monks have free time to enjoy themselves and make the most of the bright weather.
On top of the hill overlooking Yachen Gar, these monks wanted to pose as kung-fu heroes while their friend took photos on his iPhone.
Bisket Jatra 2017
The chariot of Bisket Jatra
Each year around March or April, the town of Bhaktapur in Kathmandu, Nepal, hosts its annual Bisket Jatra festival.
For days leading up to the opening of the week-long event, a chariot is constructed in the main square of the ancient city, piece by piece. At the close of the festival, the chariot is dismantled and stored carefully for another year.
Here, local boys play on the half-finished chariot in the days before the festival.
Crowds gather in Bhaktapur
On the first day of Bisket Jatra, thousands of people crowd into Bhaktapur to see the chariot careen through the narrow streets, pulled by teams of local men.
It’s a spectacle for tourists and Nepali alike, who follow the chariot en masse from square to square over the course of a few hours.
When the momentum stops
The chariot’s journey begins at the uppermost square of Bhaktapur, and travels through narrow streets and alleyways downhill to the bottom square, propelled by a combination of gravity and manpower.
However, occasionally the chariot becomes stuck and its downhill momentum isn’t enough to keep it going. In these cases, teams of men on either side of it yank it from either end in turn until the large wheels begin rolling again and it carries on.
Here, the chariot conveniently lost its momentum halfway through a turn that would have sent it straight into a heritage building. The alleys and turns in ancient Bhaktapur are tight, and it’s not uncommon to see power lines yanked down or wooden decorative features swiped by the out-of-control chariot.
To send it down the right track, teams of men and volunteers from the crowd try to correct the chariot’s course by tugging on the trailing ropes.
It's easier in the audience
While the young men strain and heave to turn the chariot, older onlookers and tourists quite happily stand back to enjoy the spectacle.
An unwinnable tug of war
Controlling or correcting the chariot gives young men a great opportunity to test their strength, as if battling for a tug of war they’ll never win. Although some come away bruised and dirty, they’re safe from serious harm as long as they remain above the heavy chariot.
From a safe distance
A local Newari man looks down from his window at the crowds chasing the chariot through the streets.
On the sidelines
This young boy, proudly bearing the Nepali flag on his cheek, was closely minded by his older sister while they waited for the chariot to enter this final stage of its journey.
Spectators can easily be trampled or crushed below the chariot wheels if they are trapped in front of it. While many young men see it as an adrenalin rush - leaping to grab hold of it as it passes, or standing in front until the last minute in a game of chicken - not all of them come away successful.
The chariot re-emerges
After a painful negotiation through the final tight passages, the chariot emerges down the channel into the final square.
The men who’ve been pulling with all their might to encourage it to make the right turns will now have to leap clear or be struck by the dangerously careening chariot.
Clinging to safety
While two men stand joyously on the front prow of the Bisket Jatra chariot, others cling desperately to the bottom, knowing that if they let go they could be seriously injured.
The chariot is now moving at speed and increasing in pace as it follows a steady and open descent to the final square.
The young man's thrill
Meanwhile other young men try to leap onto the chariot from behind, excited by the rush of riding through the crowd and being in centre stage.
The final resting place
The chariot finally slows to a halt amid a sea of spectators, both foreign and Nepali. People have been crowding the rooftops and windows for hours, waiting to see this final moment when the chariot comes to rest at the end of its journey.
The journey's end
Now it’s stationary and safe to approach, the crowd surges to touch the chariot and receive blessing from the deity housed inside it. The chariot will remain here for some days until the next part of its journey through the streets begins again.