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The Pamo (Heroines) of Karma Drubdey Nunnery

My initial introduction to cham, the sacred dances of Himalayan Buddhism, was in Bhutan in 2011. I was informed that these ritual dances were only performed by men─either monastic or lay, but always men. I soon learned that this tradition was also the norm among other Himalayan communities. Understanding the dances to be Vajrayana ritual practices and an aspect of deity visualization, I questioned the restriction: wouldn’t female monastics and lay practitioners also want and deserve access to this powerful spiritual activity? 

Several years later, I learned that the nuns of Karma Drubdey Nunnery in central Bhutan were known for their dance practices, but I had not guessed how extensive they were. Then I discovered that they had performed before thousands at the historic 2014 Kagyu Monlam in Bodh Gaya, India, at the behest of His Holiness the 17th Karmapa. They performed alongside the nuns of Thrangu Tara and Keku Dagmo Choling nunneries, about which I wrote in my previous article “Dancing a Display of Emptiness: Thrangu Nuns Make History.”

At the historic monlam, two distinct dakini cham, Kadrinchenma Cham and Pamo Cham, were performed by the Karma Kagyu nuns. The Karma Drubdey nuns from Bhutan danced Pamo Cham or “Dance of the Heroines.” So I was determined to learn about that experience, the cham, and the other dances these capable nuns weave into their unique tapestry of practices.

Nuns of Karma Drubdey performing Pamo Cham at the 2014 Kagyu Monlam. Image courtesy of Karma Drubdey Nunnery
Nuns of Karma Drubdey with their drums for Pamo Cham during the 2014 Kagyu Monlam. Image courtesy of Karma Drubdey Nunnery

The two-hour drive from the Bumthang Valley to the nunnery winds up steep mountain roads. Early May views of terraced hillside farms opposite densely forested valleys dotted with bright red, wild rhododendron blooms provided a scenic prelude to my visit. Karma Drubdey Nunnery, established in 1968 by the great scholar, teacher, and yogi Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtsho Rinpoche, sits on a steep hillside above the village of Kuenga Rabten in the Trongsa District of Bhutan. Khenpo Rinpoche, along with 13 nuns who escaped with him from Tibet after the Communist Chinese takeover, stayed at the Kuenga Rabten winter palace of the second king of Bhutan at the invitation of Her Majesty Queen Ashi Phuntsho Choden Wangchuck. One day, Khenpo Rinpoche was found meditating in a small cave above Kuenga Rabten Palace. This became his special meditation spot and, later, the site of the nunnery’s main temple. 

Today, Karma Drubdey is comprised of the main nunnery, a retreat center, and a shedra (monastic secondary school), with a total of about 180 nuns ranging in age from six to 80 years old. Aside from regular monastic activities, the nuns grow, package, and sell tea, make and sell incense, and cultivate beautiful gardens throughout their campus. 

Karma Drubdey is the only nunnery in Bhutan of the Karma Kagyu school. The nuns regularly attend teachings with other monastics of the lineage and have occasional interchange with their sister nunnery Tek Chok Ling in Kathmandu, also founded by Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtsho Rinpoche. A notable wall mural in the main temple depicts the Kagyu lineage masters: the 16th Karmapa in the center, the mahasiddha founders above, and the Karmapa incarnations below. 

Mural in the Karma Drubdey prayer hall depicting the Kagyu lineage masters. Photo by Karen Greenspan

I was introduced to Lopon Chophal Palmo, who grew up in a nearby community and has been a Karma Drubdey nun since the age of 18. Having studied for 13 years at Dolma Ling Institute, a center of higher learning for Tibetan Buddhist nuns in Dharamsala, she is now 43 years old and is a lopon (teacher) for the nunnery’s shedra. Lopon Chophal Palmo gathered the nun dancers and facilitated my visit and discussion with them.

Back in 2013, the nunnery was informed that His Holiness the Karmapa wanted five nuns to learn and perform Pamo Cham for the 2014 Kagyu Monlam, the annual international prayer festival for world peace and well-being. In a visible push to promote gender equality and train nuns in ritual practices that had previously been off limits to female practitioners, several nunneries had been invited to perform two dakini cham for this very public event. Pamo Cham requires five dancers as it is a dance of the dakinis of the Five Wisdom Families. The dancers reported that they were chosen according to their height and for their melodious voices─as Pamo Cham alternates dancing sections with singing parts. It is possible that Karma Drubdey was singled out to perform this cham because singing is so integral to its performance. The nuns of Karma Drubdey are very accomplished, strong singers─perhaps because of Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche’s renowned teaching methods of singing and composing spontaneous songs of realization. They have participated in these practices for years. 

About six months prior to the monlam, the Karma Drubdey nun dancers traveled to Rumtek Monastery, the Gyalwang Karmapa’s seat-in-exile, in the northeastern Indian state of Sikkim to learn the cham. As all the sacred cham of the lineage had been performed by monks until that time, Kagyu monks were the only knowledge-holders who could teach the nuns this dance tradition. The journey took three days traveling by bus and taxi. Once there, the nuns stayed for 10 days learning the dance from four of the senior monk dancers and the liturgy from two umdzes (chant masters).

A mural decorates one of Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtsho Rinpoche’s favorite meditation spots. Photo by Karen Greenspan
Lopon Chophal Palmo. Photo by Karen Greenspan

After the nuns returned home, one of the umdzes came to the nunnery to review the cham and they practiced every evening until the monlam. Once in Bodh Gaya, the nuns participated in the chamjug (formal rehearsal); the Karmapa gave his approval of their competence at that time. When I asked how they felt about donning the elaborate costume with its symbolic bone ornaments, wig, and crown, the nuns shared that the Karmapa and the Discipline Master had helped dress them in their costumes. His Holiness then gave all the performers a protection string just before the performance. At first, the nuns felt nervous about performing in the overwhelming venue for the vast audience. But soon, they gained a new sense of confidence and realized their good fortune in performing for this very special occasion. 

Pamo Cham is part of the larger Tsechu Cham, a full program of sacred dances performed throughout Himalayan Buddhist communities to honor Padmasambhava, or Guru Rinpoche, the tantric master who brought Buddhism from India to the Himalayan region in the mid-eighth century. The event includes a grand procession in which usually a senior lama takes the role of Guru Padmasambhava. For this monlam, His Holiness the Karmapa fulfilled this role. The Guru is paraded under a billowing golden parasol in the company of eight of his manifestations and an extensive entourage to a central throne. From there, he views and receives a series of dance and musical offerings from various celestial beings. Pamo Cham is one of the offerings to the Guru. The cham is derived from descriptions in the Tsechu liturgy depicting the pamo, or spiritual heroines, as singing and dancing on gossamer rays of rainbow light surrounding the celestial palace of Guru Rinpoche.

The five pamo enter the dance ground carrying a large hand-drum in their left hand and a hooked drumstick in their right. The drum represents wisdom and the drumstick signifies compassion. Each beat symbolically unites wisdom with compassion, liberating all beings from suffering through the sound. Standing opposite the seated Guru, the pamo form a tight circle and huddle together singing the initial verse, “I bow down to the body, speech, and mind of the Supreme Lama . . .” The clear tones carry the intention of the words. The pamo spread out into a semicircular formation facing Guru Padmasambhava and perform a sequence of slow stepping, bending, and turning movements as they beat the drum for each. With every drumbeat, they flip the drum in a different direction, which, according to Chophal Palmo, is a sound offering to the various directions.

Pamo Cham recently performed by Keku Dagmo Choling nuns in Sikkim. Photo by Karen Greenspan

They return to huddle and chant the next verse, placing the rim of their drum on the top of their boots and rapping the wooden side of the drum with their sticks. After chanting the verse, they open the circle to repeat the dance. The liturgy gives a description of the iconography of Guru Padmasambhava: “Your right hand holds a five-pronged vajra. This signifies the spontaneously present five kayas within you. Your left hand holds a kapala (skull cup) filled with amrita. This signifies the great bliss that is present unceasingly within you. Your leg holds a vajra position. (This signifies that you are beyond birth and death).”

Once the fifth verse has been sung, the pamo uncoil their circle and form a line, stepping as they lift the opposite leg with regal grace. Pivoting to face each direction, they continue to drum with these concluding steps. As each pamo exits, she turns back to bow to the Guru, still beating out her sublime offering of body (dance), speech (song), and mind (the offering is made with a full heart).

During my visit to Karma Drubdey, the pamo dancers shared some of their other singing and dance practices with me. Because of Khenpo Rinpoche’s profound dedication to, and love of, gurma (spiritual songs of realization), he requested, back in 1998, that the nuns create a dance to one of Milarepa’s gurma and another to the sutra of “Arya-Tara Who Protects from the Sixteen Fears.” Khenpo Rinpoche instructed Ani Kheychok, a nun at Karma Drubdey and a talented singer, to engage in a year-long retreat along with seven other nuns. During this time, she composed the melody for Milarepa’s “A Song of Meaningful Connection,” while the other nuns began to choreograph Dharma dances. They went on to arrange many more of Milarepa’s and Rinpoche’s songs to music. Rinpoche was delighted with the results and encouraged them to continue their efforts and establish a unique tradition of practice.

Pamo Cham performed by Keku Dagmo Choling nuns in Sikkim. Video courtesy of Audrey Mazur
Pamo Cham performed by Keku Dagmo Choling nuns in Sikkim. Video courtesy of Audrey Mazur

Milarepa composed and sang “A Song of Meaningful Connection” to his sister Peta and his former betrothed Zessay when he was on the verge of death from starvation and struggling to continue meditating. He was revived by the nourishment they brought him, and he expressed his appreciation to them in this song of interdependence as he redoubled his efforts at meditation.

The nuns sing the song as they perform a circle dance, which consists of gestures and postures describing the narrative. They wear their maroon monastic robes, over which a white shawl is draped─suggestive of the “repa” in Milarepa’s name, meaning “cotton-clad” in Tibetan. This refers to the thin, cotton cloth Milarepa and other yogis wore (and still do) as they pursued their yogic practices. In fact, all the nuns perform this dance as a sadhana once a week on Friday evenings. And they sing selections from Milarepa’s gurma every day after completing their daily Tara puja in the temple. Without announcement, the pamo dancers suddenly burst into singing “A Song of Meaningful Connection.” I was struck by the power and beauty of their resonant voices.

Karma Drubdey nuns perform their Milarepa Cham set to Milarepa’s “A Song of Meaningful Connection.” Image courtesy of Karma Drubdey Nunnery
Karma Drubdey nuns perform their Milarepa Cham set to Milarepa’s “A Song of Meaningful Connection.” Image courtesy of Karma Drubdey Nunnery

Meanwhile, two other nuns returned in costumes─unsurprisingly, a green gown and a white one alluding to Green Tara and White Tara─to demonstrate the movements from the Tara dance. The younger nuns all learn the dance and the song (composed by Rinpoche), which they sing as they perform the simple dance gestures and postures moving in a circle. They perform the dance for special occasions. 

Chophal Palmo went on to tell me that in 2018, while the nuns were in the capital city of Thimphu attending a three-month transmission of the Kangyur, five Karma Drubdey nuns were asked to perform the Khandro Denga Cham (Cham of the Five Dakinis) for a longevity prayer for the Je Khenpo. Monks from the Central Monastic Body of Bhutan taught the dance to the nuns for the event. Now they perform this cham along with the Milarepa Dance as a welcome offering when nuns come out of retreat. 

The secret is out. Female practitioners in Bhutan and elsewhere are now and have been for a while performing cham─as indicated by the activities of the nuns of Karma Drubdey, several other nunneries, and even a community of lay practitioners (see my article “Through the Eye of a Needle to Dance with the Dakini: Journey to Druk Zangri Khamar”). As a vision of the sangha with fully empowered female practitioners evolves in Himalayan Buddhist society and its institutions, it will become common to see females performing cham. This is because Vajrayana recognizes the human body as a doorway to enlightenment, and dance (or movement) as a transformative activity, which is why cham is an essential method in the Vajrayana toolbox. It stands to reason that female practitioners will have access to and visibility performing these Vajrayana techniques of transformation. 

Karma Drubdey nuns in costume for their Tara dance. Photo by Karen Greenspan
Procession of Karma Drubdey to dance Khandro Denga Cham as a welcome offering to nuns who have completed their retreat. Image courtesy of Karma Drubdey Nunnery

Unfortunately, in 2019, the Karma Drubdey nuns discovered that their nunnery buildings were sustaining ongoing damage and subsequently found to be unstable. They have initiated a project to relocate and reconstruct their facilities. If you would like to contribute to this effort, you can email: [email protected] for instructions.

1 Five aspects of enlightened mind identified by color, characteristics, and activities associated with the five natural elements.

2 The kayas are various aspects or states of buddhahood. These include the more common formulation of three kayas: the dharmakaya, or absolute body; the sambhogakaya, or body of divine enjoyment; and the nirmanakaya, or manifested body. These correspond to the mind, speech, and body of an enlightened buddha. For the five kayas, one adds the avikaravajrakaya, the “unchanging vajra body,” and the abhisambodhikaya, “body of total enlightenment.”

 3 The collection of the Buddha’s teachings, also known as the Buddhist canon.

4 Title of the senior-most religious hierarch of Bhutan.

Related features from BDG

Dancing a Display of Emptiness: Thrangu Nuns Make History
Through the Eye of a Needle to Dance with the Dakini: Journey to Druk Zangri Khamar
The Chöd Cham of Nagi Gompa: An Alchemy of Radical Courage and Compassion
Dancing to Enlightenment: Drukpa Nuns Bring New Energy to the Songs of Realization
To Dance the Deity Is to Know Her

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