A Buddhist monk looking out on the Yarchen Gar nunnery in China, where thousands of nuns live in makeshift huts.
Yarchen Gar is the second-largest “gar,” which means monastic encampment in Tibetan. The biggest is Larung Gar, a couple of hundred km to the North East.
The cramped living conditions in the Yarchen Gar nunnery. An estimated 10 000 nuns live and pray here in makeshift houses.
A Buddhist nun with a prayer wheel in Larung Gar, the largest monastic camp in Tibet. The thousands nuns and monks of Larung Gar live in small wooden huts.
Larung Gar has become one of the most influential institutions in the Tibetan world, the teachings of its senior monks praised, debated and proselytized from here to the Himalayas. Now Chinese officials are tightening control over the settlement, in what many Tibetans and their advocates call a severe blow to Tibetan religious practice.
Workers dismantling a dwelling in Larung Gar. Residents and rights groups say officials intend to reduce the settlement’s population to 5,000 by late next year through mass evictions.Hundreds of Buddhists had already been forced out of the area.
A monk looking at the rubbles of monks housing in Yarchen Gar. China says the settlement is overcrowded and unsafe, but Tibetans claim the government’s aim is to weaken centers of power that can rival it.
A nun going through the rubbles of a house destroyed by orders of the Chinese government.
Nuns heading for prayers in Yarchen Gar.
Larung Gar was founded in 1980 by Jigme Phuntsok, a charismatic lama, and it swelled for two decades as word of his teachings spread. Credit
Monks checking religious books for sale on the street.
Larung Gar has also become one of the most influential centers in the Tibetan world.
In Yarchen Gar, nuns gathered for a meal before a prayer and study session.
Unlike Larung gar, Yarchen Gar has for the moment been spared by Chinese authorities. However in a previous clampdown on monastic activities, hundreds of nuns had been evicted from Yarchen Gar, only to come back later.
Nuns leaving the main prayer hall in Yarchen Gar.
The influence of Larung Gar and Yarchen Gar extend way beyond locals and ethnic Tibetans. Hundreds of Han Chinese have joined the settlements to live a simple life.
In the summer of 2001 authorities moved with little warning, citing official concern over possible "splittist" activity, and evicted all but 1400 of the residents. Labourers quickly laid to waste 2400 dwellings.
In Yarchen Gar, a nun carrying a heavy load of yak dung used for heating. Perched over 4000 meters high, on the Tibetan plateau, temperatures drop below freezing for most part of the year, down to -25 Celsius in midst of winter.
A nun waiting to fill her bucket at a collective water tap. Thousands of nuns live in Yarchen Gar in poor sanitary conditions, with no running water, little or no electricity, in cramped makeshift houses.
The Yarchen Gar nunnery as seen from a shop’s window.
A nun walking past makeshift huts, living quarters for thousands Yarchen Gar nuns.
A nun walking on a plank over an open air sewage in Yarchen Gar. Sanitary conditions are extremely poor in both Larung Gar and Yarchen Gar. Cholera and typhoid outbreaks are a daily threat.
A hut under construction in Yarchen Gar.
In spite of the looming threat of eviction, nuns keep coming to Yarchen gar and many new cells are being built by the nuns themselves. Not only do the nuns dedicate themselves fully to their studies, they are also responsible for almost all physical labour at Yarchen, constructing houses, unloading trucks or building roads.
A communal water tap on a street in Yarchen Gar.
Living conditions are tough in both Yarchen Gar and Larung Gar. The reward for this remarkable display of self-deprivation is the chance to learn firsthand from some of the most revered figures in Tibetan Buddhism. The current leader in residence is Asong Tulku. Tulku is a title given to a person who has reached the highest level of spiritual enlightenment; Asong is considered a living Buddha by his followers. To assist in his teaching at Yarchen, Asong is aided by senior nuns referred to as khenmos. Many nuns begin their life here at the age of just six.
Nuns chatting near a giant statue of Padmasambhava, an Indian Buddhist master.
Meditation shacks built by nuns of Yarchen Gar. Nuns can stay days or even weeks meditating day and night in such cells. Winter meditation sessions, referred to as the "direct crossing", can last for days, with nothing more than a blanket to shield worshippers from the cold.
Nuns walking past a giant statue of Guru Rinpoche in Yarchen Gar. Vast amounts of money are being funnelled into gigantic, ornate temples and monuments, while the slum continues to crumble. Han Chinese money has poured into this region, with relatively wealthy converts to Tibetan Buddhism bringing much-needed funds to the camps.