Life inside one of the world’s biggest Buddhist monasteries

Yarchen Gar, officially known as Yaqing Orgyan, is a Buddhist monastery that is made up almost entirely of nuns.

Living in rudimentary conditions, they are devoted to following the faith and entering a life of sacrament.

Established in 1985 by Lama Rinpoche, Yarchen Gar is located in Baiyu county in the Garze Tibetian autonomous prefecture. It is 4,000 metres above sea level – not easy to reach, but home to over 10,000 devotees and one of the largest congregation of Buddhist monks and nuns in the world.

The followers live in tough conditions to prove their devotion to the teachings of Lama Rinpoche, who stressed the enlightenment of meditation, hardship and atonement.

On a well-worn footpath that circles a hill nearby, the nuns and monks “kowtow”, a form of prayer in which the disciple kneels and touches the ground with their forehead every two steps.

Latrines hang over the banks of the river and downstream, the water is collected for personal sanitation, washing clothes and food preparation, making the likelihood of typhoid a real threat.

Modernisation, however, does seem to be touching the lives of the nuns in more ways than one, with stores run by monks and nuns dotted around the perimeter, selling all manner of merchandise. Between meditations and kowtows, young and old go shopping for new robes, fashionable “sakyas” (traditional red hats) or “gelugs” (traditional yellow hats), shoes and electronic goods to name a few.

Many of the nuns seem to walk with headphones attached and smartphones in their hands. Modernisation has made its way to even the most remote of consecrated grounds. 

Some 77 percent of the inhabitants in Garze Prefecture claim ethnic Tibetan heritage. In Yarchen Gar itself, the true number of inhabitants is not clear but the bulk of Sanghas are of Tibetan origin with very few able to speak the standardised national Chinese language of Putonghua.

What is known, however, is that numbers are growing due to the evictions from the larger monastery, Larung Gar, to the north.

Even with problems with the government over the last few years, there does not seem to be any decline in the pilgrims voyaging to the holy site.

In 2018, the restrictions have abated and entry for foreigners is now permitted under relatively lax police presents.

Chinese nationals and foreigners alike will have their IDs checked upon arrival, however.

What is going to be intriguing is how the relationship between government and worshippers will develop in the coming years, particularly with the evicted Larung Gar talapoins emigrating to Yarchen Gar, swelling their numbers. 

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