Shem Women's Group - empowering Tibetan women and their communities through grassroots development


Solar Cookers for Tawa Gongma Nunnery
Project Manager: Samtsogye (Whitney)

This project alleviates nuns’ need to buy expensive fuel, improves the nuns’ health, and increases the nuns’ time to read scriptures, which they now do instead of collecting fuel.

An anonymous private donor funded this project

Samtsogye is from Xiahe County, Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Gansu Province, China. She is currently working towards an Associated degree in English at the Qinghai Normal University Nationalities Department English Training Program.

View photos of project location

Read Samtsogye’s life story

What? 14 Solar Cookers for Tawa Gongma Nunnery

Who? Tawa Gongma Nunnery, Lhabrang Township, Xiahe County, Gannan Prefecture, Gansu Province

Photos of project implementation

The delivery truck comes slowly along the nunnery’s footpath.

One of the solar cookers the nuns received.

The nuns gather around the delivery truck.

The nuns were very glad to receive the solar cookers.

The nuns discuss how to transport the solar cookers.

Solar cookers are taken off the delivery truck.

Dam-Chetsomo and some other nuns are taking the solar cooker from the truck


Dam-Chetsomo Lozon-Drolma Rinzin-Drolma Zhalo
Rinzin-Drolma Goncho-Drolma Losan-Tsomo Tsegrol-Kamo
Gonho-Drolma Qe-Drolma Bea-Drolm Dekar
Goncho-Drolma Rinqin-Tsomo Zhaxi-Drolma Garde
Samdan-Drolma Bema-Tsomo Yungji-Drolma Gunlo
Garma-Tsoma Lhaba Rin-rin Tsran-Donzhom
Dam-Drolma Zhaxi-Tsomo Dardrol-Beger Lha-ri-Gyam


Project Summary


• To alleviate nuns’ need to buy expensive fuel (coal, wood, yak- dung, sheep pellets) for cooking. Saved money can be used for other such essential daily necessities as flour, cooking oil, and medicines.

• To save the nuns’ time (which is usually spent getting fuel).

• To improve the nuns’ health and reduce health risks from long-term exposure to smoky kitchens in each nun’s room.

• To increase nuns’ time to read scriptures, which they will do instead of collecting fuel.


The total cost of the project was 2,200 Rmb: 1,400 RMB was donated by an anonymous private donor, the recipient nuns provided 700 RMB in local contribution, and the project manager contributed 100 rmb to pay for her transportation to the project site. The solar cookers were bought from Liu Ji Tai Yang Zao Company in Xunhua. Each solar cooker cost 150rmb, including transportation, and there were a total of 14 solar cookers.


• Fourteen solar cookers were purchased and given to 28 nuns.these cooker will be used by all 51 nuns.

• In using their solar cookers, the nuns will be able to dramatically reduce the amount of fuel that they use and will be able to save money. Before they got the solar cookers, each year they had to spend an average of 170rmb for coal, sheep pellet and wood, and 56rmb for yak dung. We predict that by using the new solar cookers, each nun will be able to save at least 180rmb per year on fuel.

• The nuns’ will also save time that they previously spent waiting for the fuel sellers in the morning. Each morning they would spend about five hours walking down to the road, waiting for the fuel sellers, and carrying the fuel back up the hill. Now that the nuns have solar cookers, they will be able to spend many of their mornings doing other activities.


Tawa Gongma Nunnery is located in Tawa Gongma village , in the south of Xiahe County (historically known as Lhabrang), Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Gansu Province. Xiahe is 278 kilometers from Lanzhou, the provincial capital, and 290 kilometers from Xining, the capital of Qinghai Province.

Some of the Nuns of Tawa Gongma Nunnery

Lhabrang Background:

Lhabrang is located in the southwest of Gansu province. It is a great religious center that attracts thousands of worshippers and tourists every year. In and around Lhabrang are six major religious centers: the Tantra monastery, the Lhabrang monastery, one Nyingma nunnery and two Sarma nunneries. Large-scale religious rituals are held in Lhabrang six times per year. Due to its religious significance, it is known as the “cultural art palace” of Buddhism, or “small Lhasa”. In addition to attracting locals from the 13 townships of Xiahe County, Lhabrang draws both Chinese and western tourists to its wide array of religious activities and the unique atmosphere of its monasteries–especially the Lhabrang monastery, which is the biggest yellow hat sect monastery in Amdo.

Tawa Gongma Nunnery (mtha’ ba gong ma’i jomo’i sgar) Background

Contributed by Professor Charlene Mackley of Reed College

The Tawa Gongma nunnery, a small but thriving community of 51 young nuns living on a hill just east of the famous Geluk sect monastery of Lhabrang (founded 1709), protect a long historical legacy of their community there. However, since Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms in the 1980s allowed some Tibetan Buddhist communities to re-establish themselves after the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), these nuns are among the most marginalized of Buddhist practitioners in the Lhabrang valley (Xiahe County seat). Thus at present, in contrast to the two other nunneries in the valley, the Tawa Gongma nuns live cramped in tiny handmade homes on the hillside, with no plumbing or running water, and very few ways to earn money. Yet, under the guidance of their two head nuns, they persevere in training new young nuns in basic Tibetan literacy, and in carrying out their annual calendar of Buddhist rites in a tiny makeshift assembly hall erected on the spot where the original hall once stood. Charlene Makley, associate professor of anthropology at Reed College, who conducted ethnographic research among the Tawa Gongma nuns between 1992-2002, found that there were several reasons for this situation that were far beyond the nuns’ control.

For one, the Tawa Gongma nuns struggle, along with all nuns in Lhabrang, to find lay support against the deep-seated preference of Tibetan Buddhist laity for the ritual services of monks. This gender bias in Tibetan Buddhism has a long legacy, especially in places of Geluk sect monastic dominance like Lhabrang, yet Makley found that lay preferences for monks were even more marked under the 1980s reforms. In Tibetan regions, a lineage of fully ordained nuns was never established; all nuns in Tibet are thus technically novices. Nuns’ communities were never politically powerful as institutions the way monks’ communities could be, and their facilities were usually smaller and poorer appendages of those of monks. Tibetan nuns historically played social roles that reflected the ambiguous status of their renunciation. Nuns living in nun communities were often expected to maintain closer ties to their natal families than monks (i.e., in remaining subject to household labor obligations), and some women found ways to take vows and remain in the household. In addition, nuns had very different ritual relationships to the lay community than monks. They did not perform the crucial services for specific goals such as divination and chanting at various life events, especially funerals, provided by monks to lay households. Instead, lay investment in nuns’ activities required an exceptional generosity because nuns’ rites for laity represented more “unfocused merit-making” to benefit sentient beings in general. In such a context, the prestige and power of celibate monkhood in this region, and the crucial importance of women to the household economy explain why, despite a definite shortage of marriageable men locally, only a tiny minority of young, never-married women entered the monastic life.

Another reason for the relative marginality of the Tawa Gongma nuns in contemporary Lhabrang hinges on local history. This is because crucial state permissions and start-up funds for rebuilding in the 1980s depended on monastic communities’ claims to relative antiquity in the valley. Accounts of the number of nuns in Lhabrang prior to 1958 vary due to conflicting understandings of the histories of the nun communities there. Most young nuns in post-Mao Lhabrang came to join two Geluk nunneries that were affiliated with Lhabrang monastery by the reign of the fifth Jamyang Shepa (1916-1947), the ruling lama of Lhabrang. These were the Tawa Gongma Nunnery and the Hwontshang Hill Nunnery, situated on the hills just to the east and west of the monastery respectively. The Lhabrang nunneries, like most historically, had their own small groups of senior nuns who acted as teachers, mentors and administrators for younger nuns, and they were largely autonomous in the day-to-day running of the community. Indeed, they operated as separate assemblies modeled on the monk assemblies, with nun officials corresponding to the major monk officials in the assemblies, and their own calendars of ritual observances. Estimates of the combined population of those original communities on the eve of the Chinese Communist victory range from 80-100 nuns. Far overshadowed by the great prestige of Lhabrang monastery (with up to 4000 monks in its heyday), the history of those nun communities barely surfaces in histories of the monastery. What little has been written about them (a paragraph here and there) has been collected from oral histories and legends.

Makley found that in the 1990s many of the elder nuns had passed away, and the remaining nuns had to compete for precious state support as they tried to re-establish all-important links to prestigious patron lamas. The Hwontshang Hill Nunnery was able to monopolize the funds for rebuilding allocated to Lhabrang nuns by the state in the early 80s (about 18,000 yuan). Negotiations for state support for nuns in Lhabrang also allowed for the establishment of an entirely new community of Nyingma nuns there. When in the 1980s the Religious Affairs Bureau decided to recognize the Hwontshang Hill nunnery as the only nunnery for state support, a group of Nyingma nuns who had recently come to Lhabrang as devotees of a charismatic Nyingma lama there managed to gain state recognition as another “school” of the Hwontshang nunnery. In the 1990s, both the Hwontshang Hill Nunnery and the Nyingma Nunnery had elder nun representatives on the monastery’s “Democratic Management Committee”, the committee which after reforms was the most important liaison between monastic communities and the institutions of the state. Thus with concerted advocacy and fundraising efforts, the two communities were able to secure state and private funds to separately build beautiful assembly halls by the late 1990s.

In effect, the young nuns who came to join the Tawa Gongma Nunnery in the 80s and 90s, lacking the prestige of elder nuns and the support of local lamas, were cut out of state-supported rebuilding efforts. However, according to local Tibetan historians, the Tawa Gongma Nunnery was actually the most ancient nunnery in the valley . Those accounts state that the Tawa Gongma nunnery was established in 1781 by a nun from the Chedzong Lango region in Tshe (ch. Hezuo) with the support of the 2nd Jamyang Shepa, during the period in which he was engaged in greatly expanding the monastery’s facilities and influence. By contrast, the Hwontshang Hill Nunnery was very recent, having been established during the reign of the 5th Jamyang Shepa in 1925. In an interview with Makley in 1995, the two head nuns of Tawa Gongma Nunnery proudly spoke of this historical legacy, a link to the past they had heard about from elder nuns, since passed away, who had quietly lived there through the Maoist years. The head nuns insisted that they had stayed at their site even after post-Mao state officials only recognized the Hwontshang Hill Nunnery because the nunnery’s main lama, based at a Geluk monastery just north of Lhabrang, had admonished them to stay and protect the historical legacy of the 2nd Jamyang Shepa.

A final reason for the relative marginality of the Tawa Gongma nunnery in contemporary Lhabrang has to do with the intensifying tensions under reforms between young rural Tibetan women’s aspirations and the needs of their households. Makley found that in the 1990s and early 2000s, unprecedented numbers of young women were leaving rural regions to seek opportunities for work and education in urbanizing places like Lhabrang valley (the Xiahe County seat). They did this even as Tibetan households often chose to keep daughters home to hold up the household subsistence economy while sons were sent to become monks, or to seek secular education or wage labor in the increasingly competitive market economy. In this context, Tibetan Buddhist nunneries in Lhabrang, especially because as Geluk nunneries they were often perceived by nuns to offer more equal opportunities for Buddhist education than Nyingma nunneries, held out one of the only viable options for rural women to find community and education outside of rural households and arranged marriages. Thus, even as numbers of young monks dwindled into the late 1990s, numbers of nuns have increased dramatically relative to nun populations before.

According to Makley’s estimates, there were about 200 nuns affiliated with the Lhabrang nun communities in 1995, at least 80% of whom were under the age of 40. This was over twice the number of nuns reportedly living in Lhabrang just prior to the Communist victory in 1949. Most young nuns in Lhabrang are from relatively impoverished Amdo farming regions outside the Lhabrang valley in Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, or in Tibetan regions in northern Sichuan and southern Qinghai provinces. In 1995, there was a housing shortage for such new nuns, and many lived with nun roommates, or rented spaces in lay households.

In the contemporary context then, Makley found that all nuns in Lhabrang had to face intensifying scrutiny and gossip from local laity and monks because they were uniquely visible as young women who were opting out of crucial household labor. The Tawa Gongma nuns were particularly susceptible to this because they lacked the mitigating prestige of state support and a local lama. Thus, even though, like the other nun communities, the Tawa Gongma nuns enforced strict rules concerning public behavior, they had to endure frequent local gossip about their motivations and capacities for serious learning. These factors, along with intensifying competition among Tibetan ritual specialists for dwindling lay support under market reforms, meant that the Tawa Gongma nuns were at the bottom of locals’ priorities, forcing most to rely for subsistence on meager contributions from family members, begging, or physically taxing fasting services. Yet their perseverance and integrity in maintaining their nunnery and seeking out new educational opportunities from lamas is a testament to the power of rural Tibetan women’s aspirations in the face of social and economic obstacles.


There are approximately 50,000 people in Lhabrang city. In Tawa Gongma nunnery there are 51 nuns. The youngest nun is 13 years old, and the oldest is 56. The majority of the nuns are 30-50 years old.


Almost all of the nuns in the Tawa Gongma nunnery have had some formal education. Of the 51 nuns, 41 hav e graduated from primary school and 20 have attended some middle school. There are five nuns who have no f ormal schooling, but who learned how to read and write in the nunnery. In addition, all of the nuns have furthered their education in the nunnery. All of the nuns are literate and can fluently chant all kinds of Tibetan scripture. This is a big accomplishment. However, the nun’s talent for reading scriptures goes unrecognized because the local people never ask the nuns to chant in their homes. In this area, people believe that asking the nuns to read the scripture is a shameful thing, and instead they always ask monks to chant. By chanting scriptures, the monks can earn 20 rmb per day, receive three free meals and free transportation.
Cash income

Most of the nuns in Tawa Gongma nunnery make barely enough money to survive. The cost of fuel, food, medicine, water, and electricity per person per year is about 350 RMB. This figure includes only enough money for two meals per day. The average nun is able to make about 420 RMB per year through fasting rites, begging, and family support. At the end of the year, the nuns use whatever money they have leftover to purchase clothing for themselves and food for the Losar (new year) celebration.

The hardworking nuns earn this small amount of money in two very harsh ways: The first is by begging. Every month, the nuns go to surrounding villages to beg for small amounts of money, food, or anything else that generous families may be willing to give. Unfortunately, the townspeople people often scold them and say that they beg out of laziness. People also say that they have become nuns because they don’t want to do housework, or cannot find husbands or have some physical problems such as blindness, or deafness. When they g o out begging, they are mistreated by village children, who throw rocks at them and poke them with sticks. The children get bad ideas about the nuns from their families. W idespread prejudice against the nuns leads to fewer and fewer families who are willing to give donations to them.

The second way that the nuns earn money is by performing a religious ritual called ‘Nongnay’ (fasting) to earn money. Compared to the monks of Lhabrang, the nuns have very few opportunities to earn money for performing religious rituals. N ongnay is a ritual that monks do not perform, and thus it has become the nuns’ chief source of income . When performing Nongnay, the nuns do not eat, drink, or speak for two entire days. After practicing this ritual, the nuns can earn some money. Usually, rich families give them 10–13rmb per ritual and poor families give them 5rmb. Practicing this religious ritual on a regular basis causes many health problems for the nuns. They are very susceptible to diseases and are often sick. In addition, they usually have very low energy, look much older than their age, and almost all of the n uns are unhealthily under weight. Over the past 10 years, more than half of the nuns, including Ani Rakzen Droma, the leader of the nunnery, have contracted serious illnesses that required them to stay in bed. Ma ny of the villagers believe that these sicknesses are a direct result of practicing Nongnay, but the nuns have no choice but to do the ritual. When a family asks the nuns to practice Nognay, they must concede, because this is one of the only ways that they have to earn money for survival. In addition, they are afraid that if they were to refuse, it would increase the prejudice and rumors against them, and people would say that the nuns don’t want to help others.

Because they barely make enough money to survive, their natal families support them by donating small amounts of food, butter, cheese, or oil. They also receive an average of 150 rmb per nun per year from their families.


The nuns themselves do not have any fields. Their families do, however, and these fields create the income that partially supports them. A rich family has about 7mu of land, with which they can earn 2,000 rmb per year, and a poor family has about 4 to 5 mu, with which they can earn about 1000rmb per year.


Some of the nuns’ families also raise livestock. The average nun’s family owns one donkey, two pigs, two cows and 50 sheep. By selling the mature livestock and offspring, and the dairy products that these animals produce, they can earn between 800 to 2500rmb rmb per year, depending on how many family members are working to raise the livestock. This amount of money is used to support the entire family, and to support the daughter in the nunnery. Usually, each family gives 150 rmb per year to the nunnery, in addition to small amounts of butter cheese, and oil. Most families are large, with more than ten people, and some families also have to pay tuition for children in school. Hence, the families’ living conditions are very poor.


The weather in Xiahe county is usually cold. In our hometown there is no clear distinction between spring, winter, summer and autumn. Most months are winter. In July the weather is little bit hot, but after that people cannot say goodbye to their sheep skin robes. Because of the cold weather, the nuns spend abou t 170rmb per person per year on fuel (firewood and yak dung). The cold winter also makes the nun’s lives difficult because it makes it difficult for them to go outside to beg and earn money.


No access to nunnery

The Tawa Gongma nuns have many different problems that combine together to make their lives difficult. One of these problems is the very limited access to their nunnery. The terrible condition of the current path that leads from the main road to the nunnery makes it very dangerous and difficult to reach the nunnery, which causes the nuns to be isolated from their community. This path freezes over entirely during the winter months, and becomes dangerously muddy during the wet season, making it very difficult to use for 12 months of the year. This lack of access causes many problems for the nuns:


In winter, when the road is not frozen over, the snowmelt from the surrounding mountain floods the small road and makes it nearly impossible to travel on. This makes it difficult for all of the Tawa Gongma nuns to leave or return to their nunnery. The muddy, icy road is most dangerous for the older nuns, who simply stay in their dormitories for the majority of the wet season because they cannot make it down the mud path without slipping.

No access to basic living needs such as fuel and milk

Another problem caused by the terrible condition of the footpath is the nun’s lack of access to vendors who supply milk, fuel, and other necessities to the townspeople. Due to the muddy, slippery footpath, these vendors refuse to travel to the nunnery to sell their wares without charging an extra fee. Hence, the nuns must either pay double for these items, or spend half of the day waiting at the main road to meet the vendors and then drag the merchandise up the muddy footpath to the nunnery.


Ani Rinzig is on the left side

I interviewed Ani-Rinzing, the leader of this nunnery. She is 54 years old. She said that she is very happy that the nuns got such good quality solar cookers. After a week I asked her how the solar cookers were working, and she said the solar cookers are excellent, and that they use them every day. She explained that since the roofs of the nuns’ small homes are not sturdy enough the support the weight of the solar cookers, they decided to put the solar cookers together in a villager’s yard where all 51 of the nuns can use them. They are currently rebuilding their nunnery, and after the new nunnery hall is finished being built they will move the solar cookers to the yard of the nunnery. She said that now the nuns don’t have to wait for the fuel sellers on the street or pay double price for fuel. She thinks that because of the solar cookers, each nun will save around 180rmb in a year because they will only need to spend money for fuel to use on cold or cloudy days.

I also interviewed Ani-Goncho, who has been a nun for 34 years. She has carried coal and yak-dung from the lower market to the nunnery for many years. She believes that carrying coal hurt her leg so much so that now she limps. Before she got the solar cooker, her impoverished family needed to send yak-dung, wood and sheep pellets by donkey transport from 11 kilometers away. This took almost 8 hours. After she got the solar cooker she doesn’t need to burden her family. While I was interviewing her she said thank you to the donor again and again.

Tsedrom, on the left, with another nun

Thirteen year old Tsedrom said she is very happy to get a solar cooker because she doesn’t need to accompany the older nuns go to the crossroads to look for dung sellers for around five hours every day. Instead, she is able to use that time to read scriptures and to learn more about Buddhism.


Date Activities Participants
March 25,2006 Holding a meeting with nuns Whitney &the nuns
March 26,2006 Contacting with the company Whitney &Lillian
April 1,2006 transport the solar cookers to the nunnery Whitney& brother &the driver
April 2,2006 Distributing the solar cookers to the nuns Whitney &nuns and brother
April 3,2006 Taking pictures of the solar cookers in the nuns’ dorms Whitney
April 4th, 2006 Interviewing the nuns Whitney

Thank You Letter

Dear Donor,

Tawa Gongma Nunnery has 51 nuns, and our lives depend on fasting and begging. Sometimes our families gave us a little money for food and fuel. Our families graze sheep and a few yaks in order to make a living. But during the past few years the weather has changed gradually and there has been less rainfall than normal. Because of this, the grassland has become dry and many livestock have died. That being the case, many local people have difficulty in earning money from selling animals. So we cannot get family support and we cannot get food and money from begging, since many people here depend on herding. These days, we are rebuilding our chanting hall, which before was a one roofed hall without walls. We are rebuilding because the old hall really cannot continue to be used. So our financial problems are now more serious than before.

During this difficult time, our nuns received 14 solar cookers from you. This solved many problems that have grown through the years, and freed a number of us so that we can attend the morning chanting group. Now we are using the solar cookers in many ways. We can make bread, boil water, cook food, and make hot milk tea, so we want to say thank you, and we are praying everyday for you to have good luck forever!
Faithfully yours,

Tawa Gongma Nunnery