It is a hot, cloudless morning on a hillside on the outskirts of Kathmandu and dozens of nuns arrange themselves into lines around a golden Buddhist shrine.
In unison, each slams a clenched fist into the opposite palm, breathes deeply and waits, motionless in the rising heat.
These devotees are not here to pray or to meditate — they have gathered to undergo a rigorous and aggressive martial arts routine as the world’s first order of kung fu nuns.
The sisters of the Amitabha Drukpa Nunnery — aged from 9 to 52 — come from across Nepal, India, Tibet and Bhutan to learn the ancient Chinese discipline of kung fu, which they believe will help them be better Buddhists.
Every day, they exchange their maroon robes and philosophical studies for a intense 90-minute session of hand chops, punches, shrieks and soaring high kicks.
“When we practice kung fu we are doing something which gives us not only strong bodies but also strong minds,” said 14-year-old Jigme Wangchuk Lhamo.
Buddhist nuns in the Himalayas have traditionally been seen as inferior to monks, with the women kept away from physically demanding exercise and relegated to menial tasks like cooking and cleaning.
But the 800-year-old Drukpa — or dragon — sect is changing all that by mixing meditation with martial arts to empower its women.
The nuns, in contrast to most Buddhist groups, are also taught to lead prayers and given basic business skills like running a guest house and coffee shop at the abbey and driving to Kathmandu to get supplies.
Kung fu came to the nunnery only four years ago when its spiritual leader, His Holiness the 12th Gyalwang Drukpa, visited Vietnam, where he saw nuns receiving combat training that was previously used by Vietcong guerrillas.
He was so impressed that he brought four of them to Nepal to pass on their skill.
Jigme Konchok Lhamo, 18, who came to the order from India, says kung fu has begun to address the power balance between men and women in Buddhism.
“His Holiness wants the nuns to be like the men, with the same rights in the world,” she said.
The nunnery is enjoying a surge in popularity since introducing kung fu.
The benefits of martial arts are obvious for young women expected to meditate in the same position for up to six hours at a time and sometimes undertake retreats where they must remain silent for months.
Jig me Migyur Palmo, a soft-spoken 21-year-old nun, who came to Kathmandu three years ago from her home in Ladakh, northern India, watched Jackie Chan kung fu movies when she was younger and now wants to be as good as the Hong Kong film star .
“I came to Kathmandu to learn Buddhist philosophy and now I don’t want to go home,” she said.