How Volunteering in Spiti Led Me to an Unexpected Friendship.

Curious about what volunteering in Spiti Valley is like? My stint with Spiti Ecosphere led me to some pretty unexpected friendships.

My summer of volunteering in Spiti Valley leads me to a nunnery in Morang village. In the backdrop of snow-hooded Himalayas and on the shore of the Spiti River.

To conceptualize a new volunteer program for Spiti Ecosphere, the organization I’m volunteering with, I’m spending an evening with a nun to learn about her life. I’m a little anxious. The closest I’ve been to a nunnery is in the wanderings of my curious mind. The last thing I want to do is cross the thin line into insensitivity.

The head of the nunnery asks a young nun to be the victim of my questions and she heartily abides. Dressed in a traditional red and orange robe, with a pretty blue headscarf, I guess her age almost accurately as 22.

We walk to the kitchen, making small talk about the weather, and warm up over tea. She tells me she came to the nunnery 6 years ago, out of her own choice, and has been a student since. Her big dark brown eyes are filled with young innocence that’s hard to miss. As we laugh over trivial jokes, I quickly forget that she’s a nun. We talk about our lives like college students meeting for the first time. I remain conscious enough to leave out the subject of boys, though.

Each day in the nunnery sounds quite similar to the next. The nuns, locally known as Chomus, spend upto 12 hours a day studying Philosophy and English. The highlight of the days is a 1-hour debating session, each morning and evening, in which a rotated panel of 5 nuns sits upfront to answer philosophical questions posed by the rest of the 44 nuns. My young nun laughs and tells me that if the panel is unable to answer a question satisfactorily, the others boo them.

Life isn’t easy in the winter month. Temperature falls below -30 degrees at night on average, and surviving without any heating facilities in unthinkable to me. Burning firewood collected over the summer is their sole way of survival. She doesn’t make a big deal of it though, dismissing my sigh by talking about this summer so pleasant. They spend many a night studying outside under the moonlight in the summer.

Spiti, nunnery, volunteering, voluntourism, himalayas, ecosphere
Volunteering in Spiti | The nunnery with some summer snow in the backdrop.

It’s dinner time at the nunnery and as she gets ready to leave, I ask her if she’d like to take a picture with me. Excitedly, she grabs a red shawl traditionally worn on the head by nuns, and takes off her blue scarf.

In a split second, the realization of her austere life as a nun dawns back on me. Below her scarf, my sub-conscious self had expected to see flowing long hair to complement her young face, instead of her almost-bald head. It steals a few degrees of femininity from her, and as I pose with her for a photograph, I feel just a little guilty of myself.

In my fake smile, all my questions come back in a flash. I wonder what she thinks as she looks at herself in the mirror every morning. I wonder if she ever thinks about looking pretty, about being with someone…

Himalayas, Spiti, volunteer, voluntourism, nun
Volunteering in Spiti | Meeting young nuns.

Perhaps in her alternate universe, life has a meaning that people like me will never discover.

Would you consider volunteering in Spiti?

Also read:

I Love Spiti: A Campaign to Save Spiti Valley from Single Use Plastic

10 Offbeat Things to do in Spiti Valley

Komic Monastery: The Legend of Moving Monasteries in Spiti

Hitchhiking on my First Solo Trip to Spiti Valley

An Unexpected Introduction to Spiti Travel

The Shooting Star Academy

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  1. Ushnish Ghosh says:

    Dear Shivya
    How are you? It is one of the very few occasions that I could open a blog, internet is too slow here in the Sahara. Thanks for the great treat and awesome writing . I like your wrting style, very nice. The article is quite imfomative and very different. Havent travelled to Spiti for decades.!!
    Have a nice week

    1. Glad I could offer you some respite in the desert, Ushnish 🙂

  2. Hey Shivya, nice account of ur trip to Spiti.. 🙂

    I wonder if the world has left them behind or if it is us who are behind, us being so enamored by the trappings of the materialistic world that we live in..

    Its amazing that these nuns pretty much live in a sort of simplicity that confounds us.. wonder where we got it all wrong…

    Very nice account, Shivya.. keep discovering n sharing. 🙂

    1. Thanks Raj, and I completely agree. She might seem physically confined to what she does, but I could feel the calm in her voice. Indeed, we might be the ones trapped, emotionally at least.

  3. Loved seeing a glimpse of this life. Thanks to Ushnish Ghosh for giving me a link to this wonderful blog. Want to read more.

    1. Thanks Sangeeta and welcome to The Shooting Star. Glad you got a link here!

  4. Loved your post! It took me to another world, which is the purpose of writing, I guess. The world is filled with extraordinary people and things and your post threw up some.


    1. Thanks Manreet, it was an ‘another world’ experience 🙂

  5. I think we all have different definitions of “Simple”. Most of us spend our life ironing out our life. In that sense, she is fortunate. 🙂

    1. True that, Amit. In that & many other senses, she is indeed.

  6. Shivya, Have I seen this post of yours elsewhere? It looks so familiar! Stumped 🙂

    1. I’ve written lots about Spiti before, probably why!

  7. God…I’m so in love with such places. I’ve been dying to visit and live in such place, specially Lahul, Spiti, Lddakh etc . Beats living in a city anytime

    1. It’s not an easy life, JJ. Perhaps why we don’t live in such a place!

      1. I know. lack of basic facilities and all that. Been to quite a few such places for some time, but none like this. I also like cold weather much better than the humid summers So that’s one big incentive to overlook the inconveniences

  8. if the panel cannot answer a question, others boo them. loved it 😀

    also liked the last line. we can never understand how another person looks at life and everything else associated with it.

    lovely post 🙂

    1. Thanks Debajyoti 🙂 The spirit with which she described what is evidently a tough life was lovable indeed.

  9. A thought-provoking post, Shivya, on needs, wants, letting go, and yes overcoming desire too.

    Good luck for the contest 1

  10. Short but very well-written and thought-provoking
    Nice photos

    1. Glad you enjoyed it, Raja. Short so that most people would make it to the end 😉

  11. I’ve never really hear people like you voicing out so strong.But its amazing you had the guts to be this outspoken about it!! It really amazes me how you can abstain from the very basics of life.Maybe I’m being too superficially dumb. Yes,I know you are on a spiritual journey,but…

    I love this post.I’m your new follower 🙂

    1. Thanks Jen, it’s definitely hard for us to understand such a spiritual life, but some form of happiness must lend itself to it.

  12. Lovely Shivya! Once again you shared a great human experience. -15D? I will be half dead I guess 🙂 By the way what’s her(nun) name? All the best for the competition. You will surely win it like the last one 🙂 Cheers!

    1. Thanks Krishna 🙂 Most of us would die in -15 degrees, some nights it even drops to -30, but they’ll never admit the hardship that brings, only be thankful for the firewood that keeps them warm. Won’t reveal her name (I think I’ve already violated her privacy enough by sharing a picture).

  13. Great article Shivvya… I’m planning to go there hopefully this year… Mostly august… I really would love to explore and enjoy the divinity out there… 🙂

    1. Thanks Srini! I’m sure you’ll love the place – it’s hard not to.

  14. lovely post, Shivya… very thought provoking… and all the best for the contest!

    1. Thanks Anu, and all the best to you too. We could all use some extra wings to travel 🙂

  15. Nice post… You said it rightly we would not understand their joy or meaning of life… They live happy in their world..

  16. Beautiful post Shivya, gives us something to think about.. very well narrated. Wish i too can meet her someday. All the very best for the contest 🙂

    1. Thanks Arti, you should plan a trip to Spiti. Everyone is so welcoming & friendly even to strangers like us. That’s an experience in itself 🙂

  17. Really nice post, Shivya! I loved the honesty of the writing, I felt like I was right there! p.s. After reading a flurry of posts on Spiti on various blogs, it goes on THE list! 🙂

    1. Thanks Abhijit, plan a trip this summer. Nothing comes close to the stark beauty of this cold mountain desert 🙂

      1. Hehe, it’s a bit difficult planning trips to places in India living thousands miles away. Although I am still going to a cold mountain desert – the one in north Sikkim! 🙂

  18. lovely post :-)) iam in love with your writing.. Dying to visit SPITI. N ALL THE VERY BEST for the contest..

  19. Lovely post. And it did transport me to a different world, a world which gives so much more meaning to life than what we live and do! The backdrop of nunnery against the mountains is totally appealing!

    1. Thanks Vaish, the picture hardly does justice to the way the mighty Himalayas protectively overlook the nunnery.

  20. Enjoyed this one Shivya….I often think about it when I meet women my age in other countries, in other vastly different circumstances, that it could be me, but for the “luck” of birth. I sometimes can’t imagine being them, and they probably can’t imagine being me.

    1. I know what you mean, Claire. Life feels like a game of dice sometimes.

  21. This post has a certain calm and peace about it… Beautifully presented… I travelled along with you… Thank you for sharing.

  22. In my childhood I wanted to be a nun. I studied in convent and the nuns there inspired me a lot. The temptation of having babies and caring for them made me change my mind. Sometimes faith and beliefs gives people enough strength to make decisions and stick by it.
    Very intriguing post.. interesting read.

  23. Beautiful post….even I had a another vision of the nun which suddenly changed when I saw her picture…very intriguing indeed…good luck for the competition!

  24. love the post.. your sensitivity shines through.. and i love your “about me” even more.. am a water baby too.. 🙂 great writing!

  25. Interesting and really unique experience. Congrats on winning the consolation prize at the expedia contest.

  26. MAYANK ADHADUK says:

    Dear mam,
    I need some advice from you as I am going on my first solo trip in north east India.
    Can you please suggest any good places for trekking near Guwahati. How can I find it?
    If I plan to go alone for 5-6 days where should I stay …How can I manage accommodation as I can’t afford hotel rent for single person?
    Here is my email id [email protected]

    Looking for your favorable reply.
    Thank you.

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