Wrapped in a maroon robe, her head shaven, Ani Choying Dolma treads gingerly into a Kathmandu hotel, exuding the composure and serenity one might expect from a Buddhist nun.
However, this 40-year-old is no ordinary devotee, for Dolma — better known by her moniker “The Singing Nun” — is the most unlikely of music stars, touring the world to change the lives of thousands of poverty-hit Nepali girls.
She has recorded 12 albums and for more than a decade has been playing in festivals and concerts across Europe and the US.
The money she makes through her soulful music, a contemporary take on traditional Tibetan sounds, goes almost entirely to projects promoting the education and welfare of Buddhist nuns.
Yet Dolma’s story has a dark heart, a childhood marked by brutality that she believes would have left her consumed with hatred if not for a teacher who recognized her talent and became her salvation.
Born into a family of Tibetans who fled the Chinese occupation and raised in the shadow of a Buddhist monastery in Kathmandu, Dolma says she was beaten daily by her father and her youth was “physically and emotionally painful.”
However, “the rebel in me took over,” she says, recalling how she opted to escape her family at the age of 13 to become a nun.
“I was courageous enough to say that I didn’t want it anymore,” she said in an interview.
She moved to a monastery in the hills overlooking Kathmandu where she found a teacher, Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, an influential Buddhist master in Nepal.
“The person I am ... all credit goes to my teacher. I don’t know what I would have become had I not been blessed with his teachings. It transformed the hatred inside me into compassion,” she said.
Dolma learned English, having left school aged 13, by talking to the foreigners who visited the monastery, and was schooled in spiritual singing by the Rinpoche and his wife, Kunseong Dechen.
She may have been destined to sing for the pleasure of just a few nuns and tourists were it not for a chance meeting with US new world musician Steve Tibbetts.
Tibbetts, renowned for his original approach influenced by travel in Asia, was passing through Kathmandu when he heard Dolma chanting at the monastery and proposed to record her songs.
She consulted her teacher, who urged her to take up the opportunity.
“I wasn’t sure, but he told me that those were spiritual songs full of blessings, so whoever gets to hear them would be benefited,” Dolma said.
Her career took off immediately with a tour of the US in 1998. Once she started to receive offers for concerts around the world and the sales of her albums grew, she began to use her new-found fame to help destitute girls in Nepal.
In July 2005, she set up the Arya Tara school, home to nearly 100 girls aged seven to 23 from the Himalayan Buddhist communities, who “mostly come from villages, where parents think that their daughters don’t need to go to school.”
Her autobiography, My Voice for Freedom, published in French in 2008, has been translated into 12 languages, including Nepalese.
Dolma remained relatively unknown back home at first. However, in 2005, she released Moment of Bliss, an album featuring the song Phulko Ankhama (“In the Eyes of Flowers”), which became an instant hit at home, turning her into a celebrity in Nepal.
“When I walk on the street, people come over and say: ‘Oh Ani Choying!’ They give me a big smile. It’s a real blessing to know that I can be someone’s pleasure for a moment,” she said.