The day's routine starts early in a Sagaing nunnery, with the preparation of tea before sunrise. While monks collect alms every day, sila-rhans can only go out twice a week.
Myanmar – Been There

Sisters shining before sunrise

Photo by Jochem Wijnands

Myanmar – Been There Sisters shining before sunrise

For the nuns in the convents of Sagaing in Myanmar, the first delicate hours of the day are devoted to preparing the monks’ breakfast.

Daphne Huineman
Daphne Huineman Travel Writer

Donating food and good deeds to monks, the ‘sons of Buddha’, is seen as one of the most important ways to earn yourself positive karma.

And so at 4am, long before any rooster has stirred from sleep, the clang of the morning bell is heard in the Samaiddhodaya convent. Rise and shine! No rolling over to catch a few winks before facing the day – in any event the ‘beds’ (reed mats on a hard floor) are hardly tempting you to stay where you are. The pre-dawn darkness fills quickly with the sounds of preparation: shuffling feet, the splash of water, whispering voices and the flush of the toilet.

Candles in hand, the nuns make their way like fireflies from bedroom to toilet, toilet to washbasin, washbasin to kitchen. In the kitchen the coal oven is set alight. Water is hauled from the well, pots and pans clang and clatter, rice is carefully measured out, vegetables are washed and chopped: everyone has their task.

As the rice begins cooking, the nuns gather themselves by the fire to warm up. In winter, temperatures can drop to freezing at nighttime. With tea towels wrapped around their heads and blankets draped over their shoulders, they each try desperately to drive the cold away – a hard task in bare feet. They wait until the sun comes up (around three hours later). The boiled rice is piled in a big pan and, together with aromatic curries and dhal, the food is placed on a big table outside on the street.

The nuns are visibly relieved: they’ve done it again. The tension dissolves from their faces and they permit themselves smiles for the first time that day. Then from the darkness the first monk surfaces, with shaved head and wearing rust-brown robes. He walks to the table, whips out his beggar’s bowl and silently takes his food. A second monk emerges and then a third, and in a few minutes a long line has formed outside. An hour later, the monks are fed and the nuns may now have their turn and the leftovers are dished out between them.

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Sagaing is the center of Buddhism in Myanmar, a country of 48 million people with about 500,000 Buddhist monks, of which some 75,000 are female "sila-rhans" ("owner of good moral conduct"). Sagaing's 500 monasteries hold around 3,000 monks and 2,000 sila-rhans, and an unknown number of novices as most Myanmarese will hope to spend at least a few weeks in one at some point in their life. Photo by Julio Etchart

Julio Etchart

Julio Etchart

Nikon D300

Aperture
ƒ/9
Exposure
1/400
ISO
200
Focal
160 mm

Sagaing is the center of Buddhism in Myanmar, a country of 48 million people with about 500,000 Buddhist monks, of which some 75,000 are female "sila-rhans" ("owner of good moral conduct"). Sagaing's 500 monasteries hold around 3,000 monks and 2,000 sila-rhans, and an unknown number of novices as most Myanmarese will hope to spend at least a few weeks in one at some point in their life.