Ani Choying Drolma was not stabbed as a teenager by her Tibetan sculptor father in one of his many fits of rage.
That, says Drolma, is an urban legend which has been amplified during the two decades in which she has been telling her incredible story to journalists around the world.
Not that her biography needs exaggeration.
Born in Nepal to Tibetan refugee parents, Drolma’s rise from teenage nun to international music star is the stuff of fairytales. Her prolific philanthropic work and subsequent role as Nepal’s first UNICEF national ambassador has earned her comparisons to India’s Mother Theresa.
But with 12 pop albums to her name Drolma is arguably a more unusual, groundbreaking figure.
Unmarried and child-free, when Drolma, 45, drives herself around the chaotic capital of Kathmandu in her saffron robes honking her horn as her songs blast from the radio, she is defying just about every expectation of women in Nepal.
“I have been the most revolutionary person I can think of in my society,” Drolma tells CNN.
She isn’t exaggerating.
Drolma’s father did hit her.
“Small things irritated him and he’d beat me and my mum,” she says. “Today, I see it as a disease he was suffering from. But in those days we all suffered because of it.”
Aged 10, full of anger and fear, Drolma resolved to become a Buddhist nun — in Nepal, nuns are not permitted to marry or have children.
“I thought, ‘If I grow up and get married that man will treat me the same way’. Domestic violence is a big problem in our society.”
Her parents were approving of Drolma’s decision — “our cultural belief is that when someone becomes a nun they are going to live their life more positively” — and three years later she was accepted by a local monastery.
Without hesitation, Drolma shed her hair, everyday clothing and birth name, Dolma Tsekyid.
“When I first got (my head) shaved I felt so free, I could feel the breeze.”
Nagi Gompa monastery was located on a mountaintop in the Kathmandu Valley, and to Drolma it was “paradise”.
“The whole environment there was beautiful. Everyone was kind, and I never got beaten, or had to carry my two younger brothers on my back. Or do the cleaning.
“I was given my childhood back.”
In Nepal, where 37% of girls are married before age 18, according to Human Rights Watch, Drolma had bought herself valuable time.
Foreigners would often visit Nagi Gompa seeking spiritual enlightenment.
In 1993, American record producer Steve Tibbetts turned up at the hilltop retreat with his wife to learn meditation under Tulku Urgyen, who he described as “a great meditation master” and Drolma’s main teacher.
On their last night, a translator at the monastery asked Tibbetts to record Drolma, then aged 22, singing.
“She sort of rolled her eyes — ‘Who is this guy with his cassette recorder?’ — took a deep breath, and sang some lines from ‘Leymon Tendrel.’ I was amazed, dumbfounded,” Tibbetts says.
So dumfounded, in fact, that Tibbetts forgot to press “record”.
“There’s a quality in her singing that cuts to the heart of what it’s like to be human,” he says. “That quality, that tonality, just goes right to the center of your chest.”
Tibbetts returned a few days later and captured Drolma’s voice. On returning to the US, he set her haunting Buddhist hymns to a guitar track, and sent the recording to Nepal, suggesting the pair collaborate on an album.
“Without calculation, I just did it,” Drolma says, “and later on it created some kind of a miracle in my life.”
While Drolma attributes her big break to Tibbetts, he is adamant the opposite is true.
“Just to be clear, she wouldn’t be denied,” he tells CNN, via email from the United States. “If I hadn’t have met her and started her off, she would have found someone else.”
More money, less problems
The financial resources from the tour gave Drolma the chance to realize her dreams.
In 1998, she founded the Nuns’ Welfare Foundation (NWF).
Two years later, she opened the free Arya Tara boarding school in Kathmandu, which today is home to almost 80 young nuns from poor backgrounds in Nepal and India, and run entirely by female nuns. by . source