The Sherpa People of Nepal
The term "Sherpa" refers both to an ethnic group and a job description as porter, climber or trek leader. It translates literally as easterner, referring to their origins in Eastern Tibet. The migrations of this Tibetan culture to the Kingdom of Nepal began sometime in the early 1400's.
Often inseparable from their association with world-class mountaineering, the Sherpas of Nepal inhabit much of the Solu-Khumbu or Khumbu region of the Himalayas (Click here to see the map). While their reputation as climbers is nothing short of historic, local Buddhist, animist and cultural traditions have equally nurtured an unusually close relationship with westerners and western thought.
Sherpas first became prominent to Westerners as British mountaineers set their sites on conquering Himalayan peaks. With the first Mt. Everest expedition in 1921, the skill, expertise, honesty and dedication of Sherpas impressed the English climbers. From that point on, Sherpas became an integral part of international Himalayan climbing as guides and partners. The affinity of Westerners for Sherpa/Buddhist civilization eventually grew into an increasingly close sharing, understanding and friendship between these two cultures. Mutual influences can be seen in examples such as the acceptance of Texas style cowboy boots and hats as a suitable substitute for traditional Sherpa wedding attire while prayer flags and pujas grace western basecamps.
For centuries prior to British expeditions, Sherpas revered the great mountains of their region as dwelling places of gods and goddesses. The very thought of climbing them was considered blasphemous. (Chomolungma, the Tibetan name for Everest, is the residence of Miyo Lungsungama, the goddess of humans and prosperity.) The arrival of westerners brought not just money, but the allure of mountaineering fame and laudatory rewards of foreign climbers. These factors combined to encourage the Sherpa to embrace climbing as part of their own culture. As Sherpas were praised and rewarded for their climbing achievements, they accepted the mantle of the sport's glories--and its tragedies. This was a radical change from their traditional roles as traders and farmers with heavy emphasis on religion. While these ancestral roles remain a staple of Sherpa life, the leading of climbs and treks has become a mainstay of their economy.
Sherpa culture is distinctly different from the other 50 ethnic groups of Nepal--including Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists. In much of Nepal, Hindu and Buddhist precepts have often blended into a single ideology. Other, smaller ethnic groups have also made a distinctive mark, such as the Gurkhas, who gained notoriety in the West as soldiers for the British Army.
Though originally from Tibet, Tibetans and Sherpas are culturally very different from each other, depending on region of origin. While the Solu-Khumbu (and neighboring regions such as the Langatang and Charicot districts of Nepal) make up the majority of the population, emigration from the Khumbu has lead Sherpas to the Assam, Darjeeling and the Sikkim states in India. The Sherpa population in the Khumbu is about 5,000; a total of about 35,000 Sherpas currently live in Nepal. Sherpas on Everest
The first notable and successful climbing Sherpa is Tenzing Norgay. In 1952, Norgay accompanied Raymond Lambert on a Swiss expedition to within 800 vertical feet of the still unclimbed Mt. Everest. A year later Norgay was asked to join the British team led by Col. John Hunt, which successfully summited Everest following the same route as Norgay and Lambert.
Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary were the first climbers to summit Everest. By the mid 1980's, Sherpas summitted Everest many more times than Westerners. Ang Rita Sherpa, among the most well known climbing Sherpa, had amassed seven summits of Everest by 1995. In 1993, Pasang Lhamu Sherpa became the first Sherpa woman to summit Everest.
Life in the Khumbu
With the advent of tourism a considerable amount of the Khumbu economy now revolves around caring for trekkers and climbers. Many western foods have infiltrated the guest houses, but historically, Sherpa food is derived from high-altitude crops such as potatoes, barley and buckwheat. Nepali foods like Dal (lentils), rice, and Tibetan Tsampa are also a staple of Sherpa diet.
Much of the trading between the lowland Nepalis and Tibetan peoples of the mountains take place at markets such as the Saturday market in Namche Bazaar. Namche is the administrative district for the entire Khumbu region and is the traditional starting point for trips into Tibet over the Nangpa La pass. The route has been used for centuries by Tibetan traders, who would bring down yaks, salt and dried sheep meat from Tibet and return with goods from India such as rice, corn and millet. Along with food, jewelry is often traded at bazaars. As in much of the sub-continent, a persons or family's wealth is recognized by jewelry and is often displayed lavishly as bracelets and necklaces.
Westerners play a vital role in supporting Sherpa culture today by helping to fund a variety of projects in the Khumbu such as schools, hospitals and ecological programs.
The name Khumbu comes from its guardian deity Khumbila Tetsan Gelbu. The literal translation is "Khumbu country god." The teachings of Sherpa Buddhism talk of a spiritual understanding between all beings. This is probably why the level of hospitality and acceptance of westerners comes naturally to the Sherpa. Although it should be mentioned that the Tibetans are also considered fierce warriors.
Buddhism can be a very open and accepting theory of thought. There's a story of Swedish missionaries traveling to Tibet when it was opened to the west. While the Tibetans embraced the bible tales, listening and debating with intensity, little if any converting was done, and in fact, the missionaries started to embrace some Buddhist practices. Later, when questioned about the missionaries, the Tibetans responded, "Ah yes, we remember... such wonderful story tellers." Stories, their own and others, are sought out and readily accepted as on-going mythology.
Sherpa religion (a mixture of Buddhist and animist) and culture have evolved from thousands of years of myths, stories and strong religious practice. Those of us attempting to understand this culture soon enter an endless maze of woven stories and tales.
-- Gordon Janow, AAI Program Coordinator & Mountain Zone Contributor
Information for this article and worthwhile resources for those interested in learning more about Sherpa culture can be found in: Vincanne Adams', "Tigers of the Snow and Other Virtual Sherpas" and Frances Klatztel and Ngawang Tenzin Zanbu's, "Stories and Customs of the Sherpa".