Most everyone has heard of the Sherpas through the literature of mountaineering. This awesome reputation, however, focuses on a single vocation rather than on the Sherpas’ rich cultural heritage.
The Sherpas originated as several families who migrated from eastern Tibet and settled uninhabited valleys in the Himalayas about 400 years ago. Their name “Sher-pa” reflects those origins: “east-people”. This small group of families brought with them the rich traditions, religion and literature of Tibetan Buddhism.
The Sherpas built their houses on any landform flat enough for agriculture, such as the ancient hanging terrace of Phortse, the glacial trough of Khunde and Khumjung, and the bowl-like valley of Namche. Their villages face south for more favorable growing conditions, and lie between 7,000 and 15,000 feet above sea level. Most Sherpas have a home in one of the main villages of Khumjung, Khunde, Thamechok, Namche, Pangboche, and Phortse, but often stay seasonally in huts at the high pastures.
Here, the cold climate allows the Sherpas to cultivate only one harvest a year from their rock-strewn fields. To survive in this formidable environment, the Sherpas have always engaged in another livelihood whether trading across the Himalayas or migrating in search of employment.
For much of the late 1800s and early 1900s, Sherpas migrated in search of employment to British-ruled Darjeeling. Sherpa men first worked as high altitude porters on British attempts to scale the great peaks of Sikkim in 1907, and have worked on every major Himalayan mountaineering expedition since then. Mountaineers praised the Sherpas’ friendliness, loyalty, and dependability. Eric Shipton was a British “explorer” of the Himalayas in the 1930s-1950s. He described the Sherpas:
“It is the temperament and character of the Sherpas that have justified their renown and won them such a large place in the hearts of the Western travelers and explorers who have known them. Their most enduring characteristic is their extraordinary gaiety of spirit. More than any other people I know they have the gift of laughter.”
Surviving in these mountain settlements requires a community effort
Community norms and rules traditionally regulated everything from the collection of fuel wood and leaf-litter, to the movement of the yak herds, to the performance of cultural rituals and festivals. Members of the community are still elected to three positions that manage agriculture and grazing, forest use, and cultural life. They have the authority to impose fines on villagers who break the traditional rules, called the “dhi.”
Sherpas raise yaks and grow potatoes as their staple products
In the valleys of Khumbu, the summer monsoon lasts from June to September. During this quiet but productive season people carry out their chores of herding and farming. Farming is not easy on these mountains, but all, including businessmen, own plots of land on which they grow potatoes, buckwheat or barley to feed their families.
Most fields for cultivating food crops are at relatively lower elevations of about 3300 meters near the main Sherpa villages. During the cool winter, herds of yaks are grazed on nearby hillsides; when the summer comes, the yaks are taken up to high valleys where the rains have changed the dry mountainsides to rich, green pastures.
Sherpa families use these valleys as summer pastures for their yak (male) and nak (female) herds. Pheriche, Dingboche, Lobuche, and Gokyo were established as their summer huts and hay fields. The shaggy bovines provide dairy products, wool, and transportation. Sherpas call the male crossbreeds dzopchioks; they are sterile and are used as pack animals, especially on trips down to the warmer elevations that the high-altitude yaks can’t tolerate. Female crosses are called dzooms. They produce milk that is almost as rich as a nak’s, and in greater amounts.
Changes in Sherpa Livelihoods
From Trading across the Himalayas to Global Tourism
As a people, the Sherpas have historically responded and adapted to changes brought by the outside world. In the mid-1800s, the Nepali government granted the Sherpas a trade monopoly by prohibiting anyone but a Khumbu Sherpa from crossing the Nangpa La, the 19,000 ft pass into Tibet. Many Sherpa families benefited to some degree from the bartering that took place in either Tibet or the border towns of India.
Namche was been the main trading centre since 1905. Prior to that, it was simply a place where traders from Khumjung stored their trading goods between the seasons when they could cross the pass to Tibet and when they could travel to the lowlands. The trade to Tibet was drastically reduced after it was taken over by the People’s Republic of China in the late 1950s.
At present a few Tibetan and Sherpa traders cross the pass in both directions. They can be seen at the weekly market along with lowland Nepali traders. The weekly market is not a Sherpa tradition; it was started in the mid-1960s by an army officer stationed in Namche to meet the needs of the growing population of Nepali civil servants.
The Sacred Valley
For centuries, the Khumbu Valley has been a sanctuary
To the first Sherpas, the Khumbu Valley was unique and special as a “beyul”, a sacred valley that was set aside by Guru Rinpoche, the founder of Buddhism, to be a refuge in times of trouble.
When the Sherpas came here about 400 years ago, they were escaping political changes in eastern Tibet. They may also have been migrating at a time of climate change. The Abbot of Tengboche monastery tells of the Sherpas coming at a time when “the glaciers were much bigger, and Khumbu was covered with snow.
Hence, their first settlements were down near Lukla. As the snow and ice gradually melted, people gradually founded villages at Khumjung and Pangboche.”
At that time, the rivers had no bridges, the cliffs had no steps; there were no footpaths, no dwellings, no fields of grain, no woven cloth, no cows to milk. These first settlers transformed the landscape into agricultural fields and pastures for cattle.
However, people may have been visiting the valley well before the arrival of the Sherpa people. In fact, oral traditions hint that Rai shepherds may have been using the Khumbu’s high pastures well before the Sherpa, and old ruins in the valley are said to be the remains of Rai shepherd’s huts.
Prayer Flags Over Tin Roofs
The Sherpa religion came through the oldest sect of Tibetan Buddhism, the Nyingmapa, which was established about 1,240 years ago. The Sherpa history and teachings are recorded in Tibetan script and their language is a dialect derived from Buddhist books. Traditionally, these books were stored in each village’s temple where lay ministers, lamas, would conduct ceremonies and teach religion to the local people.
The power of nature is embodied in protective gods. For example, Jomolungma resides on Mt. Everest. Qualities such as wisdom and compassion are also visualized as deities to help one concentrate while meditating. Prayers to them may influence important events and daily activities. Weddings, funerals and births are accompanied by pujahs of offerings and prayers.
Anyone may build a religious monument or object and so gain spiritual merit. The thoughtful offerings of those who made them are multiplied by each flutter of the prayer flag in the breeze, each turn of the wheel, each traveler’s respectful gesture.
Sagarmatha – Jomolungma – Everest
This mountain of many names has always attracted pilgrims, whether Tibetans honoring a peak they believe is the abode of a deity, or climbers and trekkers fascinated by the highest point on earth. Sagarmatha is the name given by the Nepali government in the 1970s and the name Everest was given by the British in India.
“Jomolungma is the name of the mountain. Jomo Miyo Lang Sangma is the name of the resident female deity. She is a mother goddess and one of the five sisters of long life, so many pilgrims used to go to see her in Tibet. Now, people, from all over the world, come to see Jomolungma, from Khumbu.”
Tengboche Monastery has been the heart of Sherpa culture since 1916
The Sherpas only started to establish celibate monasteries in the early 1900s. Tengboche was the first celibate monastery in Solu-Khumbu and is a community of about 30 tawas (monks) under the leadership of the Abbot, Tengboche Rinpoche (Reincarnate Lama).
Construction of the monastery’s gompa (temple) started in 1916 and lasted three years. The gompa has been destroyed twice, by an earthquake and a fire. The 1990s reconstruction of the gompa attracted the support of Sherpa and international communities to this once-isolated monastery.
Tengboche is also known for the masked dances that celebrate the completion of ten days of prayers for the good of all beings. For the Sherpas who come from many villages to attend, Mani Rimdu is a relatively recent tradition that started at the opening of Tengboche monastery in 1919.
It is performed at Tengboche monastery in the ninth month of the Sherpa calendar, which usually falls in November and at the Thame monastery in the fourth month.
There are 16 dances performed at Mani Rimdu. Tengboche Rinpoche explained the dances:
“Certain movements, sounds, smells, and sight can awaken our psyche and stimulate the states of awareness we describe as gods. The dances are meditations that portray the gods and generate merit for everyone.”
Outer Changes and Inner Stability
The coming of tourists to the Khumbu Valley has brought outside changes and opportunities
Since the Nepali government first allowed westerners to visit the kingdom in the 1950s, the coming of tourists from around the world to see the highest mountain has brought a variety of changes both enhancing the livelihoods of the Sherpa people and affecting other cultural and natural aspects of Khumbu.
Tourism has grown to be the main source of livelihood for the Sherpas. Since 1983 to 2019, the number of trekkers coming each year grew from 4,000 to 55,000. The number of hotels in Namche grew from 5 to 100. It was only since 1995, that families started constructing buildings to be used as hotels in the north-facing area of the village.
Certain families and communities have had opportunities for education, loans, travel, and prosperity. Others struggle with the inflation created by the growing demand for food brought by the annual increase in tourists. Yet, the tourism economy of Khumbu sustains households as far away as ten-days-walk to the south east.
In Sherpa agriculture, potatoes are still dug by hand, and the traditional rules still regulate the annual herding of yaks.
Changes in the Khumbu Valley include the bridges and trails. Infrastructure growth has occurred in villages along major trekking routes with changes in traditional building materials. The Lukla airstrip was built in 1964 to facilitate the construction of the hospital in Khunde by the Himalayan Trust. In 2019, over 55,000 passengers flew in or out of Lukla, and hotels and services have been developed to serve them. Benefits include the places where the national park plantations have transformed bare hillsides to small forests.
While contact with outsiders has brought modern amenities, the Abbot of Tengboche monastery considers the changes in Khumbu:
“There are outward changes in our dress, houses, occupations and opportunities. However, contact with westerners has not necessarily changed the Sherpa culture in terms of ‘inside’ culture – in what they believe and celebrate. Sherpas, young and old, all do pujahs for naming children, weddings and funerals. We celebrate Dumje, the Sherpa new year, and other festivals. What is most important to us remains.”Part 3: The Wheel of Life
Sherpa religious and cultural rituals are generally unchanged for the important events of life: birth, marriage and death
The “inside culture” of the Sherpas – how they mark life’s and the year’s important passages – remains relatively unchanged despite the obvious changes to “outside” aspects such as houses, clothes, and educational and economic opportunities.
Many households and communities will schedule important activities whether travel, rituals, weddings, and funeral rites on auspicious days of the week, lunar month, and year.
The genealogy of the Sherpa follows clans that descend through one’s father. Tradition stipulates that one cannot marry within one’s own clan. Marriage with someone from one’s mother’s clan is permissible, if the couple is not related within three generations. Sherpas still strictly adhere to these proscriptions.
Wedding traditions are still followed very strictly in Khumbu and with minor modifications among Sherpas living in Kathmandu or even abroad. There are several stages to a Sherpa wedding. Sodene is the asking or the engagement. Demchang is the establishment of a proper agreement. Trichang sets the year and month of the final ceremony; Pechang is the consultation that sets the actual date. Zendi is the final ceremony where the woman comes to live with the man. The bride’s family gives presents and property that is her inheritance from them.
The Sherpa funeral rituals are strictly adhered to whether the deceased resided in Khumbu or Kathmandu. When a person dies, lamas are called immediately to perform rituals to try to generate good, positive energy for the deceased. There are many different customs, but, usually, the body is kept for three days then cremated. The remnants of the fire mixed with clay and are made into tsatsa that are left in a chorten or under a large rock at the end of 49 days.
Every seven days after the death, special prayers are offered in the home of the deceased. Within three or four weeks, the prayers called Shitro are done for three to fifteen days, depending on the finances of the family. Every evening the family places an offering of tsampa on the fire’s hot coals for the spirit of the deceased. The Bar-do for 49 days after the death is the time and space between lives, by the end of which the person’s next life is determined and they may be reborn.
Special rituals are performed for high lamas and rinpoches, and the body is cremated in a special chamber.
These photographs are of the cremation of Dhui Rinpoche, a very important teacher who passed away in 1989 at the age of 86. On the day of his cremation, his body was carried up the mountainside to a prominent ridge.
His funeral was a celebration of an accomplished lifetime. Over seven hundred people came from as far away as six days walk. His body was placed in the stone monument to be cremated as an offering.
Dumje Festival – A celebration of community spirit
The Sherpa year revolves around the main festival of Dumje celebrated in each village at the beginning of the monsoon in late June or early July. Dumje began as a way to unite the newly settled villages after the Sherpas arrived in Khumbu.
Each year, eight households in a village have a turn, which comes about every sixteen years, to sponsor the festival. Each sponsor provides food for the festivities according to their means. Though this huge financial obligation may cause less affluent families to borrow substantial sums of money from lenders, most families see Dumje sponsorship as a worthy community involvement.
While in the past men from the village who had some religious training would prepare for the rituals, now the village invites and hires specialists, monks from the monastery to come and help prepare for the celebration. Also whereas in the old days, the most learned of the lay lamas (ministers) would officiate and lead the prayers, now the heads of the local monasteries would come to a village.
“We pray together, we dance together and we eat together. What is important now, at Dumje, is that we are all here cooperating together”
The men of the village gather for prayers to Khumbila start the festival. They put up new prayer flags, share chang (rice beer), do traditional Sherpa line dances, and throw tsampa (barley flour) for good luck.
All the photos are by the Author and she holds the exclusive copyright of the collection.