The Sherpa are an ethnic group from the most mountainous region of Nepal, high in the Himalayas. In Tibet shar means East; pa is a suffix meaning 'people': hence the word sharpa or Sherpa, meaning "people from the East." The term "sherpa" (the preferred spelling with a lower case first letter) is also used to refer to local people, typically men, employed as porters or guides for mountaineering expeditions in the Himalayas. They are highly regarded as experts in mountaineering and their local terrain, as well as having good physical endurance and resilience to high altitude conditions. However, a sherpa is not necessarily a member of the Sherpa ethnic group.
Sherpas migrated from eastern Tibet to Nepal within the last 500 years. Predominantly Buddhist, these people have forged an unusually close relationship with the English from the mountain climbing expeditions starting in the 1920s that has extended to most westerners. This has aided in the formation of many organizations to help the Sherpa environmentally, economically, in cultural preservation and many other ways. The Sherpa have managed to retain their culture and benefit from western and technological advances, resulting in mutual benefit and prosperity.
The Sherpa originally came from eastern Tibet, crossing the Nangpa La pass at 5,900 m 19,200 ft. They settled in the Kumbu region known as the gateway to Mount Everest to the south. Traditionally, they are the traders making the famous trans - Himalayan trade between Nepal and Tibet. They bring grains, cotton clothes, irons, paper from the south, and then bartering them for salt, wool, sheep, and Tibetan artifacts in Tibet. They also have nomadic lifestyles herding yak, and some cultivate high altitude fields of potatoes, barley, wheat, and buckwheat.
For centuries, the Sherpa carefully went around the mountains rather than traverse them, as they felt this was the residence of the gods and goddesses and it would be blasphemous to climb them. Mount Everest in Tibetan is known as Qomolangma or Chomolangma, both meaning "goddess mother." Probably the mutual respect that developed between the mountaineers helped them develop this skill and still be able to honor their gods.
Most Sherpas live in the eastern regions of Nepal Solu, Khumbu or Pharak. However, some live farther west in the Rolwaling valley and in the Helambu region north of Kathmandu. Pangboche is the Sherpas' oldest village in Nepal, and is estimated to have been built over 300 years ago. Some live near Namche Bazaar. The Jirels, native people of Jiri, are ethnically related to the Sherpas. It is said that the Jirels are descendants of a Sherpa mother and Sunuwar (another ethnic group of the eastern part of Nepal) father. In India, Sherpas also inhabit the towns of Darjeeling and Kalimpong and the Indian state of Sikkim. The 2001 Nepal Census recorded 154,622 Sherpas in that country, of which 92.83 percent were Buddhists, 6.26 percent were Hindus, 0.63 percent were Christians and 0.20 percent were Bön.
Sherpas speak their own Sherpa language which is a dialect of Tibetan with words adopted from Nepalese, Newar and Tamang. Traditionally (although not strictly followed), the names of Sherpa often reflect the day of the week on which they were born:
Ngi`ma (Ng' is the phoneme / ŋ /.)—Sunday
Sherpa society is organized according to exogamous clans. A hierarchical structure of society, such as is found among Nepal's Hindu castes, is quite foreign to the Sherpa. According to the traditional kipat system, by which a clan held exclusive communal rights over a large defined settlement and cultivation area, the whole Sherpa area was their clan land. Only members of the particular clan could hold land or reclaim the uncultivated land within the kipat jurisdiction, which included the streams and forests. The clan land was expropriated with the abolition of the kipat system in 1949.
Before the influx of western influence, the Sherpas revered the Himalayas as a dwelling place of the gods and goddesses. For centuries, the very thought of climbing them was considered a blasphemy against the supernatural beings. Mount Everest was regarded as the dwelling place of Miyo Lungsungama, the goddess of humans and prosperity. When the Swedes, Germans, and British first arrived at Mount Everest, the allure of mountain-climbing for fame and monetary profit became of great appeal to the Sherpa, and they were highly praised and duly rewarded for their touchstone of high-altitude achievement. This was a radical shift in traditional culture, as the Sherpa had always maintained roles as traders and farmers, heavily emphasizing their peaceful religious practices. The ancestral roles remain highly important to these mountain folk, but the climbing industry with related tourism has become the staple of their economy.
Sherpa culture is vastly different from the other 50 ethnic groups of Nepal, including Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists. Throughout much of Nepal, Hindu and Buddhist doctrine has often meshed into a single ideology, whereas the Sherpa have adapted their beliefs from a series of different schools of thought that includes the Tibetan animism. The Sherpa Buddhist teach of a spiritual understanding between all beings which is common in animistic religions. This also explains the hospitality and open acceptance of westerners as a natural aspect of Sherpa culture. Although they are pacifists, the Sherpa of Tibet are also known to be among the fiercest warriors. The guardian deity of the Sherpa is named Khumbu, which literally translates into "Khumbu country god."
Buddhism was probably brought to the Khumbu region towards the end of the seventeenth century by Lama Sange Dorjee, from the Rongbuk Monastery of the Nyingpa sect in Tibet. According to legend, he flew over the Himalayas and landed on a rock at Pangboche and Thyangboche, leaving his footprints embedded on the stone. He is thought to have been responsible for the founding of the first gompas (monasteries) in the Khumbu region, at Pangboche and Thami. The gompas at Thyangboche and Namche Bazar were established at a later date. Every year, during the full moon of November-December, there is a festival with masks, costumes, and ritualistic dances to celebrate the triumph of Buddhism over Bon, the ancient animistic religion of Tibet.
The Sherpa hungrily digest any and all tales and stories, and their oral traditions are passed on through the generations. Perhaps this is a quality that has helped foster the good relationship with westerners. A famous story of Swedish missionaries illustrates the Sherpa attitude. The missionaries were traveling to Tibet as it opened to the west, and the Tibetans openly embraced tales from the Bible, listening with intense intellectualism, questioning, and debating amongst themselves. Although they were not converted, when the Tibetans were later questioned about their first encounter with the Christian missionaries, they responded with something to the effect of the missionaries being wonderful story-tellers.
The Sherpa firmly believe in Yeti, the large, hairy human like creature that is the subject of much fascination and conjecture. The Yeti is featured in many folk stories and paintings. Many mountaineers have reported strange sightings and sounds that seem inexplicable, except for a creature like the Yeti. In 1974, one Sherpa girl was supposedly attacked by a Yeti while grazing her Yak. Several of the Yak had their necks broken, and she said the Yeti took them by the horns and twisted their necks. Although their existence is yet to be proven, the Yeti stories will most certainly remain and entertain.
Sherpas were of immeasurable value to early explorers of the Himalayan region, serving as guides and porters at the extreme altitudes of the peaks and passes in the region. Today, the term is used casually to refer to almost any guide or porter hired for mountaineering expeditions in the Himalayas. However, in Nepal Sherpas insist on making the distinction between themselves and general porters, as they often serve in a more guide-like role and command higher pay and respect from the community.
Sherpas are renowned in the international climbing and mountaineering community for their honesty, hardiness, expertise, dedication and experience at high altitudes. Many have speculated that a portion of Sherpas' climbing ability may be due to a genetically greater lung capacity, allowing much better performance at high altitudes. It has also been suggested that one reason why they were widely used as porters is that they had fewer dietary prohibitions than most people of the region and were prepared to eat whatever was given to them on expeditions.
Various local cultural traditions have nurtured a very close relationship with westerners and western thought. They are renowned for their hospitality. With the first Mount Everest expedition in 1921, English mountain climbers were highly impressed with the skill and endurance of the local Sherpa people and the affinity between the westerners and the Sherpa civilization grew amicably into a close sharing and understanding between vastly different cultures. Mutual friendship for example can be seen in the adaptation of the Texas-style boots and cowboy hats which the Sherpa have integrated into their native garb, as a substitute for traditional Sherpa attire. Simultaneously, Buddhist prayer flags adorn western encampments.
Although many Sherpa have died, almost everyone knows someone who has perished on the mountain and about one third of those who have died on expeditions are Sherpa, the western influence from the mountaineering has generally benefited the whole region. That influence is so pervasive that today, that western snacks are easier to obtain in Kumbu than traditional Sherpa food. The very good relationships between the Sherpa and the mountaineers have stimulated so many helpful projects. Nepal receives many types of foreign aid from varied sources such as electrification projects from Austria to medical clinics from England. There are also numerous private sector foundations that help the environment as well as help the Sherpa to retain their cultural identity. This is one case of an indigenous people truly forming a beneficial relationship with the developed countries.
Sherpas contribute substantially to the good will for Nepal as well as for economic growth and stability of their country.
The Yak is the most useful animal for the Sherpa. They thrive in the high altitude, and cannot live below 10,000 ft. The altitude also keeps them away from other animals who could give them diseases that they are unusually vulnerable. Their lungs are large to take in oxygen from the thin mountain air. They weigh up to 1,200 lbs. and carry up to 220 lbs of load. They have very thick fur that makes them impervious to the cold as they walk steadily on narrow mountain passes. They also help plow fields, provide meat, milk, butter, wool for clothes, and dung for fuel. The hair is used to make ropes, sacks, blankets, and tents. Even their horns become ornaments around the house. The blood from a living yak is thought of as good medicine, and can bring about one dollar a glass. They cross breed the yak with cattle to get a breed called Dzo for the male and Dsomo for the female that is more tractable for lower altitude living.
The most famous Sherpa is Tenzing Norgay, who climbed Mount Everest with Edmund Hillary for the first time in 1953. Tenzing and Hillary were the first people to conclusively set their feet on the summit of Mount Everest, but journalists were persistently repeating the question which of the two men had the right to the glory of being the first one, and who was merely the second, the follower. Tenzing stressed the unity of such teams and of their achievements. He shrugged off the allegation of ever being pulled by anyone, but disclosed that Hillary was the first to put his foot on the summit. He concluded: "If it is a shame to be the second man on Mount Everest, then I will have to live with this shame."
Two Sherpas, Pemba Dorjie and Lhakpa Gelu, have recently competed as to who can climb Everest from Basecamp quicker. On May 23, 2003 Dorjie summitted in 12 hours and 46 minutes. Three days later, Gelu beat his record by two hours, summitting in 10 hours 46 minutes. On May 21, 2004 Dorjie again improved the record by more than two hours with a total time of 8 hours and 10 minutes.
Perhaps the most famous Nepalese female mountaineer, two-time Everest summiteer Pemba Doma Sherpa, died after falling from Lhotse on May 22, 2007.
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