Sherpas of Nepal
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Sherpas of Nepal

In the Tibetan language, Shar Pa signifies “people who live in the east”, and after some time this elucidating term has come to know the group of Sherpa people.

Deepak Raj Bhatta
Author | Deepak Raj Bhatta Date Published:
Sherpa Culture of Nepal

The word ‘Sherpa’ is normally used to describe somebody who is a Nepali tour guide or porter working in the Everest region. But there is much more to this word. The Sherpas are a group of Tibetan roots who reside in the high valleys around the base of Mount Everest in northeastern Nepal.

In the Tibetan language, Shar Pa signifies “people who live in the east”, and after some time this elucidating term has come to know the group of  Sherpa people. Sherpas in Nepal are highly popular as mountaineers and Himalayan athletes. 

Sherpas are a Nepalese ethnic group numbering around 5,20,000. They are renowned for their climbing skills and excellent strength and will at high altitudes. The term sherpa or “sherwani” derives from the Sherpa language word shear (east) and pa (people), which refer to their geographical origin of eastern Nepal. Most sherpa live in east Nepal.

Caste group

Sherpas

Ethnicity

Tibetan ethnic group

Language

Sherpa, Nepali

Religion

Buddhism (majority), Hinduism, Bon and Christianity

Settlement

Khumbu region

Total Population 

5,20,000 (as of 2014)

Major Festivals of  Sherpas

Losar, Mani Rimdu, Dumji

Major occupation

Mountain related activities

Sherpas established temples where they practiced their religious traditions. Tengboche was the first single monastery in Solu-Khumbu. Sherpa people are also in China, Bhutan, and the Indian states of Sikkim and the northern part of West Bengal, specifically the district of Darjeeling.

The language of Sherpas mainly formed from the south branch of the Tibet-Burman, and it is a mixed eastern Tibet and central Tibetan dialect. Though, this language is separate from Lhasa Tibetan and meaningless to Lhasa speakers.

Table Of Content

    History of Sherpa

    According to some Sherpas, the tribe migrated to Nepal from the Kham region of eastern Tibet over a thousand years ago. Historians, however, suggest that the Sherpas were nomadic herders who were driven out of their original homeland in eastern Tibet by fighting people sometime between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries AD.

    They migrated to the area around Tingri, but battle with the local inhabitants caused them to move on in search of new pastures. After crossing the Himalayas, they settled peacefully in their present homeland in the northeastern part of Nepal.

    The Sherpa were travelling people who first settled in the Solukhumbu District (Khumbu), Nepal. According to Sherpa’s traditional history, four groups moved from Kham in Tibet to Solukhumbu at different times, giving rise to the four major Sherpa groups: Minyagpa, Thimmi, Sertawa, and Chawa.

    These four groups gradually split into the more than 20 different clans that exist today. Mahayana Buddhism’s religious conflict may have contributed to the migration out of Tibet in the 13th and 14th centuries and arrived in Khumbu region of Nepal. 

    According to some Historians, Sherpas of Nepal migrated from Tibet to Nepal about 600 years ago, initially through Rongshar to the west and then later through the Nangpa La pass. It is also presumed that the group of people from the Kham region, east of Tibet, was called “Shyar Khamba” (People initially from eastern Kham), and the place where they settled was called “Shyar Khumbu”.

    As time passed, the “Shyar Khamba”, inhabitants living in the Shyar Khumbu, were called Sherpa. Since ancient times, Sherpas, like other indigenous Kirat Nepalese tribes, move from one place to another place within the Himalayan region surviving as Alpine pastoralists and traders.

    Language and Religion of Sherpas

    The language of the Sherpas, called Sherpa or Sherpali, is a Tibetan dialect, although it has borrowed heavily from neighbouring languages. It firmly belongs to the Tibeto-Burman branch of the Sino-Tibetan language family. The Sherpas use the Tibetan script for writings, however, they use Nepali in their dealings with other people.

    Sherpas' ancestors belong to the Nyingmapa sect of Buddhism. The oldest Buddhist sect in Tibet, it emphasizes mysticism and incorporates shamanistic practices and local deities borrowed from the pre-Buddhist Bon religion.

    Thus, in addition to Buddha and the great Buddhist gods, the Sherpa also has believed in numerous gods and demons who are believed to inhabit every mountain, cave, and forest. 

    These are supposed to be appeased through ancient practices that have been woven into the fabric of Buddhist ritual life. Indeed, it is almost impossible to distinguish between Bon practices and Tibetan Buddhism. 

    Many of the great Himalayan mountains are worshipped as gods. The Sherpas call Mount Everest ‘Chomolungma’ and worship it as the “Mother of the World.” Mount Makalu is also venerated as the deity of Shankar (Shiva). Each clan recognizes mountains as gods which are their protective deities.

    Religious values of Sherpa people in Nepal

    The day-to-day religious affairs of the Sherpas are dealt with by lamas (Buddhist spiritual leaders) and other religious practitioners living in the villages. In Some lama villages, the major landlord becomes someone who is ready to get married. Who also presides over ceremonies and rituals. 

    In addition, shamans (lhawa) and soothsayers (mindung) deal with the supernatural and the spirit world. They identify witches(poem), act as the mouthpiece of gods and spirits, and diagnose illnesses.

    An important aspect of Sherpa religion is the monastery or gompa. There are some two dozen of these institutions scattered through the Solu-Khumbu region. They are communities of lamas or monks (some-times of nuns) who take vows of celibacy and lead a life in isolation searching for truth and religious enlightenment. 

    They are respected by and supported by the community at large. Their contact with the outside world is limited to the annual festivals to which the public is invited and the reading of sacred texts at funerals. 

    Sherpas are named based on the day of the week they are born. The nomenclature of Sherpas is often done according to the day on week schedule. For instance,  the people who are born on Sunday-Nima Sherpa, Monday-Dawa Sherpa, Tuesday-Mingma Sherpa, Wednesday-Lhakpa Sherpa, Thursday-Phurba, Fura, Furba, Phurba Sherpa, Friday-Pasang Sherpa, Saturday- Pemba Sherpa.

    Major festivals of Sherpas

    The major festivals Sherpas celebrate are Losar, Dumje, and Mani Rimdu. Losar falls at the end of February, which also marks the beginning of the New Year in the Tibetan calendar. It is celebrated with much feasting and drinking, dancing, and singing along with few other festivities. 

    Dumje is a festival celebrated for prosperity, good health, and the general welfare of the Sherpas of Nepal. In the month of July, when the agricultural work is complete, the trading expeditions to Tibet have returned, and the Sherpas prepare to take their herds into the high pastures, this festival is celebrated. Over a seven-day period, Sherpas visit their local monasteries and offer prayers to their gods. 

    Feasting and drinking accompany all Sherpa festivals and celebrations except for Nyungne. This is a penance for sins committed during the previous year. For three days, laypeople abstain from drinking and dancing and may even undergo a complete fast. Sherpas visit the gompa to recite sacred texts with the lamas or repeat the mantra “om Mani Padme Hum”.

    The principal and major mantra of the Buddhists is also found inscribed on prayer wheels. It has many interpretations, however, one is “Om, the Jewel of the Doctrine is in the Lotus of the World.” Monks and nuns keep to the restrictions of Nyungne for two weeks.

    Losar

    Losar celebrates the Sherpa New Year. Sherpas follow the Tibetan calendar and therefore have a different New Year than most of the world, and even Nepal (which also has a separate calendar). Imagine celebrating three New Years a year. Losar typically falls in February.

    The festival lasts 15 days but is fairly quiet compared to other celebrations in the Himalayas of Nepal. During this time, families clean their homes and pray for good fortune. You’ll also see singing and dancing, feasts, and archery contests.

    Mani Rimdu

    Mani Rimdu is a nineteen-day-long festival that typically falls in October or November. While most of the festival is celebrated with family, the last three days are celebrated in public. If you happen to be doing the Everest Base Camp Trek (or a similar one in the region), you can witness the famous masked dancers at Tengboche’s monastery.

    How to Explore Sherpa Culture?

    The best way to experience Sherpa culture is to do a trek in the Khumbu (Everest) Region. Hire a Sherpa guide and ask as many questions as possible. Stay in Sherpa teahouses and get to know the owners. Sherpa’s are very welcoming people and are accustomed to being around tourists. They’re more than willing to share their culture with you if you ask them.

    The Sherpa Hospitality

    The Sherpas’ most important rule of hospitality is that a visitor must not leave the house unfed or without a drink. Guests are entertained with Tibetan tea or beer. Visitors of high standing will be served a snack or even a complete meal. Unlike some communities in South Asia, guests in Sherpa homes have complete access to both the kitchen and the area set aside for worship.

    Clothing - A cultural attribute

    Sherpa dress is similar to that worn by Tibetans. Both men and women wear long undershirts over a pant-like garment, both made out of wool. Over this, they wear a thick, coarse, wraparound robe(bakhu)that reaches below the knees and fastens at the side. A sash is belted around the waist. Both males and females wear high, woollen boots with hiding soles.

    The Uppers are coloured maroon, red, and green (or blue), and the boots are tied on with coloured garters. An unusual feature of women’s dress is the multicoloured striped aprons were worn to cover the front and back of the bodies below the waist. 

    Both married and unmarried women wear the rear apron, while the front apron is worn only by married women. Various ornaments and a distinctive cap called ashyamahu complete the dress of the Sherpa woman. 

    Feasts and food in Sherpa Communities

    The Sherpa diet is dominated by starchy foods, supplemented by vegetables, spices, and occasionally meat. In addition, Sherpas drink Tibetan tea (tea served with salt and butter) at all meals and throughout the day. A typical breakfast consists of Tibetan tea and several bowls of gruel made by adding tsampa, a roasted flour, water, tea, or milk.

    Lunch is eaten in the late morning and may include boiled potatoes which are dipped in ground spices. Sometimes a stiff dough made from a mixture of grains(sen)is eaten with a thin sauce made from spices and vegetables, or meat if it is available.

    A typical dinner is a stew (shakpa) consisting of balls of dough, potatoes, and vegetables. Dairy products, especially butter and curds, are important in the Sherpa diet. Sherpas eat meat, but as practising Buddhists they will not kill animals themselves.

    Family Life of Sherpas in Nepal

    Sherpa society is divided into a number of clans called ru. A person is required to marry outside his or her clan. Although there is no ranking of individual clans, they fall into two groups, the khadeu, and Khamendeu. The former is of higher status and anyone marrying into the lower group loses this standing.

    Sherpas choose their own marriage partners. The marriage process is a lengthy one that may stretch over several years. Following a betrothal, the boy has the right to live with his fiancee in her parent’s house. This arrangement may continue for several years, during which the relationship may be broken off.

    Once the respective families feel that the marriage will be successful, a ceremony is carried out that formally confirms the marriage discussions. Several months or even years may pass again before the wedding date is fixed.

    Sherpa families are small by South Asian standards. The nuclear family is the norm in Sherpa society, with households consisting of parents and their unmarried children. A newly married son is supposed to receive a house on completion of the marriage. 

    Interestingly, a man does not return home until he has a child; he lives with his in-laws until such time as his wife gives birth. Most marriages are monogamous, although fraternal polyandry (having more than one husband) is permitted and is even considered to be prestigious. According to this practice, two brothers marry the same woman. Divorce is quite frequent among the Sherpas.

    Video Blog About Sherpas of Nepal

    Frequently Asked Questions

    • Do Sherpas live on Mount Everest?

      Most of the sherpas are the inhabitants of the Himalayan belt. The Sherpas are significantly popular for mountaineering and climbing activities in the Khumbu region of Nepal. There are Sherpas who are known for their lifetime contribution in mountaineering related activities. Some Sherpas migrated to the developed areas such as Kathmandu valley. And some Sherpas are residing in foreign countries as non-residential Nepali.

    • Has anyone climbed Everest without a Sherpa?

      There were a few solo ascent to Everest without Sherpa. However, without Sherpa, imagining mountaineering on Everest is a mere possibility. Many expeditions in the mountains are led by experienced Sherpas.

    • What are the major festivals of Sherpas?

      The major festivals of Sherpas are Losar, Dumje, and Mani Rimdu. These festivals are significantly popular in the Himalayan belt of Nepal.

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