Sherpa Ethnic People

Sherpa is one of the major ethnic groups native to the most mountainous regions of Nepal, as well as certain areas of China, Bhutan, India, and the Himalayas. The term Sherpa derives from the Sherpa language words Shar (“east”) and Wa (“people”), which refer to their geographical origin in Tibet. The Sherpas, who are not officially recognised by the government of People’s Republic of China, lived deep in the mountains and were virtually isolated from the rest of the world until they became known as guides or porters to various Everest expeditions. Mount Everest introduced Sherpas to the world.

1. History

Sherpa people have comparatively little written history making it more complicated to trace their origin for some socio-political reasons.  However, the pre-history traces that the Sherpa people are one of the ethnic groups residing in the greater Kham region in Asia and were migrated towards west (Oppitz, 1974).  Obviously, the ethnic group must have migrated to different locations within the greater Kham region due to socio-political instability before tenth century AD (Lama, 2001). Many reliable references and interesting evidences prove that the Sherpa people were the first inhabitants of the Eastern Himalayanregion in present Nepal before the territorial demarcation in East Asia into nations. Gautam (1994) concluded that the Sherpa migrated from Tibet approximately 600 years ago, through the Nangpa La pass. It is presumed that the group of people from the Kham region, east of Tibet, was called “Shyar Khamba” (People who came from eastern Kham), and the place where they settled was called “Shyar Khumbu”. As the time passed, the “Shyar Khamba,” inhabitants of Shyar Khumbu, were called Sherpa.

2. Religion

Sherpa belong to the Nyingmapa, the “Ancient” school of Buddhism. Allegedly the oldest Buddhist sect in Tibet, founded by Padmasambhava (commonly known as Guru Rinpoche) during the 8th century, it emphasizes mysticism and the incorporation of local deities shared by the pre-Buddhist Bon religion, which has shamanic elements. Sherpa particularly believe in hidden treasures and valleys. In addition to Buddha and the great Buddhist divinities, the Sherpa also believe in numerous deities and demons who inhabit every mountain, cave, and forest. These have to be respected or appeased through ancient practices woven into the fabric of Buddhist ritual life. Many of the great Himalayan mountains are considered sacred. The Sherpa call Mount Everest Chomolungma and respect it as the “Mother of the World.” Mount Makalu is respected as the deity Shankar (Shiva). Each clan reveres certain mountain peaks and their protective deities.

3. Language

Sherpa is not only the name of the indigenous community but also the name of their language. The Sherpa people speak Sherpa languageas their mother tongue. Though the Sherpa language belonging to the larger Sino-Tibetic language family is a preliterate language, it has multiple domains of use.  As the Sherpa language is a marginally tonal language, it is best written and represented in Sambota Script(Watters, 1999).  The Sherpa language is a unique language deeply ingrained from its rich culture and livelihood.  The language has been evolved over thousand years in it’s own span and space resulting a considerable size of vocabulary (4000+ content words), and unique phrasal or and clausal structures (Sherpa, 2010).

4. Life

Sherpa villages cling to the sides of sheer mountain slopes or sit on top of steep escarpments. Their houses have two stories and are built of stone. A small area of the house is set aside for an altar. Incense and butter lamps are kept burning before the shrine. 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. Sherpas eat meat, but as practicing Buddhists they will not kill animals themselves. A favorite beverage of the Sherpas is Changa beer made from maize, millet, or other grains. It has considerable symbolic and ritual significance in Sherpa society. Sherpas enjoy playing cards and gambling with dice. Wrestling and horseplay is popular among both boys and girls. Their entertainment and recreation is largely limited to their traditional pastimes of singing, dancing, and drinking beer.

5. Clothing

Men wear long-sleeved robes called kitycow, which fall to slightly below the knee. Chhuba is tied at the waist with a cloth sash called kara, creating a pouch-like space called tolung which can be used for storing and carrying small items. Traditionally, chhuba were made from thick home-spun wool, or a variant called lokpa made from sheepskin. Chhuba are worn over raatuk, a blouse (traditionally made out of bure, white raw silk), trousers called kanam, and an outer jacket called tetung. Women traditionally wear long-sleeved floor-length dresses of thick wool called tongkok. A sleeveless variation called angi is worn over a raatuk (blouse) in warmer weather. These are worn with colourful striped aprons; metil aprons are worn in front, and gewe in back, and are held together by an embossed silver buckle called kyetig. Sherpa clothing resembles Tibetan clothing. Increasingly, home-spun wool and silk is being replaced by factory-made material. Many Sherpa people also now wear ready-made western clothing.

6. Festivals

The major festivals of the Sherpas are Losar, Dumje, and Mani Rimdu. Losar, which falls towards the end of February, marks the beginning of the New Year in the Tibetan calendar. It is celebrated with much feasting and drinking, dancing, and singing. Dumje is a festival celebrated for the prosperity, good health, and general welfare of the Sherpa community. The colorful Mani Rimdu celebrations are held four times a year, twice in Khumbu (at the Tami and Tengboche monasteries) and twice in Solu-Khumbu (at the Chiwong and Thaksindhu monasteries). Nyungne 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.