LANGUAGE: Sherpa (or Sherpali); Nepali
RELIGION: Nyingmapa sect of Buddhism
The Sherpas are a tribe of Tibetan origin who occupy the high valleys around the base of Mount Everest in northeastern Nepal. In the Tibetan language, Shar Pa means "people who live in the east," and over time this descriptive term has come to identify the Sherpa community.
According to Sherpa tradition, 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 warlike peoples sometime between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries AD . They migrated to the area around Tingri, but conflict with the local inhabitants caused them to move on in search of new pastures. They crossed the Himalayas and settled peacefully in their present homeland in northeastern Nepal.
The current Sherpa population is estimated to be around 45,000 people. They mainly live in the Khumbu and Solu Khumbu regions that lie to the south of Mount Everest. Sherpas also live to the east of this area in Kulung. In addition, Sherpas inhabit the valleys of the Dudh Kosi and Rolwaling Rivers west of Solu-Khumbu, and they are also found in the Lantang-Helambu region north of Kathmandu. Kathmandu itself has a sizable Sherpa population, while small numbers of Sherpas can be found throughout Nepal, even in the Terai. Sherpa communities are also present in the Indian state of Sikkim and the hill towns of Darjiling and Kalimpong. The Sherpas are small in stature, relatively fair in complexion, with the distinctive facial features associated with peoples of Tibetan origin.
The Sherpas live on the flanks of the hill masses that jut south into Nepal from the crestline of the high Himalayas. Rivers such as the Dudh Kosi and Bhote Kosi have carved deep gorges into the mountains, leaving a complex terrain of steep ridges and narrow valleys. Wherever Sherpas are found, their settlements lie at the highest elevations of any human habitation. In Khumbu, their villages are found between 10,000 to 14,000 feet (approximately 3,000 and 4,300 meters). Winters at this altitude are severe, with snow covering the ground between November and February. No work can be done in the open. Most able-bodied Sherpas descend to lower elevations for the winter, leaving only the elderly in the villages. February sees the onset of spring, with warming temperatures and clear skies. People return to their villages for the New Year festival in late February, and the next three months are spent preparing fields and sowing crops. Summer temperatures vary according to altitude. At Nauje village (elevation 11,287 feet or 3,440 meters) in Khumbu, the July mean temperature is 54° F (12° C). May to August is the rainy season, with most of Nauje's annual precipitation of approximately 41 inches (105 centimeters) falling during this period. August to November heralds another period of fair weather, when the harvest is gathered in.
The language of the Sherpas, called Sherpa or Sherpali, is a dialect of Tibetan, although it has borrowed heavily from neighboring languages. It belongs to the Tibeto-Burman branch of the Sino-Tibetan language family. The Sherpas use the Tibetan script for writing. Sherpas use Nepali in their dealings with other peoples.
A unique element in Sherpa folklore is the Yeti, better known in the West as the "Abominable Snowman." According to one tale, Yetis were far more numerous in the past and would attack and terrorize local villagers. The elders of the village decided on a plan to eliminate the Yetis. The next day, the villagers gathered in a high alpine pasture and everyone brought a large kettle of chāng (maize beer). They also brought weapons such as sticks and knives and swords. Pretending to get drunk, they began to "fight" each other. Towards evening, the villagers returned to their settlement, leaving behind the weapons and large amounts of beer. The Yetis had been hidden in the mountains watching the day's events. As soon as the villagers left, they came down to the pasture, drank the rest of the beer, and started fighting among themselves. Soon, most of the Yetis were dead. A few of the less intoxicated escaped and swore revenge. However, there were so few left that the survivors retreated to caves high in the mountains where no one would find them. Occasionally, they reappear to attack humans.
The Sherpas 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 divinities, the Sherpa also have believe in numerous gods and demons who are believed to inhabit every mountain, cave, and forest. These have to be worshiped or 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 Buddhism.
Many of the great Himalayan mountains are worshiped as gods. The Sherpas call Mount Everest Chomolungma and worship it as the "Mother of the World." Mount Makalu is worshiped as the deity Shankar (Shiva). Each clan recognizes mountain gods identified with certain peaks that are their protective deities.
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. It is the village lam a, who can be married and is often a householder, who presides over ceremonies, and rituals. In addition, shamans (lhawa) and soothsayers (mindung) deal with the supernatural and the spirit world. They identify witches (pem), 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.
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. It falls in the month of July, when the agricultural work is complete, the trading expeditions to Tibet have returned, and the Sherpas are preparing to take their herds into the high pastures. Over a seven-day period, Sherpas visit their local monasteries and offer prayers to their gods. There is much eating and drinking, and members of the younger generation participate in singing and dancing.
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). Monks in colorful costumes and elaborate masks impersonate gods and demons and perform religious dances intended to scare the evil spirits.
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. They visit the gompa to recite sacred texts with the lamas, or repeat the mantra Om Mani Padme Hum . The principal mantra of the Buddhists, it is also found inscribed on prayer wheels. It has many interpretations, one of which 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.
The name-giving ceremony of a Sherpa child is an important event. The local lama (Buddhist spiritual leader) is informed of the birth and the time that it occurred. On the basis of this information, the lama determines the child's name and when the naming ceremony should take place. Children are often named after the day of the week on which they were born. Thus a baby born on Friday would be called "Pasang" (the Sherpa word for "Friday"). The lama, relatives, and neighbors are invited to celebrate the name-giving at a feast.
Children are usually brought up by their mothers, as the men are often away from home for much of the year. Young girls are introduced to household chores at an early age, while boys tend to have greater freedom for leisure and play. Boys undergo an initiation ceremony between seven and nine years of age, which is presided over by the lama and accompanied by feasting and drinking.
For the wedding ceremony ( z endi), the boy's family dress in their best clothes and go in procession to the girl's house. There, they are entertained with food and drink and are expected to dance and sing in return. They visit houses of relatives, where the procedure is repeated. The feasting lasts for a day and a night, before the party returns home with the bride. The actual marriage is observed by putting a mark of butter on the forehead of the bride and groom. The bride is given a dowry by family and friends that usually consists of rugs, woolen carpets, yak-wool mats, and even cattle.
At the time of death, the body is washed and covered with a white shroud. The lama cuts off a lock of hair from the corpse so that the life breath (pran) of the departed may leave the body, and reads from the sacred texts. The lama decides if the deceased is to be buried, cremated, or given a water-burial. The lama also decides when to remove the corpse, which may not occur for several days. The body is seated on a frame and taken for cremation or burial. The funeral procession is accompanied by flags and novice lamas blowing conch shells and playing drums and cymbals. After death, the family performs rites for the benefit of the departed and undertakes a ritual purification of the home. Sherpas believe that the soul remains near the house for forty-nine days, and on the last of these days a grand feast is held to complete the last of the funeral rites.
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.
Sherpa villages cling to the sides of sheer mountain slopes or sit on top of steep escarpments. Sherpa settlements range from villages with a few houses to towns such as Khumjung or Namche Bazaar with more than a hundred houses. In the higher elevations, a house is usually built in the middle of its owner's fields. Where more flat land is available, however, houses are clustered together in a group at the center of the village's agricultural land. Larger villages may have a community temple, a community mill, and religious monuments called stupas and chorten . There are few proper roads, and villages are connected by tracks and trails. Goods are transported by pack animals or on the backs of the people.
Sherpa houses have two stories and are built of stone. The roofs are flat and usually made of wood, weighted down by heavy stones. The lower level is used to house livestock, fodder, food, and firewood, while the upper story holds the living quarters. The floor of this room is wooden, covered with carpets and rugs. There is no furniture; platforms and benches are used for sitting and sleeping. A small area of the house is set aside for an altar. Incense and butter lamps are kept burning before the shrine.
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 are 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 fiancée in her parents' 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 negotiations. 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.
Sherpa dress is similar to that worn by Tibetans. Both men and women wear a long inner shirt over a pant-like garment, both made out of wool. Over this, they wear a thick, coarse, wraparound robe (bakhu) that reaches to below the knees and fastens at the side. A sash is belted around the waist. Both males and females wear high, woolen boots with hide soles. The uppers are colored maroon, red, and green (or blue), and the boots are tied on with colored garters. An unusual feature of women's dress is the multicolored striped aprons 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 a shyamahu complete the dress of the Sherpa woman.
Traditional Sherpa dress is rapidly disappearing among Sherpa men. Many younger men who have worked for mountaineering expeditions wear Western-made high-altitude clothing.
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, to 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 practicing Buddhists they will not kill animals themselves.
A favorite beverage of the Sherpas is chang, a beer made from maize, millet, or other grains. This is consumed not only at meals, but also at most social and festive occasions. It has considerable symbolic and ritual significance in Sherpa society.
Although primary schools are slowly being introduced into Sherpa areas, few Sherpas have any formal schooling. As might be expected, literacy rates (the percentage of people who can read and write) are low, as are parental expectations for their children.
The Tibetan tradition of religious dance-dramas known as ' cham can be seen in the Mani Rimdu festivals of the Sherpas. Elaborately choreographed, with monks dressed up in costumes and masks, the Mani Rimdu dances enact the triumph of Buddhism over the demons of the Bon religion. The temple orchestras that accompany these dramas are unique in the makeup of their instruments, which include drums, cymbals, handbells, conch shells, 10-foot (3-meter) telescopic horns, large oboes, and flutes made from human thighbones. The distinctive chant used by monks in their religious observances is also in the tradition of Tibetan sacred music.
Traditional Sherpa economic activities were centered on agriculture and trade. At lower elevations, such as in Solu-Khumbu, where conditions allow cultivation, Sherpas raise maize, barley, buckwheat, and vegetables. Potatoes were introduced to the Sherpas only eighty years ago but have now become the mainstay of their diet. In Khumbu, with its higher altitudes, farming gives way to pastoralism. Khumbu Sherpas raise cattle and the yak, a cattle-like animal that does well at higher elevations. Yaks provide wool and milk by-products such as butter, which are sold or bartered for grain. Hybrids of domestic cattle and the yak are are used as pack and plow animals.
Trade between Nepal and Tibet is of considerable historical importance in the region. Sherpas, because of their location and ability to handle high altitudes, have traditionally played a major role in the trade that moves through Nangpa La and other passes across the mountains. Salt, sheep's wool, meat, and yak are still brought from Tibet into Nepal, in exchange for food grains, rice, butter, and manufactured goods.
The Sherpas' reputation as excellent porters and guides on mountain-climbing and trekking expeditions has brought them a new source of income and, for some Sherpas, a comfortable living.
Sherpas enjoy playing cards and gambling with dice. Wrestling and horseplay is popular among both boys and girls.
Sherpa entertainment and recreation is largely limited to their traditional pastimes of singing, dancing, and drinking beer.
Sherpas rely on the artisan castes to provide the material necessities of life. Some Sherpas have developed skills in religious painting and in liturgical (religious) chanting. The Sherpas have a tradition of indigenous folk songs and dancing.
Sherpa society has a high incidence of alcoholism and related medical problems. Similarly, although the situation is beginning to change, the lack of education among the Sherpas reflects to a large extent their isolation and the low level of development in Nepal as a whole. Tourism has provided many Sherpas with wealth, but serious environmental damage has occurred with its development. Inflation, increasing dependence on a tourist-based economy, problems with drug-running, and the migration of wealthy Sherpas to Kathmandu are all indications of a changing Sherpa society.
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