Sherpa (or Sherpali); Nepali
Nyingmapa sect of Buddhism
1 • INTRODUCTION
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
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
. 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.
2 • LOCATION
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
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.
3 • LANGUAGE
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.
4 • FOLKLORE
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
(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.
5 • RELIGION
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
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
(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
deal with the supernatural and the spirit world. They identify witches
act as the mouthpiece of gods and spirits, and diagnose illnesses.
An important aspect of Sherpa religion is the monastery or
. 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.
6 • MAJOR HOLIDAYS
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
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.
7 • RITES OF PASSAGE
The name-giving ceremony of a Sherpa child is an important event. The
(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
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
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
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
8 • RELATIONSHIPS
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.
9 • LIVING CONDITIONS
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
. 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
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.
10 • FAMILY LIFE
Sherpa society is divided into a number of clans called
. 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
. 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
11 • CLOTHING
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
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
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.
12 • FOOD
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
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
is eaten with a thin sauce made from spices and vegetables, or meat if
it is available. A typical dinner is a stew
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
A favorite beverage of the Sherpas is
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.
13 • EDUCATION
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.
14 • CULTURAL HERITAGE
The Tibetan tradition of religious dance-dramas known as ‘
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.
15 • EMPLOYMENT
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
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.
16 • SPORTS
Sherpas enjoy playing cards and gambling with dice. Wrestling and
horseplay is popular among both boys and girls.
17 • RECREATION
Sherpa entertainment and recreation is largely limited to their
traditional pastimes of singing, dancing, and drinking beer.
18 • CRAFTS AND HOBBIES
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.
19 • SOCIAL PROBLEMS
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
20 • BIBLIOGRAPHY
Sherpa of Khumbu: People, Livestock, and Landscape
. Delhi, India: Oxford University Press, 1991.
Fürer-Haimendorf, Christoph von.
The Sherpas of Nepal: Buddhist Highlanders
. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1964.
Ortner, Sherry B.
Sherpas Through Their Rituals
. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978.
Sherpa, Donna M.
Living in the Middle: Sherpas of the Mid-Range Himalayas
. Prospect Heights, Ill.: Waveland Press, 1994.
Interknowledge Corporation. Nepal. [Online] Available
World Travel Guide. Nepal. [Online] Available
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