Sherpa in Nepal: History, Culture, Religion, Language, and everything in detail in the blog. Sherpas inhabit the highland regions of Nepal. They reside mainly in the northern region of the Sagarmatha Zone, along the Dudh Kosi River and its tributary valleys. They are also found in Helambu and the upper Trisuli valley of Langtang, as well as in the eastern hill districts of Nepal. Their main population is concentrated in the district of Solu Khumbu, with some smaller groups in the eastern districts of Taplejung.
They are also found, along with non-Sherpa communities, in the eastern hills at higher altitudes. Their settlements range from an altitude of 8000ft (2450m) to 14000ft (4300m). Their villages cling to the steep mountain slopes and escarpments of the Dudh Kosi and Imja Khola river valleys. Their culture is mostly Tibetan.
Khumbu is a cold region and snowfall for five months of the year. During this period there is little or nothing to do. Some families leave their houses locked and travel south to warmer regions. Young and strong Sherpas go to wanner regions to work and trade. After the winter, they return to their homes at the start of spring for the Lhosar festival. Nowadays many Sherpas are found in Kathmandu and Darjeeling.
The population of Sherpa in Nepal
In 2004 the total population of the Sherpa people was 154,622 or 0.7% of the population of Nepal (77,511 men and 77,111 women), with 129,771 Sherpa mother-tongue speakers (64,102 men and 65,669 women).
Language of Sherpa in Nepal
Sherpas are of Tibetan stock and their language is Tibetan-related, with some variations. The script they use for their language is also of Tibetan origin. Nowadays the Sherpa language has adopted many words from neighboring dialects, but it still belongs to the Tibeto-Burman category.
Physical Characteristics Sherpas in Nepal
physical characteristics show that they are a Mongoloid people. Their height is generally short, but occasionally taller Sherpas can be seen. Physically they are well built and epitomize rural physical fitness. They have straight black hair and their eyelids have the epicanthus fold (a small nor-mal fold of skin from the upper eyelid). They usually have very few facial hairs. Their faces are broad with prominent cheekbones. They have short and flat noses with depressed nasal roots. Their skin complexion varies from fair to reddish to darkish. Due to the harsh environment, winds, dust, and sun, their skin gets burnt and weather-beaten, often giving them a leathery appearance.
Historical background of Sherpa in Nepal
At first, Sherpas introduced themselves as `Mar Khombo’, which means the inhabitants of Shar-Khumbu. Solu-Khumbu is also known as Sherpas’ culture is closely connected with Lamaism. Their rites and rituals are based on and determined by their religion. The lamas of the monasteries ( gompas) direct the religious life of the region and are considered the religious and social heads of the community.
Economy Status of Sherpa in Nepal
The Sherpa economy is directly related to its mountain environment. They produce staple crops like maize, wheat, potatoes, etc. for their needs and also for their animals. They export large quantities of potatoes to the southern regions. They also eat meat regularly. Trade, tourism, and mountaineering are also very important. They rear cattle and yak, dzo (dzopkyo) and dzum (dzuma), which graze on the vast grassy alpine slopes.
From the yak, they get wool and milk products like butter and cheese. They use butter to make their Tibetan-style salt tea, which is consumed in great quantities. They weave carpets and mats from yak wool.
Dzo and dzum are the crossbreed offspring of cow and yak. Dzo is male and dzum is female. They are strong animals, capable of carrying heavy loads and they adapt easily to the cool climate. Dzos are docile and easily tamed. They are also used for plowing and especially for carrying tour-ist baggage on treks. Dzum produces a lot of milk, so milk products like butter and cheese can be produced in huge quantities.
Dzo is twice as expensive as the male yak. The Sherpas of the Khumbu region breed Dzos and exchange them for Naks (female yaks) in Ti-bet. The Khumbu is higher than the Solu region and the yaks are well-adapted to the Khumbu as they can only live in the highest and coldest regions. The breeding of hybrid stocks and ex-changing for Nak has helped to maintain the region’s economy.
Nowadays Sherpas are employed widely in the trekking and mountaineering business. They work as sirdars and guides for trekking groups and mountaineering expeditions. Sherpa women runs shops and restaurants in the villages on the trekking routes.
Sherpa in Nepal Tribes & Clans
Sherpas are divided into various exogamous groups/clans/sects or thars. They marry outside their own clan. Some clans include the Chhusherwa, Chiawa, Gardza, Gole, Goparma, Hirgoma, Lakshindu, Lima, Mende, Mopa, Ngawa, Paldotje, Pangkanna, Pinasa, Salaka, Shangup, Sherwa, Shire and Thaktu. Some of the clan names have been adopted from the village they migrated from.
All these clans are divided into two endogamous groups (the custom of marrying only within one’s own tribal group) known as Khadev and Khamedu. Within these groups the members are equal, share a common cup and intermarry freely. The Khadev group is considered of a higher status than the Khamedu group. If a Khadev person marries or lives with a Khamedu person, the Khadev person will lose his/her social status and be forced to live as a Khamedu. Only by paying a fine to the village council and the village headman can their social status be retrieved.
Sherpa in Nepal – Religion
Sherpa people are Buddhist and they follow the Nyingmapa sect of Tibetan Buddhism. Through-out the Solu Khumbu region are many monasteries (gompas). Their lamas wear red robes and they are very religious people. In their homes, there are decorated chambers with pictures and icons of Buddha and the Dalai Lama, as well as various incarnations of the different bodhisattvas.
Prayers like Om Mani Padme Hum are of-ten painted on stone tablets. These prayers are also inscribed on rocks, stone walls, houses, and ghyangs. These inscribed or painted stone tab-lets are known as Mani. Mattis is often found as walls outside a village. Everyone should walk on the left of the Mani stones and walls, as well as around chortens (i.e. with the mani or chorten on the right-hand side or clockwise). It is believed that doing this is auspicious and one will not tire so easily on one’s journey.
Sherpas are generally non-violent people and do not kill animals. However, they are allowed to consume meat. Traditionally they employ Tibetan butchers who come to their villages once a year to slaughter animals. Nowadays things are changing with the advent of tourism.
Sherpas call Mount Everest Chomolungma. They worship it as the mother of the world. They worship Mount Makalu as Shankar and Mount Khumbila as a white-faced deity who rides a magical horse. This deity is considered to be the protector of the Sherpa people and when they worship Mount Khumbila they say “shyo shyo Khumbila“. This deity is worshipped in all the Sherpas’ religious occasions and festivals.
About two dozen gompas are found in the region of Solu Khumbu. Of these gompas, four are particularly important and active, with about twenty to thirty lamas living with an abbot. Among these four monasteries, Tengboche is the best known, most respected and honored one. This is because a learned avatari lama (reincarnated lama) lives there. Every morning religious prayers and services are performed. It is a splendidly painted and well-maintained gompa and once possessed thousands of religious texts and thangkas.
There is a Buddhist nunnery near to Tengboche called Deboche where about two dozen nuns live. Some are elderly and learned and they have several younger disciples. They also perform prayers and services. On some occasions, Tengboche and this nunnery join together as one gompa to perform religious ceremonies. At certain times, the nuns are forbidden to enter Tengboche and the lamas and monks are forbidden to see them.
The largest monastery is the gompa at Chiwang. There are more than thirty lamas and novices residing along with a reincarnated lama of Thatyo Tibetan monastery. Mother important monastery, Tubten Choling, is near Junbesi.
Family & Marriage of Sherpa in Nepal
Within Sherpa society, there are two types of marriage. If a boy and a girl mutually love one another, then they can get married. The other type of marriage is arranged by the parents when the expected bride and bridegroom are minors.
The marriage is concluded only after various rites like Daechyang/Sodene, Daemchyang/Demd-zang, Paechyang/Pedzang, and Gaen kutaw/ Gaen kutub have been performed.
The rite that is performed at the beginning of the marriage process is Daechyang/Sodene. In this rite, the boy’s parents and family go to the girl’s house to propose marriage. They take a thake (vessel) of aad (homemade beer) along as a present and offer it before or after they have proposed. The acceptance of the present by the girl’s side is considered to mark the acceptance of the marriage proposal. If it is not accepted then it is understood that the proposal is rejected.
After the acceptance of the proposal, the boy has the right to stay at night with his future bride. This may last for several years until the girl becomes pregnant and gives birth to a child. A son is preferred. The child born at this moment is known as Temba. Only after the birth of a child is the next marriage ritual performed.
The boy has to sleep with his fiancée every night and in the daytime, he has to be with his parents. As this means he goes back and forth between his parents’ and fiancée’s home every evening and morning, marriage partners are usually selected from nearby villages. In the course of several years, the couple may break up and they may seek another partner and start all over again.
The next ritual is known as Daemchyang or Demdzang and is performed after Daechyang/ Sodene concludes. This rite makes the boy and the girl into a bride and bridegroom. The auspicious day of the Daemchyang/Demdzang is discussed and decided by the boy and girl’s parents. Before the wedding procession starts from the bride’s home, relatives are invited to attend and are offered drinks like chhang (home-made millet beer). About 50 to 60 people, both men and women will be in the procession, wearing beautiful, attractive clothes and ornaments.
At Daemchyang, the bridegroom does not go with his wedding procession. Instead, he has to go separately after the Daemchyang party to attend the singing and dancing. As this Daemchyang party gets near to the bride’s home village, they start to fire guns into the air to announce their arrival.
Once the bride’s people hear the gunfire, the bride’s mother, along with other women of the village, takes thake of jaad and foods like rice, meat etc. to a convenient spot on the road to welcome the Daemchyang party. At first, they sprinkle jaad from the thake, using pine leaves then later offer the jaad, thake, rice, and meat, etc. to the groom’s Daemchyang party. This ritual is known as Surchyang.
This group remains at the bride’s home for the next two to three days, feasting, singing and dancing at the houses of each of the bride’s relatives who have offered them food and drink earlier. When the Daemchyang party reaches the bride’s home, the bride’s father, grandfather, maternal uncles and agnates (relatives through male descent or on the father’s side) then present them with white-colored scarves, known as khata. These khata symbolize honor and respect.
Daemchyang formally confirms the marriage negotiations even if the bride and groom do not take part in this two to three days singing and dancing. They just continue performing their daily household chores. After this ritual, months and years may pass before the next marriage ritual is performed.
The approach for settlement of the wedding day is known as Thedzang. When the boy’s parents feel that the bride should be brought home in the near future, they send as a gift, for example, a bottle of chhang or jaad to the bride’s parents and discuss the wedding date. The gift is taken to some of their relatives and the bride’s parents may set a date for the wedding. If they postpone it, then the boy’s parents may again approach in the same manner after some months or years. This is called Paechyang/ Pedzang.
Zendi is the actual wedding day and then the Gaen kutawa rite is also performed. On this day the bride and the groom are both offered a mark of butter on their forehead. There is another party similar to Daemchyang/Demdzang, which lasts all day and night with dancing and feasting. At the end of this, the party finally leaves with the bride.
Before leaving, the bride has to offer a goblet of chhang to each of her immediate relatives. She has to offer with her hands and as she offers, she sings a song to bid them farewell. The offering of drink and singing the farewell song is known as thuyanla. Her relatives and close friends then present her with daijo (similar to a dowry). After completing the offering of the chhang, the bride then tearfully leaves her home.
After this final ritual, it is considered that the bride is now separated from her parents and relatives and has to go to her husband’s relations. In this manner, the marriage is concluded.
The song that is sung at the moment of thuyanla has the following meaning:
Now I am going to my husband’s home.
Whether there is sorrow or joy, a daughter is unable to remain with her parents (maiti)
since it is her duty to go to her husband’s house.
Please bless me and give me a happy farewell. As soon as the groom has brought his bride into his house, he is then addressed not only by his name but also as “so-and-so’s father.” If his first child’s name is Dhiran and his name is Lhakpa, he will then be known as and called “Lhakpa, Dhiran’s father” by his juniors, friends, and equals. This indicates an increase in his social position. It is only possible after he brings his wife home with a child. Therefore the first child is very important.
Among Sherpas, the younger brothers have rights to the older brother’s widows and the younger sister of a deceased woman has the right to marry her deceased sister’s husband. A widower is not allowed to marry without the permission of his deceased wife’s younger sister.
If a man has an adulterous relationship with a woman, his wife can demand compensation from the other woman. The husband of the adulterous woman can also demand compensation from the other man.
Marrying more than one wife at a time is found on rare occasions. More commonly two or more brothers marry one joint wife. These polyandrous marriages nowadays tend to occur in general where the woman is married to more than one brother and they live together under one roof. By such a union if children are born, they are considered to be the progeny of the eldest brother and he is the one who has rights over the children.
After the birth of a child, they consult a lama, mentioning the time of birth. With this information, the lama determines the child’s name and the date for naming the child. On that fixed date, the lama and local relatives are invited and a feast of chhang and roti (oil-fried bread) is provided.
They do not perform a rice-feeding ceremony for the child, but instead, they perform chhartane. This ceremony is performed when the child reaches seven to nine years old. It occurs with a lot of feasting. The relatives and the local lama are invited, with the lama presiding over the ceremony which signifies the initiation into the boyhood of the child.
Sherpa in Nepal: Festivals
Sherpas have a number of gay and colorful festivals during the year. Among them, they consider Lhosar, Mani Rimdu, and Dumdze/Dumje to be the most important.
Lhosar is the New Year celebration. According to the Tibetan calendar, it falls in the Nepali month of Falgun in February. It is celebrated on the first day of the bright fortnight of the lunar month of Falgun. The Sherpa people celebrate this festival with lots of feasting, drinking. They sing and dance with great enthusiasm and devotion. While most Sherpas go to warmer regions during the cold months, they return for this festival.
Dumdze/Dumje is another interesting festival celebrated by Sherpas for seven days in their local village gompas. At this festival, Sherpas offer prayers to their deities and lamas dance their religious and sacred dances. They believe those who celebrate will prosper, therefore they attend dressed in their best clothes. They feast, eat and enjoy themselves. It is celebrated in the month of July, which is when the Sherpa people have already finished their agricultural work and been on their trips to Tibet.
It is also the time when they are ready to take their livestock to higher alpine pastures. During this festival, the village lamas re-cite texts and worship Gum Rinpoche, Chenresig, Tsamba, and other deities. The villagers then collect at the gompa in the evenings and feast and drink. The young people have a merry time, singing and dancing while the older people enjoy talking and joking.
Phuduk is celebrated in the first week of Marga, which is from November to December. It is held in the local gompa. In this festival, the lama of the gompa wears different masks and dances for three days. Naesu is also celebrated in the third month of the Tibetan calendar. In this festival, ancient stories like Suba Sangu, Ali Halamu etc. are acted out through drama.
Another very colorful festival of Solu Khumbu is Mani Rimdu, considered to be one of the most important. It is celebrated and observed by the monks in the monasteries and many Sherpa people from all over the Solu Khumbu region come to watch and enjoy it.
In this celebration, lamas perform religious dances wearing various costumes and uniforms, masks of various deities, amidst the smoke of pine incense. It is celebrated twice a year in the Khumbu region, in May at Thami monastery and in November at Tengboche. It is also celebrated at Chiwang and Traksindu monasteries in Solu. Besides these festivals, there are other smaller festivals, which are Yanizang, Fa Ngi, Osho, Ingunn, Dunaeyjyang, Nyungne, and Maiyu. The Yardzang and Fa Ngi festivals are celebrated in July.
When people are tending their cows in the high pastures, they celebrate the festival of Yardzang. A similar celebration at lower villages is known as Fa Ngi. In both festivals, deities are worshipped, followed by feasting, singing, dancing and drinking. Osho is celebrated for the protection of the crops and Ingunn is celebrated for deliverance from sin. In Dunaeyjyang and Maiyu, young people collect money and spend the whole night dancing and singing.
The boys and girls dance together holding each other’s shoulders, standing in a line, stamping their feet on the ground and singing together in loud voices. On the occasion of Nyungne, Sherpa people fast for the whole day or take one light meal a day. They do not eat, drink, or even dance for three days.
Nuns and lamas abstain from drinking, eating or dancing for two weeks. The participants of the occasion then gather at the local gompa to worship and recite their sacred texts. Those who cannot read their sacred texts recite the mantra “Om Mani Padme Hum.” This is per-formed for repentance of the sins committed in the preceding year.
Death rites of Sherpa in Nepal
When a death occurs in a Sherpa community, initially the deceased is covered with a white cloth. The lama and pallbearers are then called. The lama decides everything and plays a leading role. When the lama arrives, some hair of the deceased person will be cut off from his head. In doing this they believe that it will allow the prana (life breath) of the deceased to leave through his head. As it is being removed, the lama recites mantras which help the soul to ascend straight to heaven.
Sitting close to the corpse, the lama performs in a ritual. He reads the sacred Pho Gyu five times and Chhae Pee, which is an astrological scripture that is consulted to find the direction and the way of the funeral. With the help of a dada, which is actually a Hindu astrological calendar, the lama decides whether the corpse is to be buried, cremated or given a water burial.
They make torma, which is kneaded dough, shaped into cones, from barley, millet, or rice flout This is one of their death rituals, Kriya (to observe death pollution) and the torma is made into effigies to absorb the evils or dasha. The as-sembled people are fed and ghyak is made and thrown outside.
The death rites are normally performed after three to four days but can be as late as seven days after death. In this rite, Totuk Shaetu scrip-turns are read. They believe that by reading these, the dead person’s soul will attain moksha. It is also believed that the dead person’s soul can be educated to reach Sinjae Chhogyal, who is the God of Death. Sherpas generally bury dead children and cremate dead youths.
For old people, the dead body is taken to a place that is decided by the lama. When a person dies, the body is cleaned, washed and put into a bag in the seated lotus posture. It is then placed in a huge wooden or copper pot. The body is then taken out of the house in the same posture towards the funeral spot, according to the lama’s direction. When an auspicious time cannot be determined for removing the corpse, it may be buried for seven days.
On other occasions, when a body is taken in a funeral procession, flags are flown and drums, cymbals and conch shells are played. Novice la-mas play these instruments and the musicians head the procession to a funeral bier.
If cremation is decided upon, a pyre is built and lit, preferably by the deceased son-in-law, or another person attending the funeral procession. Once the pyre begins to burn, the lama chants mantras and throws the deceased’s clothes and belongings one by one into the blazing fire.
On the eighth day, death purification is performed. Their homes are also purified. This purification ritual is known as Dae Jhaong.
From the day of the funeral until the end of the Napur ritual, Totuk Shaetu scriptures are read. The Napur ritual is performed three to seven or eleven days after the funeral. To conclude this ritual, the lama warns the same (the soul of the deceased) that it should leave the living world and all of the love and affection it had there. Then the lama burns pieces of paper, on which the deceased’s name is written, at the same time chanting mantras. On the final day, a feast is held at the deceased’s house.
The final ritual after death is the Ghaepa ritual. For this, they read Konechok Chinduyi and Shaetu for the next forty-nine days. According to their belief, the deceased person’s soul remains in the vicinity of the house for this time. Shaetu, kin, and lamas are invited for a grand feast on the final day and donations are also granted.
Dress & Ornaments of Sherpa in Nepal
Their dress is very similar to that of the Tibetans and Tibetan-related people in other parts of the Himalayan region of Nepal. They wear long Daura and a shirt-like garment called a chuba (bokhu), which is usually quite thick and covers the upper torso down to the knees. Underneath this chuba, they wear a tutung, which is a long shirt. They wear nangoya, a trouser-like garment to cover their legs.
The women’s bokhu is known as anggi and the inner shirt as bangjur. For their feet, both men and women wear docha, which are woven woolen boots. There are two types of dacha. One is made of all leather and another has a sole of leather or wool with the upper part made of wool or cloth.
Most Sherpa women wear a cap called a shyamahu. They also wear a kind of colorful striped apron. The one that is worn in front is known as a pangden and is only worn by married women. Another kind of apron, which both married and unmarried women wear, is known as game till.
Sherpa women wear golden bangles, golden necklaces, and golden earrings, etc. Turquoise and coral (from Tibet) are found mounted on silver necklaces. Some of the ornaments are called Takcha, Patuk, Chhou, Kaedak and Along.
Traditionally both men and women grow their hair long and even men plait their hair and decorate it with clips studded with semi-precious stones. But nowadays this sort of long hairstyle is fast disappearing. The young people of the tribe are found to favor western clothing, trousers, and shirts, rather than their traditional clothing.
The housing of Sherpa in Nepal
They make single roof houses of two stories. On the ground floor, they keep their livestock, firewood and other rations like potatoes. The floor above is used for cooking, living and sleeping purposes. They have a living room with a fire pit, drawers and shelves for their utensils, bedding, and goods as well as a prayer room with Buddhist idols. They have a latrine in a small corner of a room, where refuse and excrement are dumped into the stable below and later spread on to the fields.