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SHERPAS OF KHUMBU

James F. Fischer (Sherpas, 1990, Oxford University Press), pp. 54-55, 63

 

Nepal packs more geographical and ecological diversity into fewer square miles then other country In the world. The people who inhabit this much too-heavily populated land mirror that diversity. The country exhibits an unusually board spectrum not only as regards its geography but also its social, economic, religious, and linguistic types.

They begin with the flat-as-a-pancake rich farmland of the Terai just above sea level along the Indian border in the south, with its full panoply of Hindu castes, its indigenous tribal groups, and substantial Muslim minority, speaking Hindi, Urdu, Bhojpuri, and Maithili. Then you find farmers and herders scattered through the terrace-laced middle hills. These range from Nepali-speaking high-caste Hindus-Brahmans and Chhetris-to such Mongoloid groups as Rais, Limbus, Gurungs, Magaras and Tamangs, all speaking Tibeto-Burman languages. Finally you arrive in the high Himalayan valleys with their Buddhist, Tibetan-speaking nomads and settled farmers and traders.

In the middle of all this diversity is the Kathmandu Valley and its Newars-an Ethnic Universe unto itself. Nepal is, in anthropological jargon, a multiple society with plural cultures. The Sherpas who live in the high valleys in the southern shadow of Mt. Everest, in the Solu- Khumbu region of north eastern Nepal, are merely the most famous minority in a country where there is no majority.

Unlike most Nepalese, who are either Hindus by caste or tribes more or less Hinduized after centuries of prolonged contact and occasional intermarriage with Hindus, the Sherpas are unalloyed Buddhists. Indeedi in religion, dress, language, kinship, marriage and social life generally, they resemble the other people who live along either side of the five-hundred-mile long northern border with Tibet. At the same time, however, the Sherpas are unique in all these dimensions, as they and outsiders readily agree.

The populations on the Nepal side of the frontier-which are culturally Tibetan but politically Nepalese-occupy about one-quarter of the total land area of Nepal, but they represent a numerically insignificant portion of the population. The Sherpas of the Khumbu itself number fewer than 5,000 while the total population of Nepal is more than 20 million. Another 17,000 Sherpas inhabit the area that fans south, east, and west of the Khumbu. This area includes the Sherpa strongholds of Solu and Pharak (found in the area below Namche Bazaar along the Dodh Koshi River); they also live in Kathmandu and "a rather different strain of sherpas" is to be found in the Helambu Valley just north of Kathmandu. And in Taplejung in the western Nepal Still other Sherpas 10,000 or so" live in Darjelling, India, emigrants (or the descendents of emigrants ) from Solu Khambu.

The literal meaning of the word Sherpa is “easterner" (the Sherpa pronunciation is Sherwa, from Shar, "east" and wa, "people"), and indeed some evidence indicates that Sherpas migrated to Solu Khumbu some 450 years ago from the eastern Tibetan province of Kham, 1,250 miles away . No one knows why they left Kham (perhaps to escape political upheavals or religious persecution), but it is not hard to imagine why they settled in Solu-Khumbu, where the topography, altitude and climate were ideally suited to mall-scale farming and the Sherpas' traditional pastoral nomadism. Best of all, in those days it was empty, or at least nearly empty, and theirs for the taking.

Kumbu refers to the high -altitude area north of the confluence of the Bhote Koshi and Imja Khola; Solu, with its subregion . It’s six or so major villages and many smaller hamlets are perched high above the banks of these rivers or, in the case of Namche Bazaar, Khumjung and Khunde, on the elevated land between them. Namche Bazaar is a little above 11,000 feet, and the other villages are all closer to 13,000 feet. Most of Khumbu consists of high-altitude rock, ice, and snow, and less than a fifth of 1 percent of it can be farmed, but other land is suitable for pasture, water is plentiful, and wood is- or at least would have been 450 years ago-plentiful.

In Khumbu these Sherpa newcomers eventually established a routine of transhumance-farming the fields around their sturdy permanent houses and seasonally following their herds-to less substantial shelters in higher pastures in summer and to lower ones in winter.

Apart from agriculture, the sherpas made seasonal trade trips to Tibet via the glacial pass of Nangpa la(19000 feet) to barter grains which they accured from the lowlands of Nepal with salt and wool. The Khumbu sherpas acquired a monopoly on this trade when the government of Nepal under the Rana regime prohibited the lowland sherpas from trading further north than Namche Bazaar and Tibetan traders from trading further south.

However two events during the 50s brought big changes into the life of sherpas.

The first event of the 1950s that altered life in Khumbu was the incursion and the vastly expended power of Chinese in Tibet. Two consequences followed from the increased Chinese control. First, the flow of trade over the Namgpa la pass was drastically curtailed. Only some of the small scale barterning of grain and salt was allowd to continue in central depots under the Chinese control.

The second result of the Chinese occupation of Tibet was the enormous influx of refugee in the Khumbu following the flight of Dalai Lama.

The second and most important was the opening of Nepal to the world. With the successful ascent of Everest in 1953 by sir Edmund Hillary and Tensing Sherpa, tourism began flourishing in Nepal.

RELIGION

The sherpas are Buddhist and they follow the most common and oldest Tibetan Buddhism sect of Nyingmapa.