CULTURE SUMMARY: SHERPA
Robert A. Paul, Ian Skoggard, and John Beierle
IDENTIFICATION AND LOCATION
The Sherpas are one of the Bhotia, the Tibetan-related ethnic groups inhabiting several high valleys in northeastern Nepal. They practice the NYING MA PA, or "old" version of Tibetan Buddhism. The name "Sherpa," Tibetan SHAR PA means "easterner," referring to their origin in the eastern Tibetan region of Khams. The main present homeland of the Sherpas is Solu-Khumbu in the northern part of the Sagarmatha District in eastern Nepal. The main valleys settled by Sherpas are the Khumbu, Pharak, Shorong (Nepali Solu), Arun, and Rolwaling. There are also permanent Sherpa settlements in the Nepali capital, Kathmandu, and in the Indian hill towns of Darjeeling, Kalimpong, Siliguri, and others. Most Sherpa villages in Nepal are at elevations between 2,400 and 3,600 meters, on the southern slopes of the Himalayan range, concentrated around the base of the Everest massif.
An estimate of Sherpa population places them at about 30,000 (1998) in Nepal, mostly living in the Solu-Khumbu area, but with colonies of several thousand each in Kathmandu and Darjeeling. Around 20,000 (1997) Sherpa live in India. It appears that population in Solu-Khumbu is remaining stable or, if anything, declining, partly due to out-migration to the towns.
The Sherpa language is a dialect of Tibetan, and thus it is a part of the Tibeto-Burman Family of languages, to which many of the other languages of Nepal also belong. All Sherpas speak Nepali, the official language of Nepal. While there is no Sherpa writing system, many Sherpas are literate in Tibetan, Nepali, and in some cases Hindi and English as well.
HISTORY AND CULTURE
The present-day Sherpas are the descendants of a small group of families who emigrated from the Khams region of Tibet across the Himalayan range in the middle of the sixteenth century under the leadership of a great LAMA, or religious preceptor. The valleys into which they moved appear to have been sparsely settled at the time of their arrival. They lived by raising field crops in the cleared forest land and herding live-stock, including yaks, cows, and yak-cow crossbreeds, prized for their excellent milk, in the higher pastures. During the nineteenth century, under the aegis of the British Raj in India and the Rana dynasty in Nepal, some Sherpas took advantage of their location near the Nana pa La, or "Inside Pass" between Tibet and Nepal, to establish themselves as intermediaries in trade routes linking China and the Indian subcontinent, using the yak as a transport animal ideally suited to alpine caravans. The introduction of the Irish potato into the region in the middle of the nineteenth century added pr osperity to the region: this allowed for denser settlements in the high villages of Khumbu above the tree line but near the pass and the yak pastures. The potato is now the main staple crop of the Sherpas; before its introduction, they subsisted on grain, especially barley, and dairy products. In the years following the opening of Nepal to the west, after the restoration of the Shaha monarchy in 1952, mountaineering and tourism became major industries. Sherpas from Darjeeling had already established a reputation as able assistants on British surveying and mountaineering expeditions by the beginning of the century. The conquest of Mount Everest (in Nepali, Sagarmatha; in Sherpa, Chomolungma) in 1953 by a British team relying on Sherpa porters and guides-with a Sherpa climber, Tenzing Norgay, as one of the first two people on the summit, along with Sir Edmund Hillary brought the Sherpas worldwide attention. Since then, work related to the tourist, trekking, and mountaineering trade has more and more dominated t he economy of the Sherpas, who serve as guides, SIRDARS (expedition foremen), and service providers in the cash economy of tourism. The Sherpas in the towns, especially Darjeeling, are drawn there by wage labor in industries such as road building and tea planting. A few Sherpas made great fortunes as road-building labor contractors under the British and more recently since Indian independence. Although the Nang pa La is no longer an active trade route, trading, both within the region and over long distances throughout much of Asia, is an important Sherpa economic activity.
In Solu-Khumbu, villages can range from just three or four households to more than a hundred houses in the large towns of Khumjung and Namche Bazaar. In higher valleys, where arable land is scarcer and fields are smaller, individual houses sit in the midst of their adjoining fields, which are separated by stone walls. In the lower, more fertile valleys, houses are usually clustered in central locations surrounded by the fields of the various village residents. Many villages may include a community temple, as well as a communal mill and the religious monuments called CHORTEN (Tibetan MCHOD RTEN, Nepali STUPA), a distinctively shaped reliquary mound. There are a few government schools in the region. Sherpa houses are substantial buildings of stone covered with plaster, worked with wood in the interior and with wooden shingles on the roof. Houses have at least two stories, the lower story usually serving as an animal shed and storage area. The main living quarters on the second story are built around a hearth ar ea; there are shelves on the walls for the storage of kitchen and household items, as well as the family's collection of large copper kettles, heirlooms that serve as exchange and display items. There is no furniture, but the interior walls are lined with built-in platforms and benches for eating, sleeping, and entertaining guests.
The major part of Sherpa production consists of field agriculture. Potatoes are the main staple, along with barley, some wheat varieties, and more recently maize in the lower-elevation villages. Various garden vegetables are also grown, the most prominent being huge radishes the size of turnips (or larger) and cucumbers the size of watermelons. There is no mechanized farming; plowing is done with a single-bladed plow drawn by oxen. The other main component of the domestic economy is livestock herding for dairy products, especially butter and a form of yogurt. Butter is produced in surplus by some herders and is a major trade item. Imported tea, mixed with butter and salt, and chang, local beer made from maize or other grain, are drunk in great quantities. Rice and fruits are obtained from regional markets frequented by growers from lower-elevation regions. Sherpas, being Buddhists, do not slaughter animals and are not generally meat consumers, though they will eat meat slaughtered by non-Sherpas at the market or on special occasions.
The various crafts and industries necessary for Sherpa life are, at present, almost exclusively relegated to ethnic Nepalis of the artisan castes, including blacksmiths, goldsmiths, leather workers, and tailors. This pattern dates from the nineteenth century, when Nepali caste restrictions were accepted by the Sherpas as part of their incorporation into the expanding state.
Trade, including trans-Himalayan trade, has long been a leading Sherpa entrepreneurial activity and was the source of a number of very substantial fortunes. Sherpas like to make long trading expeditions, and men often go off on such journeys singly or in groups for many months, leaving both domestic chores and agricultural work in the hands of women. In recent times, merchants catering to the tourist trade have grown more numerous.
DIVISION OF LABOR
Trading and wage labor are predominantly male activities. Agricultural and pastoral labor is shared by both sexes, and often women do the major share while men trek. Plowing is the only productive activity assigned exclusively to men.
Most land is individually owned and worked by households. Threshing is sometimes done communally by cooperating households. Sherpas will not in general do agricultural work for wages, preferring to work the tourist trade or in the cities. A few Sherpa families who made great fortunes in trade own large tracts of land worked by wage laborers and tenant farmers coming from non-Sherpa ethnic groups. In recent years a land reform program of the government of Nepal has attempted to address major inequities in landownership.
KIN GROUPS AND DESCENT
The Solu-Khumbu Sherpas are divided into a number of named exogamous patrilineal clans, descended from the original founding families; the clans are subdivided into lineages. Clans can own common land, forests, mills, temples, or villages, though they do not necessarily do so. Agricultural fields are individual property. There are kindreds joined by mutual aid and participation in life-cycle ceremonies. These usually link several villages in a region.
The terminology is a variant of the Omaha system. Relative ages of siblings are signified by distinct terms. The categories of mother's brother and of in-law are applied to a wide number of people. The standard term of address is "older brother" or "older sister."
MARRIAGE AND FAMILY
Most marriages are monogamous, though fraternal polyandry is allowed and has prestige. Polygyny is very rare. Marriage is supposed to be arranged, though the pattern is changing. Marriage is a long process involving many stages of betrothal and gift and labor exchange. Women receive a dowry when the marriage is finalized, and sons receive their fair share of the parental estate. Divorce is quite frequent, having been estimated as occurring in 30 percent of all Sherpa marriages.
The nuclear family residing in a single household sharing a joint economy is the basic domestic unit. Residence is neolocal. When all children have grown, married, and received their shares of the inheritance, parents are supposed to be housed by the youngest son.
Land and herds are divided equally among all male heirs, who are also supposed to be given newly built or acquired houses on the finalization of their marriages. Monks and nuns receive their shares upon their ordination. Female heirs receive a fair division of movable property at marriage, including animals, jewelry, copperware, and cash. Families without male heirs may take in an adoptive son-in-law as heir. The youngest brother inherits the parents' house, while the oldest brother generally inherits offices or titles.
Child rearing is handled mainly by mothers and by older sisters if there are any. Fathers are nurturing to children, but Sherpa life entails long and frequent paternal absence because of expeditions, trade ventures, or wage-labor shifts. The treatment of children could be described as being on the indulgent-to-negligent side, though it varies by individual temperament. Girls are incorporated into the household economy earlier than boys, as child-care helpers and kitchen workers, while boys play in multi-age groups.
Sherpa society is notable for its stress on egalitarian values and on individual autonomy. Hierarchical relations exist within Sherpa society between "big" people with wealth or descent from an outstanding family and ordinary "small" people, but there are no real class distinctions. Descendants of the original settling ancestors of Solu-Khumbu are accorded higher status, while new immigrants and more distantly related people are relegated to marginal roles. Those threatened with poverty and debt have the option of going to Darjeeling or Kathmandu for wage labor. Patron-client relationships are established between Sherpas and the Nepali service castes, who perform vital craft functions for them, but the Nepali are regarded as ritually impure and are viewed as occupying an inferior social position.
The Sherpas have never been organized into any coherent political unit as such. Throughout their history in Nepal, local headmen have established themselves as authorities on the basis of wealth, personality, religious status, and alliance with non-Sherpa centers of power including the Nepali state. More recently, the Sherpa region has been incorporated within the administrative system of the contemporary Nepali government.
There are few formal mechanisms for the exercise of power in Sherpa society. With the flow of surplus capital into the region through the exploitation of the monopoly on the Nang pa La trade route, some traders established themselves in the position of PEMBU, usually translated as "governor." With varying degrees of autonomy from or subordination to the overarching Nepali state, depending on different historical circumstances, these figures, by virtue of influence and wealth, became tax collectors, using some of the proceeds as investments in trade. The power of the PEMBUS depended largely on personal authority and enterprise, and it was not readily transmissible from father to son. In more recent times, the Nepali governmental system has established more administrative control over the region, and the panchayat system of local democratic village councils has been introduced.
Religious authority and values, the power of local headmen, tradition, and public opinion constrain action, but there are few indigenous mechanisms for enforcing social control or adjudicating complaints. Mediation or arbitration by neighbors, relatives, headmen, or lamas settles most disputes. Others can now be taken to Nepali law courts, though this is infrequently done. Nonviolent Buddhist values have helped keep Sherpa society almost entirely free of war and homicide. Few Sherpas join the Gurkha military forces. High mobility makes flight or avoidance a viable solution to conflict.
RELIGION AND EXPRESSIVE CULTURE
The Tibetan form of Mahayana Buddhism, sometimes called Vajrayana, "The Thunderbolt Vehicle," is universally observed among the Sherpas. In past centuries, religion was organized on a village and clan level; since the turn of the present century, celibate monasticism, imported from Tibet, has flourished in the Sherpa region. The Sherpa pantheon is vast, ranging from the great Buddhist divinities connected with the quest for enlightenment and salvation to local gods, spirits, and demons influencing health, luck, and day-to-day concerns. The former are the object of temple and monastic worship, the latter of exorcisms, communal feasts, purification rites, and curing rites performed by married lamas and shamans.
On the village level, married LAMAS who are also householders preside over community and life-cycle ceremonies. Monks and nuns take lifetime vows of celibacy and live in institutions isolated from daily life. Their interaction with the community is mainly limited to the reading of sacred texts at funerals and annual monastic rituals to which the public is invited. The monks' and nuns' pursuit of merit in turn brings merit to the entire community. Sherpa monks and nuns are not supported by the state, as in Tibet, nor do they beg widely, as in Southeast Asian traditions, but rather support themselves from their own inheritance, through trade, or through donations by sponsors from wealthy households. Outstanding religious figures may be reincarnated, and the highest ecclesiastical offices at the present time are held by reincarnations of earlier religious figures. In addition, shamans perform exorcisms and cures, though this is now less prevalent than previously.
A spring first-fruits festival called DUMJE and the great monastic masked dancing rituals, generically called CHAM (in Tibetan, 'CHAM' the specific Sherpa version, MANI RIMDU) and often held in fall or winter, are the major festivals. Individual households and villages sponsor exorcism, curing, and cleansing rites, often in connection with life-cycle events, especially funerals.
An indigenous style of choral singing and line dancing is favored; as elsewhere in the hills, dancing parties with beer are a preferred social activity for the young people. Many Sherpas have become masters of the Buddhist ecclesiastical arts, including religious painting or iconography. The monastic dance dramas feature elaborate costumes and choreography. The traditional religious orchestra includes the drum, cymbals, telescopic horns, oboe-like flageolets, conch shells, trumpets made from human thighbones, and hand drums made from the tops of two human skulls placed back to back. Liturgical chanting is an art mastered by many laypeople as well as by monks and lamas.
Indigenous cures include herbal medicines, shamanic exorcism, the reading of exorcism texts by lamas, and the use of amulets and medicines made or blessed by high religious figures. More recently, Western medicine has been widely sought.
DEATH AND AFTERLIFE
Funerals are the longest and most elaborate life-cycle ceremonies; the body is cremated, and the soul of the deceased is encouraged, through ritual action and instruction, to seek an advantageous rebirth. Rebirth is believed to occur forty-nine days after death; ideally the entire seven-week period is occupied with a rich cycle of ceremonies and the chanting of funerary texts from the Buddhist tradition. Although relatives and lamas do the best they can to influence future rebirth in a favorable body, it is generally agreed that the main determining factor is the working of karma, the principle by which meritorious and non-meritorious behaviors are appropriately rewarded or punished in countless future lives.
Documents referred to in this section are included in the eHRAF collection and are referenced by author, date of publication, and eHRAF document number.
There are 19 documents in the Sherpa collection period from the 1950s to 1990s. The Sherpa environment, religion, and social change have received the most attention by scholars. A basic ethnographic approach is found in the work of Füre-Haimendorf (1963, no. 7; 1964, no. 1; 1975, no. 2). Füre-Haimendorf (1984, no. 18) wrote a more recent study examining changes in Sherpa society resulting from their involvement in the business of mountain climbing. Fisher (1990, no. 4), Kumwar (1989, no. 16), and Mühlich (1997, no. 20) also look at changes in Sherpa society, religion, and gender relations, respectively. Ortner (1973, no. 10; 1978, no. 8; 1989, no. 11) and Paul (1977, no. 9; 1982, no. 6; 1990, no. 19) have written sophisticated treatments of Sherpa religion, Paul taking a Freudian psychoanalytic approach and Ortner from the perspective of social agency. A detailed analysis and interpretation of a Sherpa dance-drama is provided by Jerstad (1969, no. 3). Adams (1997, no. 14; 1992, no. 15) writes about Sherpa notions of self as revealed in curing ceremonies. Ecological approaches are found in Stevens (1990, no. 13) and Brower (1987, no. 12), and Weitz (1984, no. 17) examines Sherpa adaptation to high altitude environment.
For more detailed information on the content of the individual works in the collection, see the abstracts in the citations preceding each document.
This culture summary is based on the article "Sherpa" by Robert A. Paul, in the Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Vol. 3, South Asia. Paul Hockings, Ed. 1992. Boston: G. K. Hall & Co. synopsis was written by Ian Skoggard and indexing notes compiled by John Beierle. Ian Skoggard updated the census figures from Ethnologue (October 3, 2003, URL: http://www.ethnologue.com/ )