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Sherpas – heroes of the mountains

The Sherpas play a very important role in most mountaineering expeditions, and in fact many of them lead along the ridges and up to the summit.” – Edmund Hillary

If the God had not created Sherpa, the Mt. Everest would yet be unclimbed.” – Sarin and Sing 1981

Sherpa – Early History

“Shar – wa “ a notable clan from Tibet’s Kham region is later used as “Sherpa” in Nepal by the administration to recognize the community of eastern hillside.  

Oppitz, Michael 1973 wrote on the ground of historical documents that Sherpa’s original homeland was in Kham region of Eastern Tibet which is about 1300 miles away of Khumbu valley. Their migration began in 1530 A.D and continued until 1850 AD by crossing the Nangpa La 19050 ft. The pass is the major trade route between Khumbu with Dingri of Tibet. The word Sherpa is derived from the Tibetan word “Sharpa” that means easterner. The term “Sherpa” was widely used by the people of Khumbu valley after the ascent of Mt. Everest by Tenzing Sherpa on 29th May of 1953, who hailed from Darjeeling. Earlier, Sherpas were migrated to Kalimpong searching better luck and fortune from Khumbu and they were the first Sherpas associated in the mountaineering.

Sherpas were first used as the high altitude porters in the mountaineering in 1907 by Dr. A. M. Kellas to explore the Himalayas in the Sikkim part and they were from Darjeeling – a hill now belongs to Iindia. After the successful ascent of Mt. Everest, Sherpas of Khumbu as well attracted and attached to the mountaineering.

According to the National census of Nepal 2011, the population of Sherpa in Nepal is 112,946 and approximately 55,000 in Sikkim and Darjeeling of India. There are smaller numbers of Sherpa now living in West and Europe as well.

Today the term Sherpa is often used by trekkers and expedition teams to refer to any Guide or Porter associated with their venture into the Himalayas regardless of the ethnicity. The word has become almost a slang word for their staffs in the mountains. Sherpas are renowned climbers now for their hardiness, expertise and experience at very high altitudes. It is believed that the Sherpa’s climbing ability is the result of a genetic adaptation on living in high altitudes and it includes unique hemoglobin-binding capacity and double nitric- oxide production. Thus, these people are not only a community of the Himalayas, but they Sherpas – heroes of the mountains.

Nature Relations – Spirits and Gods

Being the inhabitant of the harsh mountains in the Himalayas, thus their life is associated with high mountain passes, small peaks, high mountains, gorges, lakes, glaciers, rivers, forest, and large numbers of  snowy peaks. As Sherpa life begins with high altitude, cold climate and harsh environment, they are built strong enough to cope with strenuous situations.

Many mountains are considered as female deity, some remarked peaks are worshipped as their village god, some lakes and forests are taken as the main residual place of local spirit. The Sherpa’s fortune, misfortune, material fortune, auspicious, inauspicious all are guided by nature – spirit world.

Khumbi Yul La or popularly known as Khumbila 5761m / 18,901 ft peak behind Khumjung and Khunde village is taken as the most sacred peak of all Khumbu region as “God of Khumbu”.

There is strong nature – spirit – god relations with Sherpa families. If pregnancy does not happen on time, then the lady from the Khumbu region travels to Gokyo Lake with empty cradle and beg for the baby.


Before Buddhism of Nepal and India penetrated into Tibet, they were following Bon ( animistic tradition )  religion. Buddhism were first introduced into Tibet by Nepali princess married to King Srong Tsan  Gampo in around 7th century. Later, Guru Padmasambhava the most revered master and god of present Tibetan Buddhism practiced across the Himalayan belt as Guru Rinpoche established the first school /  monastery of Buddhism in Samey in near Lhasa. The first school that merged traditional Bon po practice to newly introduced buddhism called Nying-Ma-Pa.

From around 11th century, the Buddhism in Tibet got two separate groups which follow the unreformed ideology and reformed ideology. The reformed sectarians one also fragmented later making Kadgykpa ( formed in 1012 – 1096 AD),  Shakyapa ( formed in 1073 AD) and Gelugpa ( formed in 1400 – 1408 AD) as major sects of Tibetan buddhism. Dalai Lama is from the same Gelugpa sect. From 15th century onward, Gelugpa sectarians are known as “yellow hat” and Nying – ma -pa sectarians are known as “red-hat”.

Sherpas are followers of Nying-ma-pa sect of buddhism. Though their forefathers brought buddhism with them into Khumbu valley they were not successful to establish monastery in their settlements immediately. Pangboche, Thami and Kerok Gonpas were taken as the oldest of the region.

The Sherpa’s archaic culture is represented by Monasteries ( gonde ), village temple ( gonpa ) , but called Gomba for both two centres, Icons for various gods and goddesses, deities, painted cotton scrolls (thangkas), wooden block prints ( parsing ), prayer-flag poles ( dharbujen ), village entry gates ( kani ), a free standing stone wall engraved with sacred mantras ( mani wall ), stupa ( chorten ), big prayer wheels ( mani thungkyur ), small building with prayer wheels set in motion by water ( mani chhyungur ), the small prayer wheels turned by hand ( mani lakurma ), sacred dress ( chou manja ), musical instruments dung tol sum, prayer beads ( thyanga ), sceptre ( dorje ),  bell ( dhilbu ), wall paintings with religious stories, religious texts, heap of the stones ( lha – tho ), sacred shrines of mountains, mountain passes ( lhab -tsa ) etc.

Mountaineering / Trekking and Economy

Herding and animal husbandries has hundreds of years of history in the Khumbu region. The grazing place is called Kharka or Phu among Sherpas. The high altitude cattle called “Chauri” in Nepali language is both the bull and cow hybrid of Yak and Nak. The bulls called as “Dzopkyos” along with Yak are used to carry the loads and means of transport. Agriculture is also another means of living of Sherpa families.

Trans Himalayan trading used to be another means of income for Sherpa families earlier. But, following the political change in Tibet in 1949, it was banned to trade. Namche bazzar was the centre of trade between Nepal and Tibet then.

Now, Trekking and mountaineering has been the major occupation of Sherpas from Solukhumbu and Rolwaling region with good fortune on their economic and social status. Earlier, Sherpas were not known for climbing mountains as sport prior to British introduction. Thus, they used to cross very high himalayan passes such as Nangpa-la 5776 m / 18,950 ft for trade and have proved their capability in the Himalayas.

Dr. A Kellas first hired few Sherpas from Darjeeling to accompany him as high altitude porters in Sikkim Himalayas. By 1921, the prominence of Sherpas in the climbing has been raised in Europe as well since the British reconnaissance expedition of Mt. Everest hired Sherpa porters to climb from Tibetan side. Before 1950, Nepal was closed for the foreigners and especially to Britishers following the suspicion of British takeover of the country. So, expeditions used to begin from Darjeeling where Sherpas were living and Sherpas of Khumbu travels to Darjeeling to find job in the same sector.

“Sherpas has now achieved world fame not just as mountaineers but also as self confident, amiable, and loyal people.” Schaller 1980

Sherpa have not only gained fame and better economic status than in a history, the great loss of the community hurts as well. Schaller in 1980 wrote ; Sherpas climb mountains for money and not for enjoyment and a small tribe can not afford to lose so many of its best young men to the mountains.

 Source: Fire of Himal – Ramesh Raj Kunwar

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