Who Are Sherpas?
Sherpas are a hardy people living in a rugged, mountainous region of north-east Nepal, of which Mount Everest (29,000 feet) forms the northern boundary. Originally they came from Tibet. Most Sherpa people live in eastern regions of Nepal however, some live farther west in the Rolwaling valley and in the Helambu region north of Kathmandu. Tengboche is the oldest Sherpa village in Nepal.
Sherpa people also live in China, Bhutan, as well as in the Indian states of Sikkim and the northern portion of West Bengal, specifically the district of Darjeeling. The Sherpa language belongs to the south branch of the Tibeto-Burman languages, and it is mixed Eastern Tibet (Khamba) and Lhasa dialogue. However, this language is separate from Lhasa Tibetan and unintelligible to Lhasa speakers.
The Sherpas were nomadic people who first settled in the Solukhumbu District (Khumbu), Nepal, then gradually moved westward along salt trade routes. According to Sherpa oral history, four groups migrated out of Solukhumbu at different times, giving rise to the four fundamental Sherpa clans: Minyagpa, Thimmi, Sertawa and Chawa. These four groups have since split into the more than 20 different clans that exist today. About 1400, Sherpa ancestors migrated from Kham. Mahayana Buddhism religious conflict may have contributed to the migration in the 13th and 14th centuries. Sherpa migrants traveled through Ü and Tsang, before crossing the Himalaya.
By the 1400s, Khumbu Sherpa people attained autonomy within the newly formed Nepali state. In the 1960s, as tension with China increased, Nepali government influence on the Sherpa people grew. In 1976, Khumbu became a national park, and tourism became a major economic force.
Gautam (1994) concluded that the Sherpa migrated from Tibet approximately 600 years ago, through the Nangpa La pass. It is presumed that the group of people from the Kham region, east of Tibet, was called “Shyar Khamba” (People who came from eastern Kham), and the place where they settled was called “Shyar Khumbu”. As the time passed, the “Shyar Khamba,” inhabitants of Shyar Khumbu, were called Sherpa.
A recent Nepal Ethnographic Museum (2001) study postulated that present-day Nepal became an integral part of the kingdom of Nepal. Since ancient times, Sherpas, like other indigenous Kirat Nepalese tribes, would move from one place to another place within the Himalayan region surviving as Alpine pastoralists and traders.
Some members of the Sherpa population are known for their skills in mountaineering. Today they number about 1, 70,000 out of which certain Sherpas still live at heights of about 13,000 feet, others have migrated to various places or even located to other countries. Potatoes form their main crop. Accustomed to living in a thin atmosphere, Sherpas became world famous for their part in helping Everest expeditions since General G.C. Bruce’s attempt on the mountain in 1922.
They are excellent high-altitude guides and porters, cheerfully carrying loads of supplies and equipment seemingly out of all proportion to their small size. They also act as cooks and assistants. The most famous Sherpa is Tensing Norgay, who on May 29, 1953, stood with Edmund Hillary of New Zealand on the top of the world—the first men to reach the summit of Everest. Norgay’s son Jamling Tenzing Norgay also climbed Everest in honor of his father with the famous Ed Viesturs and Araceli Segarra during the disastrous year of 1996.