The Sherpa People

February 11, 2010

The Sherpa, who inhabit the regions surrounding Mount Everest, are well-known in the West as a rugged mountain population, adhering to the religious traditions of Tibetan Buddhism.

The origins of the Buddha’s religion among the Sherpas are lost in tribal and clan legend. The Sherpas, however, are a young people – their legendary past occurred a mere three or four centuries ago. It is only with the ancestors of the early nineteenth century that the historical record becomes clearer and Sherpa Buddhism acquires some of the features it has retained to the present day.







The Sherpas seem to have long been adherents of the Nyingmapa school of Tibetan Buddhism, the “ancient school” which extends back to the introduction of Buddhism in Tibet during the eighth century A.D. While the Nyingmapas are united by a common history and much shared doctrine, theirs is for the most part a heterogeneous and even somewhat anarchic sect: each regional tradition adheres to the rites revealed by a given Nyingmapa visionary; with the passage of the centuries hundreds of such visionaries have appeared in Tibet.

Sherpa Buddhism adopted its modern form when, shortly before 1850, a number of Sherpa village priests travelled to Tibet to study with the great Trakar Choki Wangchuk, a figure well-known from the Tibetan historical and biographical literature of the period. Choki Wangchuk instructed them in a number of ritual and meditational cycles which have remained popular throughout the villages of Solu-Khumbu, the Sherpa homeland whose northern boundaries are marked by Mount Everest. The liturgies for these rites are often profound and beautiful, as their titles suggest, e.g., “The Union of All that is Precious,” “The Spontaneous Freedom of an Enlightened Intention,” “The Celestial Doctrine of the Land of Bliss.” Their performance is marked by sumptuous offerings, melodious chanting, and joy.

These traditions are the products of a literate and erudite religious culture. Their spread in Solu-Khumbu required the simultaneous spread of literacy in the classical Tibetan language and of the skills needed to reproduce and proliferate the written word – the manufacture of ink and paper, calligraphy, and finally, printing. In the last decades of the nineteenth century these developments were encouraged by the growth of the Sherpa agricultural economy and a resultant increase in Sherpa involvement in the India-Tibet trade. Some Sherpa were full-time traders. As business became more profitable, piety demanded patronage of the religious culture, symbolized first and foremost by the written scripture.

The first Sherpa woodblocks for printing books in Nepal were carved in south-central Solu in the village of Gole, probably during the 1890s. The workmanship is crude and suggests that the workmen had had no formal training in the art of block-carving, but were attempting to imitate Tibetan xylographs using ordinary woodworking skills. The first rough efforts, however, soon gave way to the importation of sophisticated wooden-engraving techniques from Tibet, and by the second or third decade of the present century Sherpa craftsmanship rivaled that of the Tibetan communities to the north of Solu-Khumbu, though the exceedingly fine work of central and of far eastern Tibet remained to be mastered.

















At that time the Sherpa clergy consisted of laymen who gathered in village shrines on festival days and other important occasions. There were no monasteries, though some Sherpas had received monastic ordination in Tibet and had founded small hermitages for themselves near their original homes. The importance of the laity in the community religious life guaranteed fairly high literacy rates among the village men – in this the Sherpas have much in common with Nyingmapa communities throughout the Tibetan periphery. Some Tibetan tribes extended the role of lay-religionist to women as well.

The success of the Sherpa business community in the early years of this century provided the conditions required for the growth of monasticism in Solu-Khumbu. The businessmen had travelled widely in Tibet and wished to establish something of the splendor of the great Tibetan pilgrimage sites at home. They could now afford to patronize extensive building and artistic projects. After all, what greater merit is there for a Buddhist layman than to insure the prosperity of his religion?

By the mid-thirties three major monasteries had been founded, and several village temples were refurbished so as to house a permanent staff of ordained monks. Thousands of volumes printed in Tibet were imported to fill the newly built libraries and to serve as textbooks for the education of young novices. Sherpa Buddhism, after only three generations of indigenous development since the days of Trakar Choki Wangchuk, began to reaffirm its links with traditions in Tibet.

Among the Sherpa monks who received their early education in the Solu-Khumbu monasteries during the thirties and forties, there were some whose intelligence and curiosity demanded more than the local centers could provide. Many Sherpas had previously visited Tibet as pilgrims, but now for the first time there were young Sherpas eager to enroll in the great Tibetan monastic universities and to become fully proficient in the arts and sciences of Tibet. Seeking to spread their learning when they returned to Solu-Khumbu, several of them trained young Sherpa scribes and printers in the most refined Tibetan calligraphic and block-printing skills. These they perfected to such an extent that after the Chinese military take-over of Tibet in 1959, Tibetan refugees in India and Nepal found that they could turn to Sherpa craftsmen for xylographic work often superior to that of refugees.

The developments here surveyed may be illustrated in the life of Lama Sangye Tenzin of Serlo Gumba, Nepal. Born in 1924 to a family of pious laymen, he became a monk at an early age and by the time he was nineteen had mastered all that was taught at Chiwong and Tengboche, two of the three major monasteries referred to above. He then spent four years in southern Tibet before moving to Lhasa, where he first heard of the college at Sechen in the far eastern district of Derge. It took nine months of arduous travel on foot to get there, but the effort was appreciated and he was warmly received as Sechen’s first Nepalese student. He distinguished himself as a scholar and eventually rose to the rank of khenpo, “preceptor,” which is, among the Nyingmapa, roughly equivalent to our Doctor of Theology.

After the eastern Tibetan populations rebelled against increasingly oppressive Chinese policy in 1956, Sangye Tenzin was advised by his teachers to return to Solu-Khumbu. There he founded his own college, where he has taught young Sherpas the elements of most branches of Tibetan learning, and has established a printery run by his own students. The quality of the woodblocks produced under his guidance is presently unsurpassed in the Tibetan-speaking world. Recently his students have also begun to make use of the photo-offset facilities in Kathmandu and Delhi to reproduce calligraphic work inexpensively.

In sum, then, the story of Sherpa Buddhism is that of a people living on the periphery of a great civilization who gradually adopted the traditions of that civilization and made them their own. This, however, does not explain the tenuous condition of Sherpa Buddhism and its literary culture at the present time.

The year 1959 marked the end of Tibetan civilization as it had existed for much of the preceding millennium. The fifties were already a time of cultural change for the Sherpas: The reestablishment of the Shah dynasty as the actual rulers of Nepal in 1951 paved the way for the hill tribes to assert their Nepalese identity and to participate equally in national life.

The Sherpas were internationally acclaimed for their mountaineering feats. Through the efforts of Sir Edmund Hillary, Western education had begun in Solu-Khumbu. Thus, the Sherpas were already redefining certain aspects of their cultural identity when Tibet was taken over militarily by the Chinese. The effects on life and culture in Solu-Khumbu were immediate and profound.

The wordly wealth and prestige that formerly accrued to the Sherpas who had traded in Tibet were now out of reach. Mountain-climbing and tourism became new sources of lucrative employment, but unlike the old traders, those who were working in these fields had no regular involvement with Tibetan civilization and so were little inclined to patronize it. Moreover, the termination of the Tibet trade and the influx of refugees severely damaged the local economy. Literacy in Nepalese and English were sought after,

During the sixties and seventies, an appallingly rapid cultural deterioration occurred in some communities. Villages that a generation ago could boast at least rudimentary skills in written Tibetan among the entire male population now had only one or two old men who could read the language of their religion. Monasteries, temples, and libraries fell into disrepair. Precious collections of printing-blocks began to rot. With little support for the exercise of traditional artistry, skilled craftsmen now had to earn their livelihood by producing tourist art, e.g., woodblock prints of Spiderman for the Kathmandu marketplace.

In Khumbu, the most heavily-touristed of the Sherpa districts, the situation has recently shown signs of improvement. Tengboche monastery, on the trail to Mount Everest, has, through the efforts of its industrious abbot and many local and foreign friends, reasserted its position as a living center of Sherpa Buddhism. Further to the south, however, in Solu and its surrounding districts, valuable shrines, libraries and printeries stand in desperate need of restoration. The Tsibri Parma, for example, the most important collection of Tibetan printing blocks anywhere in Nepal, is rotting away for simple want of a proper storage facility, which would probably cost no more than $1500 to construct. Sangye Tenzin’s library, containing books thought to be unique, requires support for the republication of rare texts that may otherwise be lost. The block collections of Chiwong, Mendopake, Cole and other temples are all in poor condition. These examples can be multiplied tenfold.

It is to be hoped that once the present period of intense cultural change has passed the Sherpas will find a balance between their old traditions and their current national and international roles; for, in the final analysis, the survival of Sherpa culture depends on the Sherpas themselves. Some foreign support can be beneficial, however, if applied to locally designed projects and institutions which stand in real need of immediate assistance. Negligence in these cases will only leave the next generation with a poorer legacy, and all too little from which to rebuild.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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Tibetan manWHO ARE WE?  Our name , Sherpa means “easterner” because we came from the Kham in eastern Tibet. One of the first persons to come to Khumbu came by way of the Rolwaling valley and Tashi Labrsa (pass). He opened this valley so other people could come to settle. Later many families came from Tibet over the Nangpa La (pass).

This person came to Khumbu from Kham-Salmo-Gang (east of Tibet). His clan was called Thimi.  When he came to Tibet, the people asked where he came from- “the cast part of Kham.” That is how the name Sher-pa, meaning east-people, came to be.

For 600 years, people have migrated from Tibet to these mountain valleys in Nepal. There was a time of great unrest in Tibet when many lamas, their families and followers left their homes looking for new places to live.  They settled in the mountain valleys of northern Nepal. These places came to be called Yolmo (Helambu), Langtang, and Khumbu. 

Now we live in the Solu-Khumbu district, Sagarmatha zone of Nepal. We live in the highest places. In the Khumbu, we number about 3,200, with another 30,000 Sherpas living in the Solu, Langtang, Helmabu, and Rolwaling valleys.

The Sherpa language (a dialect of Tibetan), literature, history, and philosophy came from old Tibetan religious books. 

Today approximately 30,000 Sherpas live in Nepal, and around 3000 of them live in the Khumbu region on the south side of Everest. Since the 1950s, tourism has become the dominant source of employment and income in the area. Many Sherpas, as well as people from other ethnic groups, work as part of the climbing and tourism industry.

While the Sherpa people retain their Buddhist religion and many of their traditional practices, this shift in the local economy and way of life has necessarily meant changes in the Sherpa culture. Among these, there has been a shift from regarding climbing the mountain as blasphemous, to regarding it as a source of economic opportunity and pride.

Sherpas hold many impressive Everest records, including most times summitted for men and women, quickest ascent, quickest descent, most time spent on top and youngest climber to reach the summit.

ABOUT THE KHUMBU VALLEY; To tell a short story about the Khumbu: here is the highest mountain in the world. They call it Jomolangma, because a goddess, one of the five sisters of long life, resides there.

Guru Ringpoche, the found of Tibetan Buddhism, hid the Khumbu and other Himalayan valley for future times when people would need them as sanctuaries. He described Khumbu in religious books as a valley surrounded by snow peaks. Following directions in these tests, some people moved into there area of northern Nepal. 

There are two main areas where the Sherpas live. In the old times, they called the upper Khumbu valley, Khumbu-te, and the lower Solu valley, Shorung. When they first came here, now covered the Khumbu Valley and the glaciers here were much bigger. Hence, the first settlements were down near Lukla. As the snow and ice gradually melted, people moved up to Tashinga, and then eventually started villages at Khumjung and Pangboche.

The main villages in Khumbu are Khumjung, Kunde, Thamichhok, Namche, Pangboche, and Phortse. Most Sherpas have home in one of these villages but often stay for the summer monsoon in huts at the high pastures. 

RELIGION AND CULTURE; In solu-Khumbu the most common sect of Tibetan Buddhism is the Nyingmapa, the oldest tradition. Sherpa and Tibetan lamas taught this religion to the people and organized the communities.

These sherpa and Tibetan ngagpa (lay lamas) brought teaching from Tibet to Khumbu that were from Books hidden by the founder of Tibetan Buddhism, Gura Rinpoche. Lamas called tertons are incarnations of Guru Rinpoche who rediscovered these hidden teachings. Ter means “spiritual treasure” in Tibetan. A lama named Rigdzin Godem found some of these books, the Chang-ter, hidden in northern TIbet. The other lama, Nyatak- Nyung, found the Lho-ter in southern Tibet. The terton, Terdak Lingpa found the books and wrote the texts used in the Sherpa’s pujahs, religious rituals. 

As more people came to Khumbu, traditions started that helped to unite the villagers and to project the valley. Daily life revolves around each villages gompa (temple). Closely tied to Buddhist beliefs are their daily activates of farming, herding and trading. Since the 1950’s they have worked for tourists and earned fame on climbing expeditions.


The Sherpa language originated from the old Tibetan religious books. There are many different dialects used in Tibet. As well, words from other languages such as Newar, Nepali, Tamang, and English have gradually come into their speech. The Tibetan language from Lhasa has also changed since that time.


Before 1959, most Sherpas farmed and traded with Tibet. The business with Tibet was usually for salt and wool. Today, most people work mountaineering, trekking, portering, or doing religious services. The old people spend some of their time saying whatever prayers they know, going around stone mani walls and village lha-khangs, and helping with their families.


Potatoes, buckwheat, and barley are traditionally the main foods in Khumbu. Except for items brought up by traders, Sherpa food is limited to crops that can grow at the cold, high altitudes of the Khumbu. Sherpas eat some Tibetan foods, such as tsampa (roasted barley flour), and some Nepali food such as rice. Unique to the Sherpas are green vegetables that are cooked then fermented to keep, and kyu, a sour or salty porridge of many grains-corn, rice, millet.

The Sherpas grow potatoes, buckwheat, barley turnips, and greens. Dairy products include butter, yogurt, and cheese. They purchase rice, lentils, corn, millet and fresh meat from down-valley traders at the market. Salt and dried sheep meat is obtained from traders coming from Tibet.

SHERPA HOUSESclick here for information


The traditional Sherpa clothing is similar to that of Tibetans. Most of their hats were distinctive to Solu-Khumbu.

The basic garment of the Sherpas, the chuba, originated in the cold climate of Tibet. It is a warm ankle-length robe that is bound around the waist by a long sash. The chubás upper portion becomes a large pocket for everything from money to bowls. Unrolled, the sleeves extend beyond the fingertips. 

In the past, chubas were made from strips of hand-woven woolen cloth. Originally they were the un-dyed white color of the sheep’s wool from Tibet. Later we started dying they started dying the wool black or brown. On trading trips to Tibet, people often wore sheep skin chubas, jackets or pants.

SHERPA HOMES    [Photo Gallery]

When the Sherpas first came to Solu-Khumbu, their homes were bamboo huts. Gradually they changed to being half stone, half split wooden logs. Eventually they became stone houses, and later with two floors. At present, there are even some three and four story hotels and houses.  Windows have been the fastest changing par of Sherpa houses, with the introduction of glass panes and just recently ski lights are being added warming them up considerably both in light and in warmth.

The design of the lha-khang (chapel) was brought from Tibet. In every home it serves as a reminder of spiritual matters. 

Usually the houses had simple windows with an opening in a wooden frame that closed by a small door. The wooden lattice windows became popular in Khumbu when a Tibetan carpenter was re-building Tengboche gompa after the earthquake in 1934 used this design of window. Sherpas copied this design, especially in their household lha-khang windows. 

There are so many lodges along the most popular trekking trails in Nepal that it makes sense to use the facilities, rather than camp in their yards. While these Tea Houses are definitely not the alpine lodge which are often the height of rustic luxury in other parts of the world, they are unquiquely Nepali and are being upgrade very fast these days to include toilets, showers, comfortable beds and great food. The Tea Houses give you a deep insight into the lives of the hardy mountain sherpa people, because most are family-run and just extensions of their family home. The food is nourishing and hygienically prepared and the environment cozy and congenial. We have carefully selected the lodges/Tea Houses which belong to our climbing sherpas families. 



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