The buried past of the highlanders, Sherpas, the conquerors of height

Posted by Kaahon Desk On June 28, 2017

Nearly 600 years ago, the Sherpas started entering the Himalayan region, mostly in the south of the Sagarmatha, through the Nangpa La, a high mountain pass crossing the Himalayas and the Nepal-Tibet Autonomous Region border some 30 km northwest of Mount Everest. According to a legend, which briefly describes the cause of this migration is that they had a Mongol king called the Tsokpo Dzangubrae, who believed in the Gelukpa monastic order of Buddhism. These Sherpas who had a strong belief in the Nyingmapa monastic order refused to follow the king’s orders. Many were forcefully converted, many of the disobedient subjects were put to death, and the rest in fear fled from the region. In order to save their religion, they fled from Tibet and had settled in the Khumbu region of Nepal, and from where, they further migrated to other places. Sherpas are hence also called Solukhambas.

There is also another history of the Sherpa migration, which is a little modern. This history is related to the Tibeto-Gorkha war of in A.D 1792. It is then when Prithvi Narayan Shah was expanding his Gorkha Empire; he had attacked Tibet and occupied Kerrong, under the command of Damodar Pandey. The snow and undulated terrains of Tibet and their then weak political administration played as a curse for Tibet, and they could not protect their homeland. A group of Sherpas eventually migrated to the South Eastern part of the Himalayas such as Darjeeling, Kalimpong and the rest.

It is also said, that they are known as “Sherpas” which came from the word Shar-va” meaning ‘east’ and ‘pa’ meaning ‘resident/people’, was a name given to them by the Kirats who were the original inhabitants of the fertile valleys in Nepal. The Kirats used to graze their cattle and sheep in the alpine pastures.  An obvious war of truffle ensued among them regarding land usurpation. The immediate Kirat chief intervened and made a peace treaty, saying that the migrants from Tibet can stay there but upon being subjects to their kingdom, or as vassals. Thus since then, the Kirats identified the Tibetan migrants as “people from the east” or Sherpas and the Sherpas identified the Kirats as “jimidars” or the master of the land.

Sherpas survive with minimum oxygen yet live life to the fullest

The original language of the Sherpas is Sherpali, which is a variant of the Tibeto-Himalayan branch of the Tibeto-Burman languages of the great Tibeto-Chinese family. This language is almost under oblivion as now all the Sherpas converse in Nepali mostly, and in Hindi or English.

The Sherpas are mainly a landless community, though they depend on land. They are horticulturists. Their traditional and present occupation is to produce potato in hill terrain. Previously, they used to sell their Yaks to Tibet, which was slaughtered, and they used to bring the dried meat back to home for their stored food for the winter. The Nepali Hindu Government banned cow slaughtering. Even Buddhism discouraged the killing of animals. Then with some effort, Potato came to those valleys in Khumbu, which was rich in calorie and that became the staple food for the people in Khumbu. Sherpas were great pastoralists, started growing potatoes and became rich. Now they have developed to practice agriculture even to the extent of cultivating rice. Their wandering nomadic life has been transformed as they now live in the purview of electricity, well built houses and all other welfare measures that the Government has offered them to push the standards of living up.

Sherpas are sometimes glorified as some mystical Gods of pure and simple nature by the climbers who occasionally try to conquer the heights of the mountains for their adventure. Some even treat them as mere low caste people born to be porters for the climbers. It is sad that how their identity has become intertwined with a single profession as to be the hands in aid for the climbers and tourists. Sherpas have their own tribal history and their rich culture. This risky courageous profession and their genetic adaptation to less oxygen are not natural but bear a forceful story of migration and struggles for survival. This will not be a happy fate for the humankind, if those stories are not acknowledged and saved cautiously in the memory of survival.

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