Q: What does the term SHERPA mean?
A: Although westerners pronounce it "Sher-pa" the native Sherpa pronunciation is "Shar-wa."
Shar means "east" -- wa means "person" --- in Sherpa and Tibetan language.
In Tibetan script, the word "Shar-wa" is spelled like this.
The word "Sharwa" is also a relatively recent identifier. As the eminent Nepali anthropologist Dor Bahadur Bista remarks in his extensive descriptions of Nepal's many ethnic and tribal groups "Peoples of Nepal" (Ratna Pustak, Kathmandu, 1967):
"Through the course of time the name Sherpa has gained so much currency that it almost acts as a tribal name, and it does in fact define a specific group of people. Before Sherpas were so highly publicized by mountaineering expeditions, they introduced themselves to other societies as "Shar Khombo" - i.e., the inhabitants of Shar-Khumbu. " (p.162)
Q: Who is the world's most famous Sherpa?
A: Historically, Mr. Tenzing Norgay of Khum-jung and Dorje-ling (Darjeeling) is the most famous Sherpa. Tenzing Norgay (Sherpa) was the first summiteer of Chomolungma on May 29, 1953. He is admired worldwide as an icon of Sherpa dignity, friendship, and courage.
Tenzing Norgay (Sherpa) along with Sir Edmund Hillary of New Zealand received international fame when they were the first summiteers of the highest mountain on earth, "Chomolungma" (Mount Everest) on May 29, 1953.
Photo: Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, returning from successful ascent of Chomolungma in 1953. [Tenzing Norgay is the father of SHERPA FRIENDSHIP ASSOCIATION past president Norbu Tenzing, of San Francisco & Darjeeling.]
See nice biography of Tenzing by Bob Pierce -- and be sure to read Jamling Tenzing Norgay's beautiful search for his father's spirit in Touching My Father's Soul : A Sherpa's Journey to the Top of Everest We recommend the marvelous audio tape version, read by Tenzing's son Norbu!
Many expedition climbing Sherpas have become international celebrities in recent years, including Babu Chhiri Sherpa of Takshindu, who died climbing in 2001, and the beautiful Mrs. Pasang Lhamo Sherpa of Surkye (near Lukla) who died tragically after summiting Mt. Everest in 1993.
The Tengboche Rinpoche (Ngawang Tenzin Zangbu) who is abbot of Tengboche Gompa in Khumbu, is another world-famous and highly respected Sherpa.
There are certainly more famous Sherpas! Mrs. Lhakpa Doma Salaka-Pinasa Sherpa offers an interesting collection of prominent Sherpa men and women's biographies at www.nepalresearch.com/sherpa/sherpa_biography.htm
Q: How many SHERPAS are there in the World?
A: According to Prof. James Fisher's1990 study Sherpas: Reflections on Change in Himalayan Nepal about 35,000 SHARWA presently live in Nepal, India, Bhutan, & Tibet.
The Royal Nepal Embassy quotes 100,000 as the total number of Sharwa people living in the Himalayan Region. (This figure is probably based on a broader definition of "Sherpa.")
Perhaps as many as 10,000 persons of Sherpa ancestry live in Sikkim and Bhutan. Many Sharwa live, work, and go to school in the cities of northern India.
Approximately 5000 SHERPAS now live in the cities of Europe & North America.
Q: Where do SHERPAS come from?
A: As mentioned in James Fisher's study Sherpas: Reflections on Change in Himalayan Nepal, the original SHERPA CLAN LEADERS probably migrated from Kham in eastern Tibet in the 1600's, perhaps under pressure of famine or feudal warfare.
Settling mainly in the eastern Himalaya of what is now Nepal, SHARWA developed a unique Nyingma (Tibetan) Buddhist culture based on trade, animal herding, and subsistence agriculture.
Lhakpa Doma Salaka-Pinasa Sherpa, Chhiri Tendi Salaka Sherpa and Karl-Heinz Kraemer offer a map of the Sherpa's westward migration route, coming out of Kham, at their extensive Sherpa history site www.nepalresearch.com
Q: Where was the old Sherpa kingdom? How did it become part of the nation of Nepal?
A: Until the late 1800's, the SHERPA lands enjoyed relatively peaceful independence from surrounding warlords in Nepal and Tibet. (Barring constant attacks by horse-riding Tibetan bandits!)
Although SHERPAS paid some taxes to outside lords, their own king-like tax-collectors (called pembu or gangba) ruled within.
The old northern SHERPA capital was Na-bo-che in the northern territory of Khumbu. (top photo). Na = pasture, bo-che = great one. Naboche is the last great pasture for merchants' pack animals before beginning the cross over high passes to Tibet. Sherpa pronunciation of Naboche sounds like "Nauje." The Nepali name for the Great Pasture, which became also a marketplace due to so many merchants camping there, is Namche Bazaar.
The old southern SHERPA capital was Zhung Gompa (bottom photo) in the southern territory of Shar-Khumbu. The Nepali language name for Zhung Gompa is Jun-beshi. (Jun = moon, besi= valley. There is a large Moon-stone in the center of Junbesi valley.)
At the turn of the 20th century, under pressure of increasingly strong armies of the Kathmandu kings, SHERPA pembu began to pay large taxes to "Nepal." (In other words, they paid tribute to King of Kathmandu. Until the country of Nepal was formed, "Nepal" originally meant only the principality of Kathmandu.)
By the 1950's, after many smaller Himalayan kingdoms had been unified into the Kingdom of Nepal which was ruled from Kathmandu, most SHERPAS had become citizens of the new country of "Nepal."
The book High Religion by Ms. Sherry Ortner gives a detailed description of Sherpa history, as told by educated Sherpa lamas. For more good books on Sherpa culture, please see the Sherpa Books Section at the online Himalayan Bookstore.
Q: How does the SHERPA CLAN system work?
A: SHERPA society uses a clan system or ru to determine marriage arrangements. The clan system is believed to have originated in Kham, where ru (literally, 'bone') clan & marriage system is still in use today.
All 18 SHERPA clans are essentially equal.
According to Christoph von Furer-Haimendorf in The Sherpas Transformed, and confirmed by Sangye Tenzing in "Shar-pa'i chos-byung sngon med tshangs-pa'i dbu-gu" ("The unprecedented holy scepter: A religious history of the SHERPA people) (1971) as quoted in Sherry Ortner's Sherpas Through Their Rituals and High Religion there are a total of EIGHTEEN SHERPA CLANS:
Clan identity is inherited through the father. Traditionally, each SHERPA would select a spouse from a clan outside their own. For example, a Lama cannot marry another Lama, but a Lama is free to marry a member of any of the other seventeen clans.
Traditionally a true SHERPA claims lineage in one of the 18 ru.
However, many waves of Tibetan migration into SHERPA lands as well as continuing SHERPA intermarriage with non-SHERPAS have expanded the contemporary definition of who is SHERPA.
In addition, the modern trekking industry practice of referring to all trail guides as SHERPAS --regardless of ancestry -- continues to confuse outsiders. In addition to identifying an ethnic group, the word "sherpa" is now a job description! Therefore workers of many different ethnicities in Nepal are called "Sherpa" when they are on the job, performing trail guide service.
Traditional Marriage Process
Q: Do all Sherpas use "Sherpa" as their surname?
A: "Sherpa" is actually the western mis-pronunciation of the ethnic designation "Shar-wa." Sharwa among themselves have eighteen surnames (historically originating in the Tibetan province of Kham) which are the eighteen clan names listed above.
Note that one of the clan names is "Sharwa." Members of the Sharwa clan do actually use "Sharwa" as a surname. Other clans use their own clan name as surname - e.g., Lama, Nawa, Pinasha, Chusharwa, etc.
However, even though "Sherpa" is an ethnic group not a surname, many Sherpas use "Sherpa" as an internationally recognized & respected surname, especially when dealing with those outside the Sherpa community.
If you would like to know a Sherpa/Sharwa person's true surname, ask them to tell you their "ru." Ru literally means "bones." The "ru" system is rich with history. By knowing a Sharwa person's ru, you will know their family and village roots back at least 400 years.
Q: Where in the World do SHERPAS live now?
A: For the last approximately 400 years, most SHERPA families have been living in the alpine villages of eastern Nepal. SHERPA communities are also established in Darjeeling, as well as in other parts of India and Bhutan.
Since the expansion of the trekking industry in the 1960's, small SHERPA communities have been founded in Europe and North America as well.
Q: Is there a native SHERPA language? Is it a written language?
A: Technically, Sherpa (Sharwa) is a separate language, not a dialect of Tibetan. However, this distinction is the products of separatist politics as well as linguistic analysis :)
Sharwa is rarely written, but literate Sharwa who function skillfully in several cultures might express Sharwa sounds equally well by writing with Devanagari, U-Chan, or Roman characters.
Because SHERPA (Sharwa) language developed in relative isolation from its eastern Tibetan roots, SHERPA pronunciation & meaning can differ considerably from the speech & word meaning of Tibetan groups who live just across the high Himalayan passes. Somewhat similar to the way New England American English preserves the pronunciations of the old English districts from which the settlers came, Sherpa preserves some ancient Kham sound patterns and usages. One noted lama has said that contemporary SHERPA pronunciation reminds him of the polite speech of 17th century Lhasa.
Sherpas often apply unique Sharwa pronunciations and meanings to Tibetan words, so that it can be tricky to have colloquial Tibetan speakers and Sharwa speakers understand each other's meanings in conversation.
[Discussion of Sherpa language] The overall pattern is that spoken Sherpa tends to compress the Tibetan syllables, and make a number of sound replacements. ............ A simple example might be the Tibetan name "Mik-mar" which signifies the planet Mars and [Mars' day] Tuesday. Lhasa-Tibetan pronunciation would be "Mik-mar" whereas Sherpa pronunciation sounds like "Ming-ma."
Sherpas living closer to the Tibetan border naturally speak and understand more Tibetan dialects than Sherpas living in India or Nepal's southern districts.
Modern spoken Sherpa is in fact heavily spiced with Nepali-origin and English-origin words, because modern conversation requires words that don't exist in Sherpa. Conversation in Sherpa language is similar to conversation in English language - many, many terms of foreign origin are needed to describe the world around us!
Lhakpa Doma Salaka-Pinasa Sherpa & Chhiri Tendi Salaka Sherpa, Yawa, Shorong together with Karl-Heinz Kraemer have compiled several Sherpa translation dictionaries, available at their most excellent Sherpa Culture site www.nepalresearch.com/dictionaries/sh_eng/sh_eng.htm
Barbara recently wrote a linguistics paper you might find amusing:
Language Shift from Sherpa to Nepali, Among the Sherpas of Nepal
Q: What are the Sherpa "Tashi Taki" symbols?
A: "Tashi Taki" is a Sherpa language version of the Tibetan title, Ta-Shi-Tar-Gye, Eight Auspicious Symbols of Buddhism.
Ta-shi = Lucky. Tar=Eight. Gye=symbol.
The Tashi Tagye are sacred symbols within Tibetan Buddhism, including the Nyingma tradition of Padmasambhava, to which most Sharwa belong.
This one --> "ShriVaasta" representing the interconnection of the sacred and secular worlds, is our favorite! -->
Here are links to some lovely pages describing Tashi Targye:
Q: What other languages do most Sherpa people speak?
A: Today, most SHERPAS under age sixty speak, read, and write Nepali.
SHERPAS educated in Buddhist monasteries or Tibetan schools also read, write, & speak Tibetan.
SHERPAS educated in India speak and write Hindi and English.
Internationally educated SHERPAS and those who work in the in the trekking business also speak English, and often German, French, Italian, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, Swedish, Korean, Chinese, and Japanese as well!
Q: Where are the other Sherpa culture groups?
Here are a few fun links for other Sherpa culture groups in the USA and Nepal: http://www.bena.com/sherpa1/sfa/sSharwa_groups.htm
Q: What does "Shey-shey" mean?
A: In Sherpa and Tibetan languages, the word for "respect" or "politeness" is "shey-sa." If you have been invited to a Sherpa home, you may have been "shey-shey'd" by your host. If you decline food or drink, your host will press it upon you, insisting (at least three times) that you please partake. This is the host's duty.
Sherpa hospitality tradition is ancient and important. Your host or hostess will not feel that they have shown true respect to the guest (who could easily be Padmasambhava in disguise!) if you have not been robustly encouraged to eat, at least three times!
Within Sherpa society, it is considered rude to ask for tea or food directly. A Sherpa guest in a Sherpa home will never mention his hunger or thirst. He must wait for the host to offer.
Similarly it is quite rude to ask for additional servings of food at mealtime. The host will distribute food to guests according to their status. The guests should first decline. The host must then "shey-shey" - insisting vehemently that their guests (who are probably very hungry but declining out of politeness ) should accept a bowl of food. Guests may then accept. Additional servings, if available, will be "shey-shey'd" all around, with required polite declining first, followed by guest's grateful acceptance of the offering, and so forth until the meal is finished.