Sherpas: Religion and the Printed Word
By Matthew Kapstein
Tourism, Persistence, and Change: 
Sherpa Spirituality and Place in Sagarmatha 
(Mount Everest) national Park and Buffer Zone, Nepal
By Jeremy Spoon


High Religion: A Cultural and Political History of Sherpa Buddhism

 By Sherry B. Ortner

Sherpas: Reflections on Change in Himalayan Nepal

 By James F. Fisher

Life and Death on Mt. Everest: Sherpas and Himalayan Mountaineering

 By Sherry B. Ortner

Sherpa and their Neighbors

According to multiple sites and sources that I have found, the estimated amount of Sherpa individuals within Nepal range from 30,000 all the way to 150,000. Around 35,000-45,000 is estimated by actual Sherpa sources while the 150,000 is estimated by the 2001 Nepali census. Some people believe that their definition of "Sherpa" is a little more broad than others.. But no matter what, the Sherpa make up only a small portion of the Nepali population of 27.47 million. Despite this, the Sherpa are very well known around the world and are well revered. Since the Sherpa are Buddhist, they are in a minority religion within the country which has one of the highest rates of Hinduism in the world. This devotion to Buddhism keeps them connected to the Tibet region of China.

The Sherpa were a part of a massive three part migration from India, Tibet, north Burma and China to Nepal throughout its history. They actually aren't the only group to have migrated from Tibet, the Bhutia have also done it.

Sherpa Migrations and Diaspora

The main migration in the Sherpa's history came hundreds of years ago when they migrated from Tibet to the Khumbu region and other surrounding regions of Nepal. Now a days there's a different migration with some Sherpa moving to the states and other countries around the world. The population of Sherpa around the world is somewhat unknown but it has been estimated in certain reports and studies. In the United States it's believed that NYC has the highest population of Sherpa with about 2,500 individuals. One study had reported that there were about 5,000 Sherpa individuals across Europe and North America, but that was back in 1990! So there are definitely more who have migrated out of their homeland. Nothing against Nepal or the Sherpa regions, but they may have moved for a ton of reasons especially money. It's human nature to want to move to a new place in search of a better life, so no matter what culture we're talking about, someone is going to have moved...

United Sherpa Association here in the US:

Birds of the Sherpa

I couldn't find a cultural connection to birds within the Sherpa culture, but I did find a list of some birds in the area. In fact, this past weekend I was at the Bronx Zoo and got to see a few of these birds...Sorry I didn't get any pictures of those ones! But here's a blog I found that has all of the birds of Nepal with their names in Nepali. It's pretty neat seeing all of these different types of birds that have reletives here in the states!

Also, while looking through this one seems pretty cool. Apparently it's really big!
                              Himalayan Griffon

Sherpa Cosmos

The Sherpa people are primarily Buddhist and they were originally from Tibet, the homeland of Buddhism. In fact, according to some traditions, the migration out of Tibet was in search of the fabled Shangri-La. The form of Buddhism that the Sherpa follow is one that believes in some shamanic elements. The Sherpa believe in the Buddhist deities but they also believe in several deities and demons who live in the caves, mountains, and rivers in the world. These deities and demons must be appeased through different rituals. Mt. Everest is known as the "Mother of the World" to the Sherpa and they must respect it. This is why they never climbed the mountain until outsiders from the West came in and climbed it. Each clan in the areas respect a certain peak and its deities.

In individual villages, they have lamas who run the Buddhist and ceremonial practices in the town and they also have shamans and soothsayers who deal with the supernatural.

The gompa is a very important part of the Sherpa's religion. A gompa is a Buddhist monastery which is inhabited by a community of lams, monks, and nuns. These people are sworn or celibacy and are very respected and supported by the Sherpa community. Here's a picture of a gompa:  


Sherpa Cultural Survival

The Sherpa had a very strong culture throughout their whole history, but for a while it began to fade. Then after a cultural revival and an adaptation to their new ways, it now thrives in a new and perhaps improved way.

When the British had control of the Indian subcontinent in the 1920s, they began planning climbing expeditions into the Himalayan mountains and would hire Sherpa as porters. From that point on is when the Sherpa became known for their incredible ability to climb these mountains with ease. The problem was, all of these foreigners to their land coming through caused a rush of new culture and primarily new food. Once Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzig Norgay were able to conquer Mt. Everest in 1953, a new rush of climbing expeditions swept through and brought with them snacks which became very popular in the Sherpa region. Climbing and Westernization became key in the Sherpa culture and to this day they still are. Climbing and tourism has brought in a new source of income and have kept the Sherpa on top as some of the most wealthiest Nepalese. Westernization has also been incorporated into their traditional culture. They are still able to hold onto traditional beliefs while also being able to interact with the modern world.

World of the Sherpa

Up until about the 1920s, the Sherpa people made a living through some high altitude farming, weaving, and livestock raising. Although, as I explained in the homeland portion of the blog, there's not many types of crops that will grow at such high altitudes and harsh climates, therefore their agriculture was very selective and didn't lead to much money. Next come the 1920s, and the first wave of climbing expeditions and a new opportunity for money. Since around then, their economy has been driven by their tourism.

Their cultural world, although has been intertwined with some Western ideals brought by the climbers and tourists, is still based around their villages and their religion. The Sherpa people are primarily Buddhist and some daily activities are centered around the village temple. The Buddhism stems from their original homeland of Tibet and the old Buddhist temples and ways of life which were brought with them on their migration to their present regions of Nepal. Although they are mostly Buddhist, they still hold to many traditional religious beliefs which I will explain later.

Next I'm going to just give a few short examples of some cultural practices and other things that they do which are key to them as a culture.
  • Every Sherpa individual will have the name Sherpa at the end of their name. This is for a few reasons, but mainly to show their identity and ethnic credentials
  • The well known colorful rectangular flags are prayer flags and are meant to bless the surrounding area
  • There a few different types of shoes that they would wear and one, the Kacha, has all but disappeared due to Western shoes
Here's some examples of their cultural dress:

Here are the prayer flags: