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The Untold Story of Everest Base Camp Trek: Sherpa’s cultural dynamics

  • 08-Mar-2016
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Everest Base Camp Trek is on top of every trekker’s list of ‘must do’ trekking routes. The adventure and enthralling experience, the majestic Himalayas and their panoramic views, the diversity of flora and fauna to be seen, the cultural richness and legacy are some of the highlights that attract the backpackers from around the world to the homeland of the legendary Sherpa community, the Everest Base Camp. When we talk about this ‘once-in-a-lifetime experience’, the description is incomplete without talking about the invincible, resilient, hardworking, and patient Sherpas. They make possible the dream of trekkers from around the world.

Who are the Sherpas?

Sherpa (meaning ‘eastern people’ in the Tibetan language) is the Tibetan origin tribe who migrated to the present northeastern Himalayan region from the Kham region of Tibet, thousands of years back. Some historians claim this tribe to be herders driven out of their homeland and eventually settling in the current region. Sherpa community reside over the Khumbu region and Solukhumbu regions lying to the south of the mighty Everest and some moved along the ancient salt trade routes of the region. This is the reason the hikers have chances to experience the original Sherpa culture. Sherpas are estimated to have a population of around 45000 and are also found in the valleys of Dush Koshi, Rolwaling, Langtang, and Helambu, along with a minority population spread over Kathmandu, the southern plain of Nepal, and also in the Indian hill towns of Sikkim, Darjeeling, and Kalimpong.

Major Components of Sherpa Culture


Sherpa community has a long adherence to the Nyingmapa school of Tibetan Buddhism, the school that has assimilated the practices and local deities borrowed from the pre-Buddhist Bon religion. With the emphasis on mysticism, the Sherpa community believes in numerous gods and demons believed to inhabit mountains, forests, and caves, besides the Buddha and other Buddhist divinities. Worshipping the deities is incorporated in the ancient practices followed by the Sherpa community.

Mount Everest (or Chomolungma as Sherpa name it) is worshipped as the “Mother of the World” and Mt Makalu as the deity Shiva along with other mountain gods as their protective deities. Monasteries and Gompa serve as the important aspect of their religion and Lamas or Monks perform the spiritual activities. Some of the ancient and important monasteries, as Tengboche, Pangboche, and Dingboche, are found in the Everest Base Camp Trek route as well.


Sherpas traditionally speak the Sherpa or Sherpali language, a Tibetan dialect. Sherpa language borrows from other languages as well. Sherpas use the Nepali language as a means of communication with other people; however, the interaction with foreigners and education has made many Sherpa people speak other languages including English. Sherpas use Tibetan script for writing.


A distinct element of Sherpa mythology is the presence of tales about the Yeti. Legend has it that Yetis were in large number in the past and incidents of clash with the residents were rampant. The locals planned an incident where they pretended to get drunk and began to fight and returned to their villages leaving behind the weapons and a large amount of beer. Yetis imitated the villagers and most of them were killed while few escaped and confined themselves to high caves where no one would find them. It may be possible that on your trek to Everest Base Camp your guide narrates some of the incidents of the Yeti attack.


Major Sherpa festivals are Lhosar, Dumje, and Mani Rimdu. Lhosar, which falls towards the end of February, marks the beginning of the New Year in the Tibetan calendar. Dumje celebrates prosperity, good health and prays for the welfare of the community. Marked by the visit to local monasteries and prayers to their gods, it is celebrated over a seven-day period. Mani Rimdu is celebrated, four times a year, to scare the evil spirits. This colorful festival is celebrated twice at Tami and Tengboche monasteries of the Khumbu region and twice at the Chiwong and Thaksindu monasteries of the Solukhumbu region. Sherpa festivals are generally marked by feasting, drinking, dancing, and singing. Mani Rimdu festival carries the cultural legacy through the religious dance-drama called ‘cham’ where monks dress up in costumes and masks to enact the victory of Buddhism over demons.

The gradual changing in Sherpa Culture

In every package offered for Everest Base Camp, exploration of Sherpa culture is an essential element. Sherpa community has been in the limelight since the legendary Sherpa, Tenzing Norgay, and Sir Edmund Hillary of New Zealand ascended Mt Everest in 1953. Before being lured into the mountaineering the Sherpa community engaged in agriculture and trade, animal husbandry, and cultivation of maize, barley buckwheat, and vegetation. Mountaineering changed this economic orientation drastically.

In the once-isolated community, Sherpa's life revolves around the western climbers these days. This rush of foreigners has made a lot of impact on Sherpa culture. The traditional Sherpa dress of Bakhu (a thick, coarse wraparound robe), the colorful uppers, multicolored and striped aprons covering the front and back of the bodies worn by females, traditional ornaments, and the distinctive cap called Shyamahu has become a rare thing in the Sherpa settlement only to be preserved by the older generations. Younger ones working for mountaineering expeditions wear western-style clothing designed for higher altitude.

Traditional Sherpa cuisine is dominated by starchy foods and supplemented by vegetables, spices, and occasionally meat. Salt and butter tea is there at all meals, a beverage made of maize, millet or other grains is drank at meals and other occasions and the dairy products are an important aspect in Sherpa diet. However, their diet has been encroached by the food products that are brought in from outside the valley.

There has been a gradual change in the traditionally practiced cultural elements. Opening up of popular trekking routes such as the Everest Base Camp Trek has sped up the changes in Sherpa culture. It is to be noted that the ancient cultural legacy is a vital part of tourist attractions besides mountaineering and trekking. Thus, preserving cultural legacy helps the Sherpa community preserve their identity and provides an opportunity for the outsiders to explore the ensembles of culture. This seems to serve everyone better.

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