The Untold Story of Everest Base Camp Trek: Sherpa’s cultural dynamics
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 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 Tibetan language) are the Tibetan origin tribe who migrated to the present northeastern Himalayan region from Kham region of Tibet, over thousands years back. Some historians claim this tribe to be herders driven out of their homeland and eventually settling to the current region. Sherpa community reside over 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 the 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, Sherpa community believes in numerous gods and demons believed to inhabit in mountain, forest and cave, 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 diety 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 of Tengboche, Pangboche and Dingboche, are found in 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 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 local residents were rampant. The locals planned an incident where they pretended to get drunk and began to fight and returned back to their villages leaving behind the weapons and 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 narrate some of the incidents of Yeti attack.
Major Sherpa festivals are Lhosar, Dumje and Mani Rimdu. Lhosar, which falls towards the end of February, marks the beginning of New Year in 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 Khumbu region and twice at the Chiwong and Thaksindu monasteries of Solukhumbu region. Sherpa festivals are generally marked by feasting, drinking, dancing and singing. Mani Rimdu festival carries the cultural legacy of 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 packages 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.
The once isolated community, Sherpa life revolves around the western climbers these days. This rush of foreigners has made a lot of impact in 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 styled 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, 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 speed up the changes in Sherpa culture. It is to be noted that the ancient cultural legacy is a vital part of tourist attraction besides the mountaineering and trekking. Thus, preserving cultural legacy helps Sherpa community preserve their identity and provide an opportunity for the outsiders to explore the ensembles of culture. This seems to serve everyone better.