Nepal’s most famous ethnic group, the Sherpas probably migrated to Solu-Khumbu ( the nepalese district where is located the Mount Everest) four or five centuries ago from eastern Tibet; their name means “people from the east”. They were originally nomads, driving their yaks to pasture in Tibet and wintering in Nepal, until change came from an unlikely quarter : the introduction of the potato in the 1830’s is believed to have been the catalyst that caused Sherpas to settle in villages, and the extra wealth brought by this simple innovation financed the building of most monasteries visible today.
Sherpas maintain the highest permanent settlements in the world – up to 4700 m.- which accounts for their legendary hardiness at altitude. Their mountaineering talents were discovered as early as 1907, and by the 1920’s hundreds of Sherpa men were signing on as porters with expeditions to Everest and other Himalayan peaks – from the Tibet side ironically, as Nepal was closed to foreigners at the time. When mountaineering expeditions were finally allowed into Nepal in 1949, Sherpas took over the lion’s share of the portering work, and four year later Tenzing Norgay reached the top of Everest, clinching Sherpas’ worldwide fame. The break couldn’t have come at a better time, for trans-Himalayan trade, once an important source of income, was cut short by the Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1959. Since then, Sherpas have deftly diversified into tourism, starting their own trekking and mountaineering agencies, opening lodges and selling souvenirs. Conveniently, the trekking season doesn’t conflict with summer farming duties.
Like Tibetans and other Bhotiya groups ( Bhotiya are the mongoloïd communities living in the Himalaya range), Sherpas are devout buddhists and most villages of note support a “gompa”( buddhist monastery in the Himalaya) and a few monks ( or nuns). But in a throwback to animism that’s perfectly permissible in lamaist buddhism, they revere Khumbila, a sacred peak just north of Namche ( the main Sherpa commercial centre accessible only by walk or by plane, the gateway to the Everest treks), as a sort of tribal totem, and regard fire as a deity ( it’s disrespectful to throw rubbish into a Sherpa hearth). They also believe peaks have almost human moods and personalities. Sherpas eat meat, of course, but in deference to the dharma they draw the line at slaughtering it – they hire Tibetans to do that.