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Title image: Sherpa Story

Gaiety of Spirit: The Sherpa People of the Khumbu, Nepal

Part 2: The Sacred Valley

ChortenFor centuries, the Khumbu Valley has been a sanctuary

To the first Sherpas, the Khumbu Valley was unique and special as a “beyul”, a sacred valley that was set aside by Guru Rinpoche, the founder of Buddhism, to be a refuge in times of trouble.

When the Sherpas came here about 400 years ago, they were escaping political changes in eastern Tibet.  They may also have been migrating at a time of climate change.  The Abbot of Tengboche monastery tells of the Sherpas coming at a time when “the glaciers were much bigger, and Khumbu was covered with snow.

Hence, their first settlements were down near Lukla.  As the snow and ice gradually melted, people gradually founded villages at Khumjung and Pangboche.”

At that time, the rivers had no bridges, the cliffs had no steps; there were no footpaths, no dwellings, no fields of grain, no woven cloth, no cows to milk.  These first settlers transformed the landscape into agricultural fields and pastures for cattle.

However, people may have been visiting the valley well before the arrival of the Sherpa people.  In fact, oral traditions hint that Rai shepherds may have been using the Khumbu’s high pastures well before the Sherpa, and old ruins in the valley are said to the remains of Rai shepherd’s huts.

Prayer Flags Over Tin Roofs

“Rituals, prayers and offerings are our way of life, unifying all aspects of our existence.”

Rinpoche LamasThe Tengboche Reincarnate Lama describes the Sherpa religious life:

“The purpose of our religion is to perfect our minds. It protects our character, so religion is very important in our culture. Our Buddhist ways aim to generate spiritual energy to benefit of all beings.

Religious activities in our daily lives help to focus our thought on Buddhist teachings bringing about a good state of mind in people so that the Buddhist teachings will come easily to us. Religious objects and activities have explanations at many levels so that everyone may understand them.”

The Sherpa religion came through the oldest sect of Tibetan Buddhism, the Nyingmapa, which was established about 1,240 years ago.  The Sherpa history and teachings are recorded in Tibetan script and their language is a dialect derived from Buddhist books.  Traditionally, these books were stored in each village’s temple where lay ministers, lamas, would conduct ceremonies and teach religion to the local people.

The power of nature is embodied in protective gods.  For example, Jomolungma resides on Mt. Everest.  Qualities such as wisdom and compassion are also visualized as deities to help one concentrate while meditating.  Prayers to them may influence important events and daily activities.  Weddings, funerals and births are accompanied by pujahs of offerings and prayers.

Anyone may build a religious monument or object and so gain spiritual merit. The thoughtful offerings of those who made them are multiplied by each flutter of the prayer flag in the breeze, each turn of the wheel, each traveller’s respectful gesture.

Engraving Mani Stone

MANI STONES are found near paths, temples, villages and homes. They may be carved with a single mantra (chant) or a complete prayers to the god of compassion.

PRAYERS FLAGS are on roofs or mountain passes, strung across rivers and paths, or on tall poles. The five colours of prayer flags signify the elements; yellow, earth; red, fire; green, wood; blue, sky and water; and white, iron.

Prayer Flags

Monasteries in Khumbu

Tengboche Monastery has been the heart of Sherpa culture since 1916

The Sherpas only started to establish celibate monasteries in the early 1900s.  Manirimdu mandalaTengboche was the first celibate monastery in Solu-Khumbu and is a community of about 30 tawas (monks) under the leadership of the Abbot, Tengboche Rinpoche (Reincarnate Lama).

Construction of the monastery's gompa (temple) started in 1916 and lasted three years.  The gompa has been destroyed twice, by an earthquake and a fire.  The 1990s reconstruction of the gompa attracted the support of Sherpa and international communities to this once isolated monastery

Tengboche is also known for the masked dances that celebrate the completion of ten days of prayers for the good of all beings.  For the Sherpas who come from many villages to attend, Mani Rimdu is a relatively recent tradition that started at the opening of Tengboche monastery in 1919.

It is performed at Tengboche monastery in the ninth month of the Sherpa calendar, which usually falls in November and at the Thame monastery in the fourth month.

There are 16 dances performed at Mani Rimdu.  Tengboche Rinpoche explains the dances:

“Certain movements, sounds, smells, and sight can awaken our psyche and stimulate the states of awareness we describe as gods.   The dances are meditations that portray the gods and generate merit for everyone.”


High Green Valleys:  Summer in Khumbu

Sherpas raise yaks and grow potatoes as their staple products

In the valleys of Khumbu, the summer monsoon lasts from June to September.  During this quiet but productive season people carry out their chores of herding and farming.  Farming is not easy on these mountains, but all, including businessmen, own plots of land on which they grow potatoes, buckwheat or barley to feed their families.

PastureMost fields for cultivating food crops are at relatively lower elevations of about 3300 meters near the main Sherpa villages.  During the cool winter, herds of yaks are grazed on nearby hillsides; when the summer comes, the yaks are taken up to high valleys where the rains have changed the dry mountainsides to rich, green pastures.

Sherpa families use these valleys as summer pastures for their yak (male) and nak (female) herds.  Pheriche, Dingboche, Lobuche, and Gokyo were established as their summer huts and hay fields.  The shaggy bovines provide dairy products, wool, and transportation.  Sherpas call the male crossbreeds dzopchioks; they are sterile and are used as pack animals, especially on trips down to the warmer elevations that the high-altitude yaks can’t tolerate.  Female crosses are called dzooms.  They produce milk that is almost as rich as a nak's, and in greater amounts.