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The Sherpas and Their Original Identity
By Serku Sherpa and Dr Yana Wengel
Approximately 600 years ago, nomadic Tibetans traversed the Himalayas and settled in the region known now as Khumbu (Nepal). In the Sherpa language, those people are called Sherpas, which means “people from the East” (ཤར shar “east” and པ pa “people”). For many centuries, those easterners lived in isolation on the southern slopes of Mount Chomolungma or Mount Everest as it is known to many. From the 1920s onwards, the Sherpa people developed close relationships with the British. Sherpas served as support crew on early mountaineering expeditions, and for more than 100 years, international climbers have found their help indispensable.
Indeed, without their hard work on the slopes, it is likely that no attempt to summit Mount Everest would have succeeded. However, it was only after Sherpa Tenzin Norgay and New Zealander Edmund Hillary’s 1953 legendary summit of the world’s highest mountain that the Sherpa people became famous worldwide. Sherpa people are associated with honesty, endurance, loyalty, and expertise in high altitude environments as mountain guides and support workers who help their climbing clients reach the top of the world's highest mountain.
The relationships formed between Sherpas and international climbers have helped establish many organisations that benefit the Sherpas ecologically and economically and help safeguard their culture. The Sherpas have managed to preserve their culture whilst also benefitting from Western and technological advances, which have resulted in mutual benefit and prosperity. Nevertheless, the commercialisation of mountaineering and the spread of tourism in the region have also led to the commodification of Sherpa culture and identity. Indeed, many mountaineering support staff who are termed Sherpas are from other Nepalese ethnic groups. Since the first expedition to Mount Chomolungma in 1921, English climbers have been very impressed with the local Sherpa people's hospitality, skills, and endurance. The century-long relationship between the West and the Sherpa civilisation has grown into a close exchange and understanding between entirely different cultures. As such, various local cultural traditions are very closely intertwined with Western cultures. For example, mutual friendship can be seen in the adaptation of the Texas-style boots and cowboy hats that Sherpas have incorporated into their attire as a replacement for the traditional Sherpa outfit and, in exchange, Buddhist prayer flags adorn the Western climbing camps. Nonetheless, despite outside influences and the commodification of their culture for a Western audience, Sherpas have managed to retain and sustain their identity and culture.
In this book, Serku Sherpa, a Sherpa researcher and trekking tour guide in Nepal and Tibet, collects the pieces that make up the puzzle of the Sherpas and their original identity. This book provides insights into their unique culture and creates an opportunity to understand the Sherpa people's cultural “authenticity” through the depiction of their festivals, rituals, music, art, cuisine, and religion. One of this book’s unique features is its inclusion of a collection of Sherpa folk songs written in the Nepali language and translated into English. The undoubted merit of the book is that it is written by a Sherpa researcher who attempts to present the cultural authenticity of the Sherpa people by illustrating their traditions, ethics, and sociocultural system. The book includes extensive research and the author's unique cultural heritage and experience. Everyone, from tourists to researchers, will find that this book offers them a rich and comprehensive understanding of Sherpa culture and the Sherpa identity.
Serku Sherpa holds a MA in Social Science in Rural Development from the Tribhuvan University of Nepal. He is also an ethnographic researcher of Sherpa culture, and travels across Nepal to collect information about the cultural relics, customs, traditions, and history of Sherpas. His research has culminated in several books and a documentary: Sherpa Samudayako Maulik Pahichan [The Sherpas Identity] (2019), Maulik Sherpa Geet Sangraha [Sherpa Folk Songs] (2021), and The Last Nomads of Everest (2020). He is a Trekking and Tour Guide license holder, an active community member and a humanitarian.
Dr Yana Wengel is an Associate Professor at the Hainan University – Arizona State University Joint International Tourism College in Haikou (China). She applies a human geography lens to social sustainability and international development in tourism studies. Her interests include tourism in developing economies, volunteer tourism, nature based and adventure tourism. She has an interest in creative qualitative tools for data collection and stakeholder engagement and has contributed to the development of creative research methodologies in her field.
The Sherpas and Their Original Identity is available now in hardback at a 25% discount. Enter code PROMO25 to redeem.