Sherpa people


Sherpa family with traditional Sherpa clothing
Total population
152,000 estimate
Regions with significant populations
Nepal, China (Tibet), Bhutan, India (Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, Darjeeling)
Sherpa, Nepali
Predominantly Tibetan Buddhism (93%) and minority: Hinduism, Bön, Christianity
Related ethnic groups
Tibetans, Jirels

Sherpa (Tibetan: "eastern people", from shar "east" and pa "people") are an ethnic group from the most mountainous region of Nepal, high in the Himalayas.[1]

Sherpa as a surname appears to be the result of the Nepalese government census takers. Not recognizing that some people only have one name, they wrote the word on census forms in the space for last name. In some cases the clan name was written and in others the ethnicity, i.e. Sherpa. These have then been adopted or forced to be used as last names, last names not being a part of Sherpa culture.[2]

Most Sherpa people live in Nepal's eastern regions; however, some live farther west in the Rolwaling valley and in the Helambu region north of Kathmandu. Tengboche is the oldest Sherpa village in Nepal. They also live in Tibet, and Bhutan, as well as the Indian states of Sikkim and the northern portion of West Bengal, specifically the district of Darjeeling. The Sherpa language belongs to the south branch of the Tibeto-Burman languages, and it is mixed Eastern Tibet (Khamba) and Lhasa dialogue. However, this language is separate from Lhasa Tibetan and unintelligible to Lhasa speakers.[3]

The number of Sherpas migrating to the West has significantly increased in recent years, especially to the United States. New York City has the largest Sherpa community in the United States, with a population of approximately 2,500. The 2001 Nepal census recorded 154,622 Sherpas within its borders. Sherpa people have renowned skills in mountaineering.


Selected ethnic groups of Nepal: Sherpa, Thakali, Gurung, Sunuwar Kirati, Rai, Lohorung, Parali, Bahing, Limbu, Newar, Pahari, Tamang

The Sherpa were nomadic people who first settled in the Solukhumbu District (Khumbu), Nepal then gradually moved westward along salt trade routes. According to Sherpa oral history, four groups migrated out of Solukhumbu at different times, giving rise to the four main Sherpa clans: Minyagpa, Thimmi, Sertawa and Chawa. These four groups have since split into the more than 20 different clans that exist today. About 1840 Sherpa ancestors migrated from Kham. Mahayana Buddhism religious conflict may have contributed to the migration in the 15th and 16th centuries. Sherpa migrants traveled through Ü and Tsang, before crossing the Himalaya.[4]

By the 1400s, Khumbu Sherpa people attained autonomy within the newly formed Nepali state. In the 1960s, as tension with China increased, Nepali government influence on the Sherpa people grew. In 1976, Khumbu became a national park and tourism became a major economic force.[4]

According to Oppitz (1968), Sherpas migrated from the Kham region in eastern Tibet to Nepal within the last 300–400 years.[5] On the other hand, Gautam (1994) concluded that Sherpa migrated from Tibet approximately 600 years ago, through the Nangpa La pass. It is presumed that the group of people from Kham region, east of Tibet, was called "Shyar Khamba" (People who came from eastern Kham), and the place where they settled was called "Shyar Khumbu". As the time passed the "Shyar Khamba", inhabitants of Shyar Khumbu, were called Sherpa.[6] A recent Nepal Ethnographic Museum (2001) study postulated that present-day Nepal became an integral part of the kingdom of Nepal. Since ancient times Sherpas, like other indigenous Kirat Nepalese tribes, would move from one place to another place within the Himalayan region as Alpine pastoralists and traders.[7]


Genetic evidence shows that the majority of Sherpa have a Tibeto-Burman origin, with strongest genetic affinity for Tibetans.[8]

In a 2016 study of Sherpas living in Tibet, the date of divergence between Sherpas and Tibetans was estimated to have taken place around 11,000 to 7,000 years ago.[9] The date of divergence between Sherpas and Han Chinese was estimated to have taken place around 16,000 to 11,000 years ago.[9]

Haplogroup distribution

A 2014 study observed that considerable genetic components from the Indian Subcontinent were found in Sherpa people living in Tibet. The western Y chromosomal haplogroups R1a1a-M17, J-M304, and F*-M89 comprise almost 17% of Sherpa paternal gene pool. In the maternal side, M5c2, M21d, and U from the west also count up to 8% of Sherpa people.[10] However, a later study from 2015 did not support the results from the 2014 study; the 2015 study concluded that genetic sharing from the Indian subcontinent was highly limited.[8]

In a 2015 study of 582 Sherpa individuals (277 males) from Tibet and Nepal, Haplogroup D-M174 was found most frequently, followed by Haplogroup O-M175, Haplogroup F-M89 and Haplogroup K-M9. The Y-chromosome haplogroup distribution for Sherpas follow a pattern similar to that for Tibetans.[8]

Sherpa mtDNA distribution shows greater diversity, as Haplogroup A was found most frequently, followed by Haplogroup M9a, Haplogroup C4a, Haplogroup M70, and Haplogroup D. These haplogroups are also found in Tibetan populations. However, two common mtDNA sub-haplogroups unique to Sherpas were identified: Haplogroup A15c and Haplogroup C4a3b1.[8]


Sherpa mountain guide Pemba Dorjee at Khumbu Ice Fall

Sherpas are highly regarded as elite mountaineers and experts in their local area. They were immeasurably valuable to early explorers of the Himalayan region, serving as guides at the extreme altitudes of the peaks and passes in the region, particularly for expeditions to climb Mount Everest. Today, the term is often used by foreigners to refer to almost any guide, climbing supporter hired for mountaineering expeditions in the Himalayas, regardless of their ethnicity.[11] Because of this usage, the term has become a slang byword for a guide or mentor in other situations. Sherpas are renowned in the international climbing and mountaineering community for their hardiness, expertise, and experience at very high altitudes. It has been speculated that a part of the Sherpas' climbing ability is the result of a genetic adaptation to living in high altitudes. Some of these adaptations include unique hemoglobin-binding capacity and doubled nitric oxide production.[12]

Deaths in 2014 Everest avalanche

On 18 April 2014, a serac collapsed above the Khumbu Icefall on Mount Everest, causing an avalanche of massive chunks of ice and snow which killed 16 Nepalese guides, mostly Sherpas.[13] The 2014 avalanche is the second deadliest disaster in Everest's history, only superseded by avalanches in the Khumbu Icefall area just a year later, on 25 April 2015, caused by a magnitude 7.8 earthquake in Nepal. In response to that tragedy and others involving deaths and injuries sustained by Sherpas hired by climbers, and the lack of government support for Sherpas injured or killed while providing their services, some Sherpa climbing guides walked off the job, and some climbing companies are no longer providing guides and porters for Everest expeditions.[14][15]


Thame Gompa is one of numerous Sherpa monasteries

According to oral Buddhist traditions, the initial Tibetan migration was a search for a beyul (Buddhist pure-lands). Sherpas belong to the Nyingmapa, the "Ancient" school of Tibetan Buddhism. Allegedly the oldest Buddhist sect in Tibet, founded by Padmasambhava (commonly known as Guru Rinpoche) during the 8th century, it emphasizes mysticism and the incorporation of local deities shared by the pre-Buddhist Bon religion, which has shamanic elements. Sherpa particularly believe in hidden treasures and valleys. Traditionally, Nyingmapa practice was passed down orally through a loose network of lay practitioners. Monasteries with celibate monks and nuns, along with the belief in reincarnated spiritual leaders, are later adaptations.[4]

In addition to Buddha and the great Buddhist divinities, the Sherpa also believe in numerous deities and demons who inhabit every mountain, cave, and forest. These have to be respected or appeased through ancient practices woven into the fabric of Buddhist ritual life. Many of the great Himalayan mountains are considered sacred. The Sherpas call Mount Everest Chomolungma and respect it as the "Mother of the World." Mount Makalu is respected as the deity Shankar (Shiva). Each clan reveres certain mountain peaks and their protective deities.

Today, the day-to-day Sherpas religious affairs are presided over by lamas (Buddhist spiritual leaders) and other religious practitioners living in the villages. The village lama who presides over ceremonies and rituals can be a celibate monk or a married householder. In addition, shamans (lhawa) and soothsayers (mindung) deal with the supernatural and the spirit world. Lamas identify witches (pem), act as the mouthpiece of deities and spirits, and diagnose spiritual illnesses.

An important aspect of Sherpa religion is the monastery or gompa. There are some two dozen gompas scattered throughout the Solukhumbu region. They are communities of lamas or monks (sometimes of nuns) who take a vow of celibacy and lead a life of isolation searching for truth and religious enlightenment. They are respected by and supported by the community at large. Their contact with the outside world is focused on monastery practices and annual festivals to which the public is invited, as well as the reading of sacred texts at funerals.

Minority religions for Sherpas include Hinduism and Roman Catholicism.

Traditional clothing

Men wear long-sleeved robes called kitycow, which fall to slightly below the knee. Chhuba is tied at the waist with a cloth sash called kara, creating a pouch-like space called tolung which can be used for storing and carrying small items. Traditionally, chhuba were made from thick home-spun wool, or a variant called lokpa made from sheepskin. Chhuba are worn over raatuk, a blouse (traditionally made out of bure, white raw silk), trousers called kanam, and an outer jacket called tetung.

Women traditionally wear long-sleeved floor-length dresses of thick wool called tongkok. A sleeveless variation called angi is worn over a raatuk (blouse) in warmer weather. These are worn with colourful striped aprons; metil aprons are worn in front, and gewe in back, and are held together by an embossed silver buckle called kyetig.[16]

Sherpa clothing resembles Tibetan clothing. Increasingly, home-spun wool and silk is being replaced by factory-made material. Many Sherpa people also now wear ready-made western clothing.

Traditional housing

Traditional Sherpa architecture, but with a steel roof.

When a son marries and has children, the community may help to construct a new house, as the extended family becomes too large for a single home. The neighbors often contribute food, drinks and labor to help the family. Houses are typically spaced to allow fields in between. A spiritual ceremony may be conducted at every building stage as the house must have space for deities, humans and animals. Once constructed, the house is often handed down within a family and not sold. The house style depends on the lay of the land: old river terraces, former lake beds or mountain slopes. There are stone single story, one and a half story (on a slope), and the two story houses, with ample room for animals. Many well-to-do families will have an annex shrine room for sacred statues, scriptures and ritual objects. The roof is sloping and is made from local natural materials, or imported metal. There's space in the roof to allow for fire smoke to escape. There may be an internal or external outhouse for making compost.[17]

Social Gatherings

A Sherpa community will most commonly get together for a party, which is held by the host with the purpose of gaining favor with the community and manipulating neighbors. Guests are invited hours before the party will start by the host’s children to reduce the chance of rejection. The men are seated by order of status, with those of lesser status sitting closer to the door and men of higher status sitting by the fireplace, while the women sit in the center with no ordering. It is polite to sit in a space lower than one’s proper place so one may be invited by the host to their proper place. The first several hours of the party will have only beer served, followed by the serving of food, and then several more hours of singing and dancing before people start to drift out. The act of manipulating one’s neighbors into cooperation by hosting a party is known as Yangdzi, and works by expecting the hospitality done by the host with the serving of food and alcohol to be repaid.[18]

Famous Sherpas

One of the best-known Sherpas is Tenzing Norgay. In 1953, he and Sir Edmund Hillary became the first people known to have reached the summit of Mount Everest.[19][20][21][22] Norgay's son Jamling Tenzing Norgay also climbed Everest in honor of his father with the mountaineers Ed Viesturs and Araceli Segarra during the disastrous year of 1996.

In 2001, Temba Tsheri became the youngest Everest climber in the world (holder of Guinness book of world record), then aged 16.

In 2003, Sherpas Pemba Dorje and Lhakpa Gelu competed to see who could climb Everest from base camp the fastest. On 23 May 2003, Dorje reached the summit in 12 hours and 46 minutes. Three days later, Gelu beat his record by two hours, reaching the summit in 10 hours 46 minutes. On 21 May 2004, Dorje again improved the time by more than two hours with a total time of 8 hours and 10 minutes.[23]

On 11 May 2011, Apa Sherpa successfully reached the summit of Everest for the twenty-first time, breaking his own record for the most successful ascents.[24] He first climbed Mount Everest in 1989 at the age of 29.[25]

One of the most famous Nepalese female mountaineers was Pasang Lhamu Sherpa, the first Nepali female climber to reach the summit of Everest, but who died during the descent. Another well-known female Sherpa was the two-time Everest summiter Pemba Doma Sherpa, who died after falling from Lhotse on 22 May 2007.[26]

On May 20, 2011, Mingma Sherpa became the first Nepali and the first South Asian to scale all 14 of the world's highest mountains. In the process, Mingma set new world record – he became the first mountaineer to climb all 14 peaks on first attempt.

Lakpa Tsheri Sherpa is one half of a Nepali duo that was voted "People's Choice Adventurers of the Year 2012". In April 2011, Lakpa Tsheri and Sano Babu Sunuwar made the 'Ultimate Descent': a three-month journey in which they climbed Everest, then paraglided down the mountain and proceeded to kayak through Nepal and India until they reached the Indian Ocean.[27]

On 19 May 2012, 16-year-old Nima Chhamzi Sherpa became the youngest woman to climb Everest; the previous record holder was Nimdoma Sherpa, who summited in 2008, also at 16 years old.[28]

Chhurim Sherpa (Nepal) summitted Everest twice in May 2012: 12 May and 19 May. Guinness World Records recognized her for being the first female Sherpa to summit Everest twice in one climbing season.

In 2013, 30-year-old Chhang Dawa Sherpa became the youngest mountaineer to summit the 14 highest peaks, the 8000'ers.

On July 26, 2014, Pasang Lhamu Sherpa, Dawa Yangzum Sherpa, and Maya Sherpa crested the 28,251-foot (8,611-meter) summit of K2, the second highest mountain in the world. In doing so, the three Nepali women have become the first all-female team to climb what many mountaineers consider a much tougher challenge than Everest. The feat was announced in climbing circles as a breakthrough achievement for women in high-altitude mountaineering. Only 18 of the 376 people who have summited K2 have been women.

Another notable Sherpa is cross-country skier and ultramarathoner Dachhiri Sherpa who represented Nepal at the 2006, 2010 and 2014 Winter Olympics.

See also


  1. Sherpa, Lhakpa Norbu (2008). Through A Sherpa Window: Illustrated Guide to Traditional Sherpa Culture. Jyatha, Thamel: Vajra Publications. p. 2. ISBN 9789937506205.
  2. "Why do a fair number of Sherpas have "Sherpa" in their name". The Straight Dope. Retrieved 12 June 2015.
  3. "Journée d'étude : Déserts. Y a-t-il des corrélations entre l'écosystème et le changement linguistique ?". Retrieved 8 March 2012.
  4. 1 2 3 Sherpa, Lhakpa Norbu (2008). Through a Sherpa Window: Illustrated Guide to Sherpa Culture. Kathmandu, Nepal: Vajra Publications. ISBN 978-9937506205.
  5. Oppitz, Michael (1968). Geschichte furu und Sozialordnung der Sherpa, Teil 1 (PDF) (in German). Innsbrück and Munich, Germany: Universitäts-Verlag Wagner. ISBN 978-3-7030-1039-2.
  6. "Tapting Samaj Sewa". Retrieved 8 March 2012.
  7. "Nepal Ethnographic Museum". Retrieved 8 March 2012.
  8. 1 2 3 4 Bhandari, Sushil; et al. (2015). "Genetic evidence of a recent Tibetan ancestry to Sherpas in the Himalayan region". Scientific Reports. 5. doi:10.1038/srep16249.
  9. 1 2 Lu, Dongsheng; et al. (September 1, 2016). "Ancestral Origins and Genetic History of Tibetan Highlanders". The American Journal of Human Genetics. 99.
  10. Kang, Longli, Chuan-Chao Wang, Feng Chen, Dali Yao, Li Jin, and Hui Li. "Northward genetic penetration across the Himalayas viewed from Sherpa people." Mitochondrial DNA, (2014):1-8.
  11. Educational Media and Technology Yearbook - Volume 36, Michael Orey, Stephanie A. Jones, Robert Maribe Branch, page 94 (2011), ISBN 1461413044: "A Sherpa is traditionally a knowledgeable native who guides mountain climbers on their most difficult and risky ascents." Buried in the Sky: The Extraordinary Story of the Sherpa Climbers, by Peter Zuckerman, Amanda Padoan, page 65 (2012): "Lowlanders clutching the Lonely Planet guide are convinced they want to hire “a sherpa,” even if they don't know what a Sherpa is..."
  12. Kamler, K. (2004). Surviving the extremes: What happens to the body and mind at the limits of human endurance, p. 212. New York: Penguin.
  13. Krakauer, Jon (21 April 2014). "Death and Anger on Everest". The New Yorker. Retrieved 24 April 2014. Of the twenty-five men hit by the falling ice, sixteen were killed, all of them Nepalis working for guided climbing teams.
  14. McCarthy, Julie (April 24, 2014). "Sherpas Walk Off The Job After Deadly Avalanche". NPR.
  15. The Associated Press (April 21, 2014). "Sherpas Consider Boycott After Everest Disaster". NPR.
  16. Sherpa, Lhakpa Norbu (2008). Through a Sherpa Window : Illustrated Guide to Sherpa Culture. Nepal: Vajra Publications. pp. 138–141. ISBN 978-9937506205.
  17. Sherpa, Lhakpa Norbu (2008). Through a Sherpa Window : Illustrated Guide to Sherpa Culture. Nepal: Vajra Publications. pp. 14–16. ISBN 978-9937506205.
  18. Ortner, Sherry B. (1978). Sherpas Through Their Rituals. Melbourne, Australia: Cambridge University Press. pp. 61–75. ISBN 0-521-29216-6.
  19. "1953: First Footsteps - Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay". National Geographic. Retrieved 2014-08-01.
  20. Christchurch City Libraries, Famous New Zealanders. Retrieved 23 January 2007.
  21. Everest not as tall as thought Agençe France-Presse (on, 10 October 2005
  22. PBS, NOVA, First to Summit, Updated November 2000. Retrieved 31 March 2007
  23. "New Everest Speed Record Upheld". Retrieved 4 February 2007.
  24. "Apa Sherpa summits Everest for the 21st time'". Salt Lake Tribune. 11 May 2011. Retrieved 11 May 2011.
  25. "Since The Age of 12". BBC. 11 May 2011. Retrieved 8 March 2012.
  26. "Famous female Nepal climber dead", BBC News, 23 May 2007
  27. "2012 Winners: Sano Babu Sunuwar and Lakpa Tsheri Sherpa". National Geographic. Retrieved 3 March 2012.
  28. "Four Confirmed Dead in Two Day on Everest". Retrieved 23 May 2012.
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