Identity The Sherpa in Tibet have been officially included as part of the Tibetan nationality. The Chinese are conducting an investigation to see if they should be classified as a distinct group. The name Sherpa means "eastern people." "They are distinguishable from Tibetans in part because their faces are smaller and they wear a colorful apron on their backside rather than the front."
History It is believed that all Sherpa once lived in Tibet before their descendants migrated west in the fifteenth century. "At that time, a Mongol King attempted to force them to convert to his sect of Buddhism. The people fled to the Khumbu region. A Chinese account states, "They believe themselves to be descendants of Tibetans from the Kangba region in Sichuan Province. Many, many years ago, their ancestors, returning from a pilgrimage to Buddhist temples in India and Nepal, settled down here."
Customs To many, the name Sherpa is irretrievably linked to the mystique of Mount Everest, the highest mountain on earth. The first men to climb Mount Everest were New Zealander Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay. Numerous Sherpa guides have since led foreign climbing teams up the world's highest peak. The Sherpa charge around US$2,000 per expedition, making them one of the wealthiest groups in Nepal. The Sherpa in China cremate their dead, as opposed to the Tibetans who practice wind burial. The Gyawa Festival takes place 49 days after the death of a loved one. The Sherpa eat as much food as they can during the festival, believing the food will nourish the loved one who has died.
Religion The Sherpa are Tibetan Buddhists, although "with far less piety than the Tibetans. To have ... a Buddhist statue and to recite or chant scriptures is all they do by way of religious practice."
Christianity In 1985 a Sherpa boy in Nepal had a vision where he was visited by Jesus. The boy's conversion was followed by the gradual conversion of his extended family and several families in his village. The boy later went to Bible school and returned to pastor the local church in his village. There are reported to be a few dozen Christian Sherpas around the Mt. Everest region in Nepal. Despite this wonderful breakthrough, there are no known Sherpa Christians in China. They are politically and geographically isolated from contact with their counterparts in Nepal.
They inhabit both sides of the Himalayan Range. The majority live in India, primarily in the Darjeeling District of West Bengal and in the states of Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh. Quite a number live in Nepal, especially in the Solu Khumbu District and around the town of Namche Bazaar. A relative few live in Bhutan, while a very few inhabit Tibet, in Dinggye, Tingri and Zhangmu counties. (Source: Peoples of the Buddhist World, 2004)