Introduction / History
The Sherpa are a Himalayan people living primarily in eastern Nepal. A few, however, live in the mountains of the bordering Indian state of Sikkim and in the larger hill towns of the state of West Bengal. The Sherpa language is a dialect of Tibetan, thus it is a part of the Tibeto-Burman language family. Sherpa has no writing system, but many Sherpa are literate in Tibetan, Nepali, Hindi, or English.
The Sherpa are descendants of a small group of Tibetan families who emigrated from the Khams region of Tibet under the leadership of a great lama, or Tibetan Buddhist monk. They gained worldwide attention in 1953, when a Sherpa, Tenzing Norgay, became one of the first two people to scale Mount Everest, the highest peak in the world. Since then, they have won fame as porters in the high Himalayas. Tourism and mountaineering have become their major industries, dominating the Sherpa economy.
What are their lives like?
Other than tourism, the most important industry for the Sherpa is farming. Since its introduction to the region in the nineteenth century, the Irish potato has become the staple crop, with barley, wheat, and corn also being grown. Various vegetables are grown in home gardens, including radishes the size of turnips and cucumbers the size of watermelons. All farming is done using animals and hand implements, and plowing is accomplished with a single-bladed plow pulled by oxen. Since the Sherpa are Buddhists and generally do not eat meat, livestock is not used for consumption, but for dairy products. Many herdsmen have large amounts of extra butter and trade it for food and various commodities. Imported tea mixed with butter and salt is a popular drink, along with a local beer, chang.
Trade is another important source of income for the Sherpa. Men frequently go off on trading expeditions for several months at a time, leaving the women at home to supervise the household.
Sherpa marriages are exogamous (marry outside the immediate and brother clans). Weddings were traditionally arranged by the families of the young people involved, but today that tradition is beginning to change. Marriage is a long process involving many stages of betrothal and gift exchange. Divorce is very frequent, occurring in nearly one-third of all marriages. Fathers treat their children well, but due to their frequent trading trips, they are often gone from home for long periods. As a result, child rearing is carried out mainly by the mother and older sisters.
The major Sherpa celebrations include Dumje, a spring first-fruits festival, and Cham, a monastic masked dancing ritual that is held in the fall or winter. Smaller celebrations include village exorcisms and cleansing rites that often parallel life cycle events such as birth, death, and initiation into adulthood.
What are their beliefs?
The great majority of the Sherpa follow the Tibetan Buddhist religion, which is an offshoot of the Mahayana branch of Buddhism. Followers of Buddhism embrace the doctrine of reincarnation, or the belief that after death, a soul is reborn into another body. The Sherpa believe that souls are reincarnated innumerable times until they are able to transcend this world and enter a state of bliss called nirvana. However, in order to enter nirvana, a person is required to conquer his own worldly desires and habits-a goal that is attained by observing Buddhist commands. Tibetan Buddhism shares basic beliefs with mainstream Buddhism; however, it also contains many non-Buddhist elements, such as the belief in many gods, demons, and spirits who influence human lives.
In the twentieth century, many Sherpa men have become Buddhist monks, or lamas, a practice that was imported from Tibet. These lamas live celibate lives in cloistered lamaseries (Tibetan-Buddhist monasteries), isolated from ordinary life.
What are their needs?
Like the majority of people in India, the Sherpa live difficult lives. Their physical needs are numerous. However, their spiritual needs far outweigh their physical ones. Very few are Christians.
* Ask the Lord of the harvest to send forth laborers to live and work among the Sherpa.
* Ask God to raise up prayer teams who will break up the spiritual soil through worship and intercession.
* Ask God to strengthen, encourage, and protect the small number of Sherpa Christians.
* Ask the Holy Spirit to complete the work begun in the hearts of the Sherpa believers through adequate discipleship.