A chapter from Gaiety of Spirit about a visit so long ago… 35 years. Now, fewer and fewer Sherpas keep yaks.
Heavy mist obscures the mountainside where I wander along an overgrown trail among fences of stone. The mist and thick, damp grass muffle all sound as I search for the stone hut where I have been invited to spend the night. The tiny settlement appears deserted except for a few shaggy yaks.
An elderly lady appears in the fading light, wading through a field of wildflowers and grass. It is a relief to see my friend’s mother, Ama Yangin. In the Sherpa language, ama means mother, and everyone calls her that out of respect and affection.
Entering the tiny door of her hut, I bend double and leave my damp pack in the anteroom where supplies and the remnants of last year’s hay were stored. In the main room, benches that doubled as beds line the walls around the hearth.
Ama Yangin poured milk from the wooden barrels into a large metal pot and quickly set about preparing us tea. Sitting quietly by the hearth, warm and dry after being damp outside, we watched flames lick the tea kettle and each seemed absorbed by our own thoughts. Despite the rain that started outside, we are warm and dry by the hearth.
In the eastern Himalaya, the summer monsoon lasts from June to September. During this quiet but productive season people carry out the chores of herding and farming with calm dignity and quiet purpose. Farming is not easy on these mountains, but almost everyone, including businessmen, owns plots of land on which to grow potatoes, buckwheat, or barley to feed their families.
Most fields for cultivating food crops are at relatively lower elevations of about 3300 meters near the main Sherpa villages. During the cold 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.
I marvelled at the contrast seen in this valley between the summer monsoon months and the rest of the year. Surrounded by snow and ice mantled mountain peaks, the Sherpas’ valleys transform with the seasons. In autumn and winter, when almost all tourists visit, the land is dry and barren with not a blade of green grass to be found. Snow often blankets the valleys after winter storms.
Summer rains color these valleys unimagined hues of green. Hillsides become carpeted with lush, green plants and wild flowers. Monsoon is a gentle season in the mountains; the rain and humidity are less intense than in the lowlands and colors are muted by the misty skies. Though there may be several days of clinging mist, the sun does sometimes shine in the monsoon.
Many days dawn clear. The hills vibrate with color and the mountain peaks sparkle with fresh snow. Clouds form rapidly in the lowlands. Rising, they first envelope the peaks and then fill in the valleys by noon. Mist becomes drizzle and then rain by late afternoon and evening. People time their activities to the daily weather patterns, retreating indoors as the afternoon rain begins.
Despite the weather, this is a favorite time of the year for the Sherpas. Those who have moved to Kathmandu wistfully compare the cool, green mountain monsoon to the hot, muggy summers in the lowlands. Since most visitors avoid traveling in Nepal in the monsoon, many Sherpas who work as guides and porters return to their homes in the high country.
Ama Yangin offers a plate of hot potato pancakes. After we eat, Ama Yangin talks about two of her sons. Both are far away from Khumbu; one works on climbing expeditions and the other, a graduate of a foreign university, works for the national park. From Ama Yangin’s questions, I realize she cannot imagine how they spent their days on expeditions or in offices.
The pace of her days in the summer pasture is steady and predictable — fetching her animals, milking the females, heating the milk and making it into yogurt and butter. Between her herding chores, she fetches water, cooks, and looks after her grandchildren.
This maze of fields, stone walls, and huts was an oasis of habitation amidst isolated, sprawling valleys at 4300 meters. Sherpa families use these valleys as summer pastures for their yak herds. The shaggy bovines provide dairy products, wool, transportation, and perhaps an excuse to spend three months in these mountain meadows.
From her main house in the village far below, Ama Yangin has brought just enough to meet her simplest needs. Only essential kitchen utensils line the shelves on the far wall. Though she stays here alone, her eldest son with his wife and children are in another hut just across the hay field. They help Ama Yangin with her heavier chores and she keeps an eye on the younger children. They visit in their huts several times a day. Sharing a few moments together seems just as important as tending the herds.
Her hands were busy even as she sits. Those who spin wool, work at it continuously during the monsoon. Wool is plucked from the yaks in the spring, then beaten and rolled by hand into loops, which are coarsely spun by the men. Women do the final, fine spinning. Eventually the yarn is woven into long narrow panels that are sewn together to make striped brown-and-gray blankets for sleeping.
The next morning Ama Yangin rises before dawn to start the fire and brew the traditional butter-salt tea. After three quick cups of tea, we ventured out to the corral where her female animals and their young are tethered for the night. She deftly binds the rear legs of a slightly perturbed nak. Talking gently, she squats beside it and coaxes the milk from its udders into the wooden bucket.
“How much milk does a yak give each day?”
Ama Yangin laughed and giggled. I mentally reviewed my Nepali phrasing to make sure I hadn’t just embarrassed myself.
“Yaks don’t give milk,” she chuckled, “yaks are the males, we call the females NAKS. …That’s why we Sherpas laugh so hard at foreigners asking for Yak Cheese.”
She describes the sex and parentage of her animals: three yaks, seven naks, ten yakbees (the young of the species) and several dzopchioks — male crossbreeds that are sterile and are used as pack animals, especially on trips down to the warmer elevations which the high-altitude yaks can’t tolerate. Female crosses are called dzooms. They produce milk that is almost as rich as a naks, and in greater amounts.
In the trekking season her male animals, the yaks and dzopchioks, are sometimes hired out to carry loads for trekking groups. Besides being a traditional status symbol, yaks are a good investment of the family’s earnings from trade or tourism.
Ama Yangin explains that she first makes the milk into yoghurt so it will keep for three or four days until she has enough collected to churn it into butter.
“The butter has to be churned enough to squeeze out all the buttermilk. Then it should keep without smelling for a year. In a good summer, I might make enough butter for my family’s needs and have some extra to sell to a tourist hotel in Namche.”
Owning a herd necessitates having pastures away from the main villages.
“Our traditional Sherpa rules prohibit us from keeping livestock at the main villages during the summer while the crops are growing,” explains Ama Yangin. “It’s in everyone’s interest not to have animals breaking into fields and devouring the crops. A hungry yak can quickly destroy a potato field.”
Some families have huts at three or four pastures in the higher valleys where there are grazing areas of rich grass during the monsoon. They move from their spacious homes in the main villages in late June just as the rains begin. “We shift our herds to a new pasture at least twice in the monsoon. It depends on the size of the valley and when the grass is at its prime in each place.”
By fall, the herds have thoroughly grazed plants on the high pastures. Some fields are walled to protect grass that will be cut for hay to feed livestock during the winter. The field in front of Ama Yangin’s hut is knee deep with pale blue fleabanes, golden ragwort, and bright yellow cinquefoil.
The morning is clear and bright — good conditions to cut and dry the grass for hay. The eldest son and his wife wield a scythe in each hand, mowing the grass close to the ground. Ama Yangin and her two older grandchildren follow with wooden rakes, gathering the cut grass and piling it into stacks, filling the air with the scent of freshly cut grass.
After two hours, everyone takes a break, sitting cross-legged in the grass, consuming cups of tea and two pots of boiled potatoes dipped in chili sauce.
The grass cutting ends as the late afternoon drizzle began. Ama Yangin went off in the gentle rain to milk her naks and dzooms. Finally retreating indoors as the rain pours down, we repeat last night’s routine of tea, potato pancakes, and conversation.
The next morning, the sun is bright and clear. Except for the vivid green of the near hillsides, this could have been a day in the dry, clear winter. Though I have a long day’s walk ahead of me, I linger.
“Don’t forget,” reminds Ama Yangin, “Walk early in the morning, before it rains.”
“The purpose of our religion is to perfect our minds,” says Tengboche Rinpoche. His point of view is the Buddhism of the Himalaya, the heart and soul of the Sherpa culture.
“I was born in Nauche and as a small child talked about wanting to go home to Tengboche,” says Rinpoche. He sits cross-legged on a wide bench in his dark kitchen lined with shelves of copper pots. In his lap he holds the small text from which he reads prayers every day.
“My mother carried me to Rongbuk Monastery in Tibet. Upon seeing a monk, I ran to hug him as if I had known him before. He was the nephew of the founder of Tengboche. The Abbot of Rongbuk recognized me as a tulku [reincarnate of a spiritually advanced person], the reincarnate of Tengboche’s founder, Lama Gulu.
“Back in Nauche, I identified Lama Gulu’s belongings. Everyone was satisfied after this proof, so I was brought to Tengboche at the age of five to be raised as the reincarnate lama and eventually become the Abbot of the monastery.”
Rinpoche spent decades studying at Tengboche and Buddhist universities in Tibet and Darjeeling until he was ready to assume the leadership of the monastery. As a spiritual leader of the Sherpa people, he is equally adept on matters as varied as health, education, politics, the building of bridges, and naming children.
Rinpoche’s life had been devoted to study of the Buddhist faith, which he describes by saying, “Our religion protects our character, which is why religion is so important in our culture. Happiness and unhappiness are caused by one’s state of mind.”
Merging the metaphysical with everyday life, the Sherpas’ prayers and rituals aim to generate positive spiritual energy for the benefit of all beings. Whether layman or cleric, religion is the way of life, unifying all aspects of existence. The practice of religion is not confined to a day of the week, it is an everyday affair.
The Sherpas’ religion is the oldest sect of Mahayana Buddhism, the Nyingma, which was established by Guru Rinpoche, an Indian mystic who was invited to establish Buddhism in Tibet about 730 AD.
Tengboche Rinpoche introduces me to the principles and practices of Buddhism through my work to complete the Sherpa museum. He often uses examples from daily life to illustrate the complexity of Buddhism. For example, one day talking about the Buddhist concept of emptiness:
“Think about this knife on the table,” says Rinpoche. “It’s real when you are sitting here in Tengboche. Will this knife be real to you in Canada? If you think about Canada right now, which is real — Canada or Tengboche, where your body happens to be?
“This is illusion, the unreal objects. The real objects and events happen in your mind. There are two ‘rivers’ to follow in our minds. The first, Sunya, emptiness, is about the knife. It deals with the perception or non-reality of all things. The second, Karuna, is compassion. After one attains perfect understanding of emptiness and compassion, one attains Buddhahood.”
“This is why it is important to remember that the purpose of our religion is to improve our minds. This is why it is important to study the Buddhist teachings, think about them, meditate — and then think some more.”
I wonder how to reconcile the purpose of “perfecting our minds” with the many rituals, offerings, deities, and religious objects of everyday life.
“There are many kinds of offerings,” says Rinpoche. Pointing at the urn of smouldering incense hanging outside his window, he continues:
“This is an offering through the sense of smell. There are physical offerings such as torma [dough figurines], visual offerings like pictures and sand mandalas, sound offerings like the ritual instruments and chants or prayers. Our good intentions are the most important offering.”
Sherpa life is also full of ritual objects. Everywhere in Sherpa country are stones carved with prayers, water-driven prayer wheels, and prayer flags. The carved prayer stones usually contain a single chant, a complete prayer, or a Buddhist image, while prayer wheels contain scrolls of printed prayers, often thousands of them.
Prayer flags, attached to tall poles or on strings, flutter on rooftops and mountain passes, or are strung across rivers and paths. They carry printed prayers and often show the wind horse, the swift bearer of prayers. Their five colours signify the elements — earth, wood, water, fire, and metal.
Stupas, called chorten in Sherpa and Tibetan, are the numerous monuments found across the Buddhist countryside by paths, streams, homes, and gondas. Chorten represent the body, mind, and spiritual development of the Buddha.
During the historical Buddha’s lifetime, stupas were a memorial for the deceased. As the Buddha lay dying, his followers asked what should be done with his remains. He requested that his body be placed in a simple stupa. Since then, the stupa symbolizes the Buddha, and often offerings or the relics of the deceased, especially lamas, are sealed inside various sizes and shapes of stupas.
While discussing displays for the museum, Rinpoche explains the importance of Buddhist prayers on rocks, flags, and other objects:
“We see them everywhere in the land of Buddhist people. These religious objects are part of our daily lives. They help focus people’s thoughts on the Buddhist teachings and bring about a positive state of mind in people, to the benefit of all.
“The religious objects help create harmony between our actions, body, and mind. The Buddhist teachings will come easily to us when we gain merit first with our actions and body and then through our minds. So that everyone may understand them, religious objects have many explanations at these different levels.”
These objects allow anyone to gain spiritual merit through good intentions and each flutter of the prayer flag or turn of the prayer wheel.
This gallery contains 27 photos.
This gallery contains 68 photos.
The drums beating, cymbals clashing, devotional singing, and a tall golden-faced figure arrives – a Dipankar Buddha. These ‘walking statues’ belong to groups of families, who keep the statues in their neighborhood shrines. Every five years, all the owners of the statues bring them together in a massive festival. There are usually about 100 large and small statues brought about on display.
The ‘walking statues’ are actually worn by a man inside, who has just a small hole in the statue’s garments to see. There are several people helping to guide and celebrate the procession of the statues, first into the Patan Durbar Square and then to the Nag Bahal courtyard.
The Durbar Square was affected by the April 2015 earthquakes but while some of the temples have timbers supporting them, only one temple was destroyed. Certainly the spirit of the Patan people is intact as they celebrated the occasion.
One family with a small wooden statue, only about two feet high, said that it is perhaps 1,200 years old.
Last night thousands of Nepali commemorated the full moon and the birthday of the Buddha 10 days after the devastating earthquake of April 25, 2015.
A return to life and living, a reminder that life goes on, that our spirit continues as the Nepali people recover. Groups of young people stood with signs and donation boxes singing songs encouraging people to contribute whatever small funds they could to help those in need.
Life in Nepal has become before earthquake and after the earthquake. The key questions preoccupy most conversations: what were you doing…? where were you? Is your family all okay? How is your house?
Those of us with strong houses and open space were scared but unharmed physically, despite the days and days of aftershocks. In the 24 hours after the initial 7.9 earthquake, people in Nepal sat through 54 shakes over 4.1, and another 33 quakes in the next 24 hours. As of May 4, there have been 143 quakes recorded by the government seismological department since April 24. http://www.seismonepal.gov.np/index.php?action=earthquakes&show=past
In any other circumstances, each of these ‘aftershocks’ would’ve been considered a newsworthy earthquake on its own. This continued with decreasing frequency over the next 3 to 4 days but the 6.9 quake on Sunday noon caught everyone by surprise for its intensity and duration and it seems that this quake caused a lot of the damage to buildings weakened the day before.
The quake happened to happen on the day of the week when people were out of doors – a Saturday afternoon. People are relieved that students were not in schools or college buildings that collapsed, workers were not in offices or factories.
Most people were not so fortunate – the poor living in cheaply built rented rooming houses, those living in remote areas especially near the epicenters of the earthquakes, and those living near hills and ridges that bounced back the shock waves.
The initial response of young people in Nepal has been encouraging and heart-warming. They are raising funds and gathering relief materials to take trucks much needed supplies to those in communities for almost every house has been destroyed. They are drawing on the resourcefulness and resilience of their mountain communities.
The night before the earthquake friends had gathered at Boudha stupa to remember a recently deceased friend. Ten days later we close the loop and return to living in the entirety – the sacredness and the dreadfulness – of this time and very special land, to mourn the dead and to pray for the living.
More regular posts are promised in the coming days and weeks.
When the Kamaiya (bonded labour) system of southwestern Nepal was abolished in 2001, the government promised them land, by creating camps for the freed Kamaiya on government land here each family was supposed to receive its own small plot. Several aid agencies started work with these thousands of people – literacy, food-for-work projects, vocational training, and microfinance. During work for one of these organizations, I was interviewing freed Kamaiya and met Kalamati.
Kalamati was a bonded labourer (Kamaiya) for most of her life as her family had had a debt with a property owner for several generations. Despite being released from their inherited debts, her family and many of these people continued to struggle for their daily existence.
“Before, (as bonded laborers) we had to work from morning to night, and never had time for our own development. Now, we can make our own decisions and have our own piece of land.”
The crux of their situation was financial – anyone whose family might have had to take a loan from a landowner in the past. The system started during the settlement of the Terai by migrants from the hills. One landowner said that at the time, many of indigenous people, mostly Tharus, were interested to work the land “under the guardianship of the landowner”. When asked how much debt it took to bind a family for life, the answer was surprisingly little – Rs 15,000, 9,000, or even less. (about $300)
Even people of other ethnic or caste groups would become Kamaiya if they lost their fields and needed a loan from a ‘zamindar’ (landlord) to buy food. We interviewed a Magar ethnic woman from the hills whose family lost their land to the local moneylender and a high caste man whose parents’ fields had been lost in a flood. The system was institutionalized economic exclusion of the vulnerable who needed a loan.
Families with any size of land holding usually had a Kamaiya family to work the land in return for food and meagre ‘daily wages’ as repayment on the loans. One young man working with us had grown up with Kamaiyas working for his parents. He had questioned the inequities from a young age and joined one of the activist groups lobbying for their release. We heard a story of a generous widow who owned only a small piece of land. She borrowed money from the bank to repay a large landowner the debt of the one Kamaiya working on her land. However, when the government absolved the Kamaiya debts, she still had to repay her loan for the Kamaiyas to the bank.
Some freed Kamaiya have succeeded in earning a simple living by operating shops, learning a trade, raising livestock, or growing and selling vegetables, many have still had a difficult time earning enough to survive. Others were reported to have had to mortgage their children back into bondage as child labourers in order to obtain loans or annual salaries from which the rest of the family could buy food. Many still work on the landlord’s fields but now for regular wages of Rs. 70-100 per day. One man we had interviewed said he calculated that in the past as a Kamaiya, his father had earned only three rupees per day.
In one camp, the men told of working in a sugar factory in Bardiya where they earned Rs 20 per day. The mill was owned by the family of a four-time prime minister. How can Nepal ever change the relationships between the rich and the poor when its leaders continued to assume an attitude of ruling rather than governing and serving the people.
Other people told of having to go out in the fields at night to beat the crops and scarred away insect pests; they had to pay for the kerosene in the lanterns themselves – even though it was the landlord’s crop. When they did not have enough money for kerosene, the landlord loaned it to them, adding to their already overwhelming debts.
The oppression went further for the women expected to work in the homes of some property owners. “It was much harder for the women,” said one older woman. She went on to describe how the ‘tradition’ of young women being expected to sleep with some landlords on the night of their wedding, usually to another Kamaiya, had led her daughter to go join the insurgency as her only means of rebelling. It was 2002. The insurgency was spreading over rural Nepal. We had to leave.
“If the avalanche had been about an hour later, I would have been right there and so would have been about a hundred more people,” says Pemba. “I was just about to leave base camp!”
Twenty years ago, Pemba had often been the cook on treks I was leading. Since about 1998, he has worked as a high altitude cook on Everest expeditions.
“I prefer expeditions to trekking because I make more money. Otherwise, my wife and I have just a small potato field and this little teashop. Without the expedition money, we could not afford to buy rice and staples at the market – everything has become so expensive!”
Besides, he adds, there are now very few jobs as cooks on treks since most trekkers stay in the many hotels and lodges that have sprung up along the trekking routes. In the decades prior to 2000, trekking groups stayed in tents with own cook and kitchen crew, guiding staff, and porters. With many groups coming with just a guide and porters, the jobs with trekking groups dwindled.
It was about the same that commercial expeditions started on Everest. With several expeditions attempting Everest each season, the demand for expedition workers boomed. At least 400 Nepalis of various ethnic groups, especially some Sherpas, work as high altitude climbers, guides, cooks, porters, and kitchen staff each season.
It is an occupational option, often taken by those Sherpas from poor families living away from the main trekking routes. They just do not have the capital or opportunity to start a hotel, or the education to work in another profession. One Sherpa from a poor family said he was in a fix when his wife demanded that he stop working on expeditions. Luckily for him, an uncle offered a small piece of land and a loan to start a hotel on a newly popular trekking route.
However, for many like Pemba, they may feel that they have fewer options to make money other than expeditions. “I could work in a hotel and one of my bosses at the company said that he would help me to get special training as a chef. But, I would have to work twelve months a year to make the same as I earn in three months on an expedition.”
His wife adds, “Those three months… the whole time I have a knot in my stomach and ask anyone coming down if they have seen Pemba.”
He admits that it is a risky way to make a living. I ask if he has attended the Khumbu Climbing School held each winter to train Sherpas and Nepalis in technical climbing safety. “No, I’ve not gone because I only go through the icefall twice each expedition, once up to Camp 2 and once down.”
Pemba leaves the kitchen for a moment, returning with a small red pouch. “These amulets, relics, and blessing cords from the lamas are all very potent. I have all of them blessed again each year by the lama in Pangboche as I go up for an expedition. I wear it under my clothes the entire time I am on the mountain.”
When I ask if he will go on an expedition again next year, he says, “Of course I will go, how else will I buy food in the market. But it is true, that it would be a lot less risk to my life to go get a job cooking in a hotel.”
On this anniversary of the first ascent to the summit of Everest, let’s pause a moment to remember why men from the Sherpa ethnic group in Nepal first went off to work on expeditions.
Kancha Sherpa is the last surviving member of that 1953 expedition, perhaps because he was very young when he went off to Darjeeling in search of expedition work. Kancha told me his story in December 2009 in Namche.
“When I was a kid we were so poor, we had no mattresses just yak skins and the wooden plank for a pillow. We used to walk to Kathmandu in 8 days, carrying tsampa cause we had no money to stay in hotels.
“We carried loads to Tibet. There were three people who traded Nepali paper to Tibet to use in the prayer wheels. We earned Rs.5 to carry 30 kg loads for the 4-day trip to Kyabrak, just over the Nangpala. The Tibetans would pay us in salt – 8 pathis (30 kg) that we carried back to Khumbu in three days. Then we carried four pathis at a time to Kharikhola where we got three parts of corn for one of salt – so we could not take too much salt at once to be able to carry the corn back to Namche.
“Then we dried and ground the corn to eat. Then we started the whole circuit all again. The paper was made in Karikhola and they brought it here to sell. There was thick and thin paper for the inside of prayer wheels and pecha (religious books). At the age of 13-15, I would go 11 times a year over the pass. We were walking on snow for about an hour at the top of the pass.
“I first went to climb in 1953. Three friends and I decided to go to Darjeeling to see if we could get work on an expedition. While my mother was out with everyone dancing in a potato field, I hid some corn flour in one of her shirts. My friends each had Rs.15 and 20, but I had none so I took the corn for us to eat. We left at night and got to Chaunrikharka at day light -looking over our shoulders to see if our families were coming for us.
“It took four days of walking over the hills to get to Darjeeling. We met a woman from Thame village there, carrying a load of vegetables. We asked her where Tenzing’s house was. She took us to his little house. He asked who our fathers were and since he knew my father, he took me in to work while my friends found work elsewhere. Tenzing liked my work cleaning and getting firewood so he said he would take me to Everest in a month. I was so happy, I carried even more firewood.
“Then I worked on expeditions until 1973, when my wife asked me to stop as so many friends had been killed. I liked the expeditions cause I got clothes and money.
“During these years, 1953-73, I would also earn more money by buying western watches in Calcutta with loans, and selling them in Tibet. One time in Shakya, I was caught by the Chinese army, who took all my watches and money. We were stuck inside the jail for a week without any water. My older brother was in jail in Lhasa because they did not know who was Tibetan or Sherpa. I had a letter written and showed our Nepali passports. Eventually, we got back here.
“Afterwards, I started working trekking. Since I can only write my name, Kancha (Tenzing’s little daughter taught me in 1953), I’d keep accounts on trek with my beads and have someone who could write make notes.
“Now, we earn money here and don’t have to go away. The kids whose parents have earned well with hotels all have good educations. Now, the Tibetans all come here to trade and earn money. Now, I’m an old man doing my prayers.”