A lost draft of a blog post. Last year’s visit to Khumbu.
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.
“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.”
Life with the Sherpas revealed different ways of seeing the world. It peeled away my preconceived notions. I have come to see that while outside cultures divide us, inner cultures, the core of all religions and beliefs, can bring us together.
Arriving at the ridge crest, each Sherpa companion murmured a prayer and placed a small stone from the path on the cairn with prayer flags. I followed suit, relieved that our trekking group had traveled this path safely.
Further along, we paused and turned out backs as wind and dust blasted across the pastures. We hid our faces in our jackets. Seeing only the ground before me, a premonition — an impact on the back of my head and a sudden sense of nothingness.
I reacted by taking two steps forward. In that instant a thick plank, blown off a nearby hut, hit the back of my ankle. Stunned, I realized that had I not moved, the plank would have struck my head.
This event was my first real experience with the Sherpa perception of place, of the power of these mountains.
Mountain scenery first attracted me to the Himalaya, but the warm, friendly people became my enduring connection. From 1983 to 1989, I had the opportunity and privilege to live and work with Sherpa people in the Khumbu Valley of east Nepal near Mount Everest, helping to create a museum of Sherpa culture at Tengboche monastery.
The Sherpas are renowned through the literature of adventure, where they have earned an international reputation for their work on mountaineering expeditions, especially on Everest. However, this reputation focuses on an occupation, rather than the Sherpas’ rich cultural heritage.
The museum described mostly what the Abbot of Tengboche calls the Sherpas’ “inner culture” and the importance of ceremonies that link their spiritual and physical lives. The preparation of the museum took time because it was essential to first know the people and the many dimensions of their culture in order to accurately and concisely depict it.
While compiling information for the museum, I often found that conversations encompassed aspects of philosophy, psychology, and spirituality. Often the subjects we discussed wandered to the questions we seek to answer with religion or science: How did the earth begin? What happens after death? What is our relationship to nature? To our symbols in the environment?
Over the years, my questions turned from the intellectual to the intuitive. I began to experience the culture rather than question it. Life with the Sherpas revealed different ways of seeing the world. It peeled away my preconceived notions so that I began to appreciate the significance of rituals, traditions, and symbols. In the process, I was changed.
Sherpa friends introduced me to a new way of seeing the world through everyday life. Whether monk or shepherd, they know who they are and what they believe as “Sherpa people”. I saw an acceptance of mystery and of questions we just cannot answer.
Living in another culture forced me to think about how it works, to confront the ironies and inconsistencies of a different way of being. Soon, I realized that one layer of meaning reveals more queries within. The more one starts to understand, the more one realizes all there is to question and explore.
Looking at other cultures as different from our own, we split the whole into parts. We analyze what we see happening and ask why. For people of the other culture, it is their way of life.
We examine the oddity of different traditions and customs rather than the inner purposes that might bring us into an understanding of the culture. We end up looking at how the “other” culture is different from our culture rather than at our commonness in the wholeness of humankind.
While working on the museum, I started to see and question the ironies of my own culture and gained a new way of looking at myself and at my own way of life. I was moved by what I saw and experienced.
I became a believer in the value of inner culture that manifests itself in everything we do — in small actions in everyday life, in our interactions with everyone we meet, and in what we think and say.
I have come to see that while outside cultures divide us, inner cultures, the core of all religions and beliefs, can bring us together.
Tengboche holds a special place in the hearts and minds of both Sherpas and world visitors. On a ridge in the heart of the Khumbu valley, it is more than just a monastery. The scene of the monastery surrounded by snow-clad peaks, realizes many people’s notions of Shangri-La, of a sacred place beyond our daily existence.
Despite Tengboche’s fame, the Sherpas only founded celibate monasteries relatively recently. For about four centuries, they practised their faith in hermitages and each village’s gonda (temple) under the direction of married lamas (teachers) who performed the rituals required by the community.
In 1914, the Abbot of Rongbuk monastery on the north side of Everest in Tibet told a devout Sherpa, Lama Gulu, to establish a celibate monastery in the Khumbu. Lama Gulu went home to Khumbu and discussed the request with other Sherpas. They proposed several sites, including a remote ridge called Tengboche. Lama Gulu returned for advice to Rongbuk, where the abbot replied, “At Tengboche, at the edge of the flat area, where Lama Sangwa Dorje left footprints in stone.”
Sherpas from many villages worked for three years to build a gonda for Tengboche monastery. They completed it in 1919 and the Abbot of Rongbuk came for the opening celebrations. His presence attracted Sherpas from several days’ walk away. Thus, Tengboche became a focal point for Sherpa religious activities and the larger community of Khumbu.
In 1932, an earthquake destroyed the monastery’s main temple. Lama Gulu was not injured but passed away that night. The monks of Tengboche went to Tibet to visit the Rongbuk Abbot, who told them to rebuild the gonda. He donated some money to start the reconstruction.
Six years later, a young child from Nauche was brought to the Rongbuk Abbot, who recognized him as the reincarnation of Lama Gulu.
That child grew up to be Tengboche Rinpoche, the abbot of Tengboche monastery in the Khumbu valley. The Sherpas regard him as the reincarnate of the monastery’s founder. Everyone calls him by his title, Tengboche Rinpoche, and rarely by his given name, Ngawang Tenzing Zangbu.
Tibetan Buddhists reserve the title Rinpoche for special teachers and their reincarnates. The Buddhist people of the Himalaya revere thousands of rinpoches in Nepal, Tibet, Bhutan, and India.
When asked about the changes in the Khumbu valley, Tengboche Rinpoche has replied:
“There are outward changes in appearances: some of our dress, houses, occupations, and opportunities.
“However, our Sherpa ceremonies and traditions — how we name children, assist the dead, get married, and celebrate a year’s passage — all this remains intact. What is most important to us remains. The coming of foreign visitors to Khumbu has not changed our inner culture.”
This gallery contains 19 photos.
Khonjo Chombi was renowned among the Sherpas as a village leader, for his knowledge of Sherpas folk songs, and his skill as a dancer. He was often asked for his knowledge of Sherpa history and culture so Tengboche Rinpoche had appointed him to be one of my ‘informants’ for the Sherpa Cultural Centre while I worked there in the 1980s.
Khonjo Chombi is sitting by the window of his house in Khumjung sewing prayer flags onto bamboo sticks.
“Everyone from our clan is putting up new prayer flags today. Then, I have to give a speech at a wedding in Namche. It introduces the two families, even though they’ve known each other for generations.”
“What about your own family history?”
As he continues stitching, he begins, “When people ask about my life story, I first must tell them about my family history.”
Khonjo Chombi pauses as he finds more thread for his needle. “Way back, one ancestor moved from Lhasa to Kham in eastern Tibet, where he settled, practised religion, and had a family.” He then names off successive generations of ancestors for three hundred years.
“In the fifth generation, there was a war between Kham and Tibet. My ancestor, Michentokpa, did not want to fight because it was against the Buddhist tenets to kill any living being. So, he left Kham and first went west to the north side of Everest, then crossed the pass into Khumbu. He may have been one of the first to cross this way into the Khumbu ‘beyul’ (the sacred hidden valley).
First, he settled up high near treeline at Pangboche. This place was like Tibet. Later, his grandson moved south to the Solu valley, to a place called Thakdobuk just below a pass. Our clan name Thakdopa comes from this place. Eight generations later, my family moved to Thame in the Khumbu. After another three generations, my great grandfather moved to Khunde. He had five sons. My grandfather’s marriage was arranged so that he moved into this house as a son-in-law. My father was his only son, and I was my father’s only son.
“My father traded sheep, goats, and ponies throughout eastern Nepal and to Darjeeling in India.” He pulls out a big plastic bag of folded papers, some written in Nepali script and others in Tibetan. He reads aloud from one of the documents dated the Nepali year 1885 (1828 AD).
“This paper from the government in Kathmandu granted us Sherpas a monopoly on the trade route between Nepal and Tibet over the Nangpa La pass. It allowed only Khumbu people to cross the pass. Before the Nepali kings, we paid land taxes to the Kiranti kings in the east and food taxes to the Tibetans.”
These villages in the remote Khumbu Valley have always been in the nexus of different political authorities, although the Nepali kings ruled since 1769, the Sherpas retained their distinct culture with similar traditions to the Tibetan people to the north. Prior to 1769, various ethnic kingdoms in east Nepal had had enough power over the Sherpas at times to demand taxes or tributes.
Pulling out another paper, he continues, “This list of rules is from the Nepali year 1910 (1853 AD); it also records the taxes collected and how much land people owned. The government in Kathmandu was impressed that my father had dealt with thieves robbing traders in east Nepal, so they asked him to be the tax collector in Khumjung.
“My father performed our Buddhist rituals and treated people with herbal medicines as an amje (traditional doctor). He was also a politician, lawyer, tailor, and carpenter. As a politician and trader, he was sued many times, even in Tibet.
“He had many regrets about having killed people, especially the way he took care of thieves in east Nepal. So when he was old, he left home and became a hermit at the age of 68 and died when he was 78.”
“Did you learn Tibetan herbal medicine from your father?”
“No. My father and the father of Namche’s amje (herbal doctor) trained together in Tibet. My father had many notes for making herbal medicine. When I was four, our house burned down. The notes were lost, so he could not train me as an amje. I always felt this was really too bad, because my father had a cure for smallpox. After he died, the disease struck again twice in Khumbu. Many people died that time. That is when we built the big chorten at the entrance to our village. The second time, the Nepali health worker died first. We buried the body so as not to spread the disease. Later, we were vaccinated by cutting a cross on the skin.”
“Do you remember the first foreigners you ever met?”
“I first saw them when I was trading in Darjeeling and Calcutta. I would normally go twice a year. In the fall, I’d take dzopchioks to Tibet and trade them for Tibetan horses which everyone liked because they were so strong. I’d take the horses to Sikkim or Nepal. I’d also sell Tibetan goods as I went through Solu to the Indian border.
“Finally, I’d go to Calcutta with the money. What a surprise the first time I went. There were people from all over east India and the British with their trains and cars. In Calcutta, I’d buy cloth and corals to bring back to Khumbu and then Tibet.
“When I was young, I wasn’t very business-like. Once, another man and I finished our business in three days and then spent the next two weeks travelling around learning new songs and dances. On those many trips to Tibet, we’d always sing and dance and have a good time with the people where we stayed. Finally we returned to Khumbu before we spent all our money.”
“The first foreigners that I met were on the early climbing expeditions in Khumbu. I met them because I a village headman. For example, I always remember the anthropologist Haimendorf. He stayed with us a long time after arriving in the middle of the monsoon. The time I met the most foreigners was when I went to America with the yeti scalp.”
Khonjo Chombi brings out an old photo album and shows me photographs of his tour in the 1960s. Sir Edmund Hillary had led an expedition in 1964 to view and photograph a yeti, the legendary ‘snowman’ of the Himalaya. Early Western explorers had claimed to have seen huge footprints of a two-legged creature in snow on the high passes.
Sherpas have legends of the yeti. About 350 years ago, the ‘patron saint’ of Khumbu, Lama Sangwa Dorje was particularly fond of a yeti who brought him food and water while the he was in meditation retreat. When the yeti died, the Lama put its scalp and hand bones as relics in the Pangboche village gompa. There is also a yeti scalp in Khumjung gompa.
Khonjo Chombi explains, “The foreigners requested that they be allowed to take the scalp to their foreign lands to show it to their doctors. The villagers agreed if one of us could accompany the scalp on its journey around the world. They chose me to go. The foreigners brought in a flying machine that I’d never seen before. I had to get into the machine – now I know it is called a helicopter. We flew to Kathmandu, where I got into a bigger flying machine, with two other men.
“First we went to England. Here is a photograph of me with the Queen,” says Khonjo Chombi as he points out the picture of himself in his traditional Sherpa garb with a young looking Queen Elizabeth.
“Next we went to New York, then Washington.” He shows a photograph of himself and a US president. More photographs followed of Chicago, San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge, Tokyo, and Hong Kong. “They kept looking at our yeti scalp, while I had a good time.”
Just then, a young man enters the room. He tells Khonjo Chombi how he and his wife have lost two babies in the past four years, but they now have a new baby boy. He had asked Tengboche Rinpoche for an auspicious name for the child, and is now here asking Khonjo Chombi to recite the prayers for the child’s naming ceremony.
Khonjo Chombi agrees to come perform the rituals the next day. The man invites me to the party and I accept knowing that to the Sherpas, one helps the host gain merit by receiving their hospitality at these ceremonies.
Both the man and I take our leave. Once outside, he says, “Without Khonjo Chombi we would have so many problems. He tells us the best times to plant potatoes and to dig them; to send livestock to the high pastures, and to bring them down. If there is a quarrel in the village, he is called in to settle the dispute. When he is gone, I don’t know who will be able to replace him.”
Note: Khonjo Chombi passed away in the early 1990s.
Prayer flags flutter at a notch in a jagged, rocky ridge. Our group of Sherpas and foreign trekkers has trekked carefully down the narrow track made slippery by snow, ice, and mud.
At the pass is a cairn with prayer flags, a labtsa. Each Sherpa companion places a small stone from the path onto the cairn, giving thanks that our trekking group has safely finished this part of our journey. I follow suit.
Further down the trail, we turn our backs to gusts of wind. In the fury of blowing dust, we hide our faces inside our jackets. Though I see only the ground before me, a vision fills my mind — a hard impact on the back of my head, and then a sudden void.
I react by taking two steps forward…
In that instant, a thick board blown off a nearby hut hits the back of my ankle. Shocked, I feel the pain in my ankle ebbing with the realization that the board would have struck my head if I had not stepped forward.
After the incident, Sherpa friends explain my premonition. “Khumbila, our local mountain god, protects all of us in this Khumbu valley. He may have sent the vision to help you move from harm’s way.”
Two weeks later, I ask Tengboche Rinpoche about the suggestion that the incident was protection from Khumbila. He is quiet for several minutes, and then says, “Yes, Khumbila helped you by bringing that insight. This means of protection works forthe Sherpas because we understand the power of this place. Although you are not Sherpa, you have lived here long enough.”
For years, I have heard of Khumbila, the spiritual guardian of Khumbu, but I have never really understood how he protected the valley’s inhabitants. Wondering about recent disasters, I ask, “How about the giant flood last year? Where was Khumbila then?”
“The flood reminded us to cherish our land. It was going to happen, but very few people were killed. Perhaps Khumbila’s influence held the flood until a day when many people were at a festival high in the yak pastures. Imagine if the flood had happened in October when the trails by the river would have been crowded with Sherpas, porters, and trekkers. Khumbila protected us from that disaster.
“Khumbila cannot protect everyone from everything. His protection depends on karma, the impending consequences of our behaviour. If your work here was without merit, if you had not been open to our Sherpa way of seeing the world, you may not have been able to see the vision Khumbila offered.”
As a Westerner, I had tried at first to intellectually understand this other way of seeing the world. Being with people with different perceptions and assumptions, I gradually learned to perceive and accept other cultures and ways of life. The total immersion in Sherpa culture led not to a rejection of my culture, but to a realization that other ways of being work for people in different geographic situations.
The people of the Himalaya believe the mountain peaks, ridges, passes, fields and homes are the abodes of deities representing the power of the place. The prayer flags, ceremonies, and little rituals of everyday life in these places acknowledge some greater power.
The Sherpas’ lives embrace extremes: folk belief and a profound spirituality, loneliness and social obligation, deprivation and abundance. The existence of one extreme doesn’t rule out the possibility of its opposite.
For the Sherpas, Khumbila is the short name of the Khumbu-yul-lha, “Khumbu country- god”. He is the protector of the land, people, and religion of the Khumbu. He is shown riding a great white horse and carrying a tall banner. Rinpoche says, “Khumbila wears the traditional turban-like headgear that men wore in the old days.
When I was a boy, the mountain had a ring of snow, like the headdress, at its summit.”
Rinpoche tells how the Sherpas’ ancestors brought books from Tibet describing the mountain and a valley that would be a refuge for people fleeing trouble in Tibet. At the centre of this valley is the mountain Khumbila, the abode of the protector deity.
Sherpas and Tibetans also believe that Everest is the abode of the goddess Jomo Miyo Langsangma. This lovely resident of the earth’s highest place is one of the five Long-Life Sisters inhabiting peaks of the Himalaya. Tengboche Rinpoche describes her:
She is the goddess of humans and rides a red tiger. Miyo Langsangma is very pretty. Her skin is orange and bright, flowers wreathe her head, and she wears many colours of silk cloth. She holds a long bowl of food in her right hand and a mongoose that spits out wealth in her left.”
Legends say this goddess distributes wealth and good fortune. In modern times, expeditions and treks to Everest have brought affluence to many Sherpas. At the start of each expedition, Sherpa crews perform rituals to appease the goddess before entering her abode.
The Tengboche monks are conscious that the ridge where the monastery sits is the abode of a minor female deity, a lhamo. This day is the annual ritual at the cairn on the ridge to honour the goddess of this place.
The ridge above Tengboche is 3,000 feet higher than the main Khumbu villages and surrounded by mountains. It rises from forestedslopes to a jagged summit plastered with finely fluted snow. At a low crest of the ridge is a large cairn with prayer flags. This lhapso is a monument acknowledging the power there.
Today, the monks are preparing new flags to place on the lhapso. In the gonda courtyard, two monks are printing flags. The first monk brushes ink onto a wooden block etched with the reverse image of a religious image. He positions a piece of cotton on the block and holds it in place while the other monk runs a roller over the cloth. The image prints onto the fabric. Two older monks stitch the flags onto long bamboo sticks.
Each boy grips another armload of bamboo poles against his chest, gingerly balancing the sticks twice as tall as themselves. As they scuffle up the hill, they are careful not to desecrate the flags by letting them touch the ground.
Monks carry low tables, cushions, ritual instruments, and Thermoses of tea up the ridge. They arrange the cushions and tables along the edge of the forest. A middle-aged monk places sculptures of tsampa (barley flour) and butter, called torma, on a ledge on the cairn. The flat ground by the lhapso becomes an outdoor temple.
This lhapso is a stone and plaster cairn six feet high. Standing on top, the prayer leader removes old flags and carefully pushes the new flags’ bamboo poles into its earthen top. Other monks pile the old flags and green juniper boughs onto a smouldering fire. Fragrant smoke billows from the juniper. It signals that the ceremony is ready to start. Half an hour later all the monks finally arrive at the site.
The monks sit facing Khumbila to the west, across the gorge from Tengboche. Behind them, large yellow rhododendron blooms cover the trees. The monks blow horns, clatter cymbals, and chant prayers to the deity of the ridge, who personifies the power of this place.
In the ceremony, Rinpoche recites the prayers with intense concentration. Afterwards, he describes the prayers: “The prayers connect the spiritual with the physical. Our thoughts connect with the power of nature. We restore the harmony between us, nature, and spiritual beings.”
Creating harmony with the environment through prayers at TengbocheIt is not easy living in these mountains. On the narrow trails or in the fields, the immense power of the land can harm or kill. Sherpas do not tame nature; they accommodate this power that is beyond their control. Ceremonies to harmonize humans and nature give people a way to understand their environment.
Sherpas explain the power of their environment through a view that everything exists in two forms: the physical and the spiritual. They may see a god either as a real personality living on a mountaintop or as a symbol of nature’s power.
Their beliefs embrace tiers of explanations with deeper and deeper meanings, but all these rituals and objects of everyday life — the ceremonies, prayer flags, and Mani stones — acknowledge some greater power.
To quote Tibetan writer Thubten Jigme Norbu: “You find prayer flags on hills, mountains, by lakes and always on the crest of passes. It does not really matter whether these spirits exist. What matters is that through these stories we have come to believe that everywhere, all around us, at all times, there is some power that is greater than ourselves.”
The ritual on the mountainside draws to a close, as the monks’ prayers and horns merge with the whistle of the wind. Smouldering juniper incense mingles with wispy clouds condensing around the mountainside. Smoke from juniper incense mingles with clouds above Tengboche.
As chants and wind seem to merge the metaphysical and the everyday, I appreciate that moment when a metaphysical being might have intervened in my everyday life.
1 Thubten Jigme Norbu and Colin Turnbull, Tibet: Its History, Religion, and People, Penguin Books, 1968. Pg. 32.
From ‘Gaiety of Spirit: The Sherpas of Everest’ copyright: Frances Klatzel 2009