The heavy wooden door creaks open on to a small verandah encircled by potted orange marigolds. Inside a small house, the Rinpoche of Tengboche sits cross legged on a wide bench at the end of a room full of photographs and books.
Wrapped in a heavy maroon robe, Rinpoche gestures for me to take a seat next to an elderly Sherpa man on a bench beneath large windows.
The Sherpas are renowned through the literature of adventure, for their work as high-altitude porters and guides on mountaineering expeditions. However, this reputation focuses on one occupation, rather than on the Sherpas’ rich cultural heritage.
The museum was mostly about 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.
Rinpoche is 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.
Rinpoche realized that there were many misinterpretations and misunderstandings about Sherpa culture. To promote understanding of the culture, he has built a museum to first inform foreign visitors. However, his more crucial audience is young Sherpas, who will see visitors taking an “interest in our culture, and then take pride in our heritage.”
My work is to interpret his discussions to offer explanations of Sherpa culture to which people can relate. The work involves researching the information, taking photographs, planning the displays, coordinating translations of texts into Nepali or Tibetan, fabricating the displays, and then putting it all together in the museum building.
Rinpoche’s guest is a village elder, Khonjo Chombi, who is renowned for his knowledge of old Sherpa stories, songs, and traditions. Sherpas acknowledge him as a guardian of their culture.
“Please, show Khonjo Chombi through the museum,” he asks.
Khonjo Chombi has provided much of the information and inspiration for the museum’s display texts. He has also advised most foreign researchers of the Sherpas, the first and best known of whom was the anthropologist Christoph von Furer- Haimendorf, who first came to Khumbu in the mid-1950s.
Inside the museum, Khonjo Chombi inspects the historical photographs Haimendorf donated. He names each person in the photographs. “Here is Ngawang Dorje, Thakto Kalden, Passang Rinchen; they have all passed away. There I am thirty years ago; Haimendorf took that photo. There I am last year; you took that photo.” He smiles.
The panel text introducing the Sherpas has generated controversy. It reads: “The Sherpas started migrating from Tibet to these secluded valleys 600 years ago.” A couple of foreign anthropologists insist that the Sherpas’ entry into Khumbu from Tibet was about 450 years ago and that 600 years ago is wrong.
Rinpoche and Khonjo Chombi say these modern interpretations do not consider the first Sherpa, Phachhen, who discovered Khumbu 600 years ago. We used the 600- year date, since the purpose of the museum is to tell the Sherpas’ story from their own point of view.
A mural in Tibetan script outlining the Sherpa clans covers the end wall of the museum. The position of each name shows when the clan either arrived from Tibet or separated from a larger group. Khonjo Chombi points out his clan name, Thakdopa.
The father’s lineage determines one’s clan membership. Four main clans originally came from Kham, in eastern Tibet, to Solu-Khumbu. Each clan gave rise to several brother clans. Continuous migration has brought many new clans into the area.
Other displays describe traditional clothing, household goods, jewelry, and crafts using looms and spindles. One panel shows monks printing prayer flags on a wooden block and a stone carver chiseling a prayer stone.
Khonjo Chombi asks, “You have a photo of Au’Kinzum chipping away to make mani stones. Why isn’t there a photo of old Phurwa carving a wood block?”
“For three years I tried to persuade Phurwa to let me photograph him working, but he would not even describe how he makes the blocks. So all that we have is photographs of monks printing prayer flags on the blocks.
“Last month, Phurwa was at Tengboche doing carpentry work while we were setting up the museum. He visited the museum every day to see the new displays. The day this display with the stone carver went up, Phurwa asked why I had not photographed him carving the wood blocks. I told him how I’d tried many times. The next day he brought that huge old wooden tea cup as a gift for the museum.”
Khonjo Chombi laughs, and then grows serious. “No matter how much you explained, it was hard for many people to imagine what the ‘museum’ would be. This is the first museum old Phurwa has ever seen. But, we have a bigger problem. These craftsmen’s sons have not learned to carve wooden blocks or mani stones. When these men are gone, no one in Khumbu will make these religious things.”
“Can only sons learn these crafts?”
“No, anyone could learn their crafts, but before we followed our father’s occupation. I learned trading and politics from my father. My sons run a trekking business. Our occupations are changing, but I hope someone will keep making wood blocks and mani stones.”
The second floor has displays about Sherpa religion. Balancing the many levels of explanation was a challenge when writing the display texts. Spirituality, metaphysics, and pragmatism all have a place in layers of meanings in the Sherpas’ practice of Mahayana Buddhism.
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: 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 experienced 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 appreciated the significance of rituals, traditions, and symbols.
On the display about Tengboche monastery, Khonjo Chombi inspects photographs of Rinpoche through the years, beginning as a teenager when the first Westerners explored the southern approach to Everest. Other photographs show him in present day activities. He remarks, “Rinpoche has worked hard to uphold our traditions.”
Khonjo Chombi examines a mannequin dressed as a traditional village lama. “Some lamas are married and some are celibate thawas [monks]. Not all monks are lamas. The married lama in this photo has a family. He studied with his father and other teachers so that he can perform the village ceremonies.”
He sees a bone trumpet, a kagling, in the mannequin’s hand. I explain, “We did not have an old kagling; had only a new copper one. Two weeks ago, a monk returned from the post office in Nauche with a battered envelope. The address was to ‘Tengboche Monastery, near Mount Everest, Nepal’. There was no letter or return address but the stamp was from Germany. Inside was this old-style kagling made of bone. We’ll never know where it came from, but it came just in time for the museum opening.”
Khonjo Chombi continues around the museum. Suddenly he sings an old Sherpa folk song and dancing. Soon an audience of monks and foreign trekkers surrounds Khonjo Chombi. As we applaud, he smiles. His songs and dance become the museum’s real opening celebration.
I will always be grateful to Tengboche Rinpoche for the opportunity to work with him on the Sherpa Cultural Center for several years. 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”.
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 understands, 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 differs from our culture rather than at our commonness in the wholeness of humankind.
While working on the museum, I saw and questioned 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 came to see that while outside cultures divide us, inner cultures, the core of all religions and beliefs, can bring us together.
This opportunity enriched my life, for which I will always be grateful.