Excerpts from The Sherpas of Nepal: Buddhist Highlanders (1964)

From chapter 1, "Environment and Economy"
From chapter 2, "An Open Society"
From chapter 6, "The Practice of Religion"

From chapter 1, "Environment and Economy " (pp. 4-5 and 11-13)

Types of Settlement

The pattern of Sherpa settlements in the Khumba area has been shaped by a climate and an environment which precludes the possibility of combining mixed farming with a sedentary way of life. There is no single locality where even a few families could maintain themselves and their livestock throughout the year. The owners of yak have to move with their herds to pastures lying at different levels, and those without cattle undertake extensive trading excursions in order to supplement their income from the tillage of land. Neither can afford to spend the whole year in one place, but only the cattle-owner is in need of houses and hay stores on several widely dispersed sites.

It is the herdsmen's habitations on different levels of altitude which lend the settlement of Khumbu its distinctive character. While in other Himalayan regions, such as Dolpo of Thak, the owners of yak herds have solid houses only in one settlement, and live in tents when grazing their animals on the higher pastures, the Sherpas build houses of stone and timber even in places where they spend only three or four weeks a year. However, there is a difference between such subsidiary settlements and the main villages, where the Sherpas have the greater part of their immovable possessions.

[. . .]

Many of the Sherpas of Khumbu spend only six or seven months in their comfortable main houses and live during the rest of the year in subsidiary settlements. These fall into two distinctive categories, the winter settlements (gunsa) and the summer hamlets (yersa).

The winter settlements where the Sherpas shelter with their herds from the icy storms of the winter, lie in protected places at altitudes lower than the average elevation of the main villages. There may be only three or four houses built on the narrow bank of a river, or as many as thirty houses may occupy a broad ledge at some height above a gorge. Around the houses there are usually a number of fields and potato plots, and the crops grown and stored on the spot are used to feed the householders during the winter, while hay, stored in the houses, serves as fodder for the cattle.

The summer hamlets lie among the high pastures far above the tree-line. Ownership of houses and meadows in several of these settlements is an indispensable concomitant of yak-breeding, for no one without such property can maintain even a moderately sized herd of yak. Many yersa lie at distances of two to three days' walk from the main villages, and it is not unusual for men of different villages to own houses and land in one summer settlement. The families congregated in such a settlement at any one time are thus not a section of a village community but belong to several main villages, and disperse again when they have to move their cattle to other pastures. The highest of these years lie at altitudes between 15,000 and 16,000 feet and here the dwellings are small huts roofed with slabs of stone, containing only a minimum of woodwork, rafters and beams having to be brought from great distances.

Similar in purpose but very different in form are primitive encampments known as resa. These structures, consisting of a permanent though crudely built stone wall and a temporary roof of bamboo mats or yak-hair blankets, serve the herdsmen as shelters on pastures where they graze their cattle only for a few days. They are found on very high pastures, beyond the highest yersa, and at fairly low levels in the vicinity of the main villages. Here young boys look after the cattle during the day, and the resa serve as shelters for the adults who spend only the nights near the herds and return in the morning to their houses in the village.

[. . .]

Animal Husbandry

Though agriculture provides the Sherpas with the bulk of their food-supply, they regard the breeding of yak and other cattle as a far nobler occupation. No other form of property has quite the same prestige value as a herd of yak, and rich men, who would never put their hand to a hoe or sickle, unhesitatingly undergo the hardships of grazing their herds for weeks and months on high pastures. Yet, it would be misleading to think of the Sherpas foremost as a pastoral people. Whereas every Sherpa family engages to some extent in agriculture, yak breeding is one of several economic choices, and there are numerous wealthy men who apply their energy to trade rather than to animal husbandry.

Among the 596 householders of Khumbu there were in 1957 only 254 owners of cattle, and the total number of yak and cows in their possession was 2,894. The greater part of the livestock was in the hands of a few wealthy families. While even families of modest means owned one or two cows, yak were kept only in herds of at least six or seven animals. Thus in Khumjung 347 yak were owned by 17 householders, whereas 16 families kept a few cows; only 17 of the 108 households of Khumjung were engaged in the type of cattle-economy which involved seasonal migrations from one high-altitude settlement to the other.

The Sherpas of Khumbu breed cattle not only for their own use as dairy animals but also for sale. The greatest profits are derived from the sale of calves bred from Tibetan bulls (lhang) and female yak (nak), for, both in Solu and in Tibet, there is a great and constant demand for such hybrids, which combine the desirable qualities of both yak and oxen. Female cross-breeds (zhum) give more milk than yak-cows (nak) and the male cross-breeds (zopkio) are more manageable pack-and draught-animals than pure yak.

While the sale of zhum and zopkio calves results nowadays in the most spectacular return for the labour expended on looking after a herd of yak, the cash earned in this way is by no means the only benefit a Sherpa derives from the ownership of cattle. Fresh milk is not consumed in large quantities, but curd is highly valued food and butter-milk remaining after the churning of butter is regularly drunk. Great quantities of butter are needed for domestic as well as for ritual use. Butter is eater with or as part of all the more highly valued food; it is used a fuel in the butter-lamps lit in the course of Buddhist ceremonies and is moulded into various shapes for the decoration of sacrificial dough figures (torma).1 Butter is used also as a medium for the payment of wages, and it forms an important article of trade eagerly sought in the Tibetan market.

Yak are regularly shorn and their long coarse hair, as well as the soft wool, is used for weaving blankets. Though, as devout Buddhists, Sherpas are not supposed to kill any animal, they are not averse to eating the meat of yak which are killed accidentally or slaughtered by others. Professional butchers of hyawo class2 used to come once a year from Tibet and there are also some hyawo living in Namche Bazar. In the late autumn, when the pastures dry up and the cattle must be fed on hay, old yak are slaughtered and the meat partly eaten fresh and partly hung up to dry.

Besides contributing milk and meat to the Sherpas' diet, and providing hair and wool for blankets, yak and cross-breeds serve as the principal means of transport in the trade with Tibet and are used in the seasonal migrations between main villages and subsidiary settlements. They are the only pack-animals available in Khumbu for, unlike the Bhotias of such areas of Western Nepal as Thak Khola, Lo and Dolpo, the Sherpas do not use ponies, mules, donkeys, sheep or goats for the carriage of goods. There are no mules or donkeys and only a very few ponies in Khumbu and the number of sheep and goats is exceedingly small. Sheep do not seem to thrive in the climate of Khumbu, and most of the sheep brought in 1959 by Tibetan refugees had died by 1962, largely no doubt because there were not sufficient stores of hay to feed them during the winter.


1. Cf. pp. 176, 190, 191. [On these pages Fürer-Haimendorf describes torma as figures placed on the altar during domestic and public rituals; they are made of dough and decorated with patterns of butter dyed in different colors.—Eds.]

2. This class is khamendeu, cf. p. 34. [On pp. 34-35 Fürer-Haimendorf explains that among immigrants from Tibet who live among the Sherpas there is a class of people, referred to as khamendeu, who are considered inferior.—Eds.]

Excerpt from chapter 2, "An Open Society" (pp. 28-30)

Immigrants from Tibet

The following analysis of the condition of the Khambas* in Khumbu relates to the time previous to the recent upheavals in Tibet, a time when the route across the Nangpa La was still open in both directions and neither Sherpas nor Tibetans thought of the pass as a political and economic barrier.

Throughout the spring, summer and early autumn of every year there was continuous traffic of men and animals along the route which leads from Namche Bazar past the village of Thami to Kyabrak in Tibet, and thence to Tingri. Along this route travelled not only Sherpa and Tibetan traders with their merchandise, but also small bands of Tibetan families, often consisting of a couple and their young children, carrying—as some Sherpas contemptuously said—nothing but 'a basket and a stick.' These migrants were almost invariably poor people who had been attracted by stories of ample employment for seasonal labourers, plenty of food and, on the whole, a higher standard of living. . . . The avowed intention of most of these immigrants was to find work, and if possible a new home, in one of the Sherpa villages. Many Tibetan families succeeded in this aim, and the numerous first, second, and third generation Khambas in villages such as Khumjung and Kunde are evidence of the continuity of this process of gradual infiltration.

With hundreds of Khamba families already established in Khumbu, the new arrivals often had kinsmen or friends who would help to smooth their first steps in a new environment. The problem of shelter was in most cases easily solved. In many Sherpa houses there are unused ground-floor rooms, and a Khamba could obtain permission to occupy such a windowless store-room in return for some help with the work on the fields or the cutting and bringing in of firewood. During the time of planting and sowing, and again during harvest, many Sherpa families are short of hands, and Khambas had usually no difficulty in finding employment as agricultural labourers. Many Khamba men, moreoever, are skilled in boot-making and tailoring, and the women know how to spin and weave. The wealthier Sherpas are often in heed of helpers possessing these skills, and it was not unusual to see newly arrived Khambas busily sewing boots and clothes in a Sherpa house where they were fed in addition to receiving a daily wage.

In 1957 there were in the village of Khumjung thirteen Khamba families and single individuals, who had no property, lived in the houses of others, and made their living by casual labour and petty trade. Among the men, six did only unskilled work, such as farm-labour, wood-cutting and load-carrying, three did tailoring and boot-making, two worked as spirit media and soothsayers, and one was a house-servant. Four of the women were expert weavers and only occasionally did work other than weaving, while six of the women of these Khamba families did general unskilled work, such as spinning, farm work, dyeing, and odd household task and load-carrying.

[ . . . ]

It goes without saying that not all Tibetans who came to Khumba succeeded in establishing themselves in a Sherpa community and many were those who returned to their homes after having worked for a few weeks or months as seasonal farmhands. Yet, the number of those who made good and remained in Khumbu was appreciable. In Khumjung and Kunde alone there were thirty-four Khambas who had arrived in their own lifetime, and were more or less permanently settled. No less than twenty-one of them owned houses and plots of land, and some of the second generation Khambas had acquired considerable wealth or had married into some of the old-established Sherpa families. There were among the 137 families in Khumjung and Kunde numerous marriages between first- and second-generation Khambas and members of Sherpa families.


* [Earlier in the chapter Haimendorf has introduced "Khamba" as a term used to refer to all inhabitants of the region who are not Sherpas. "Strictly speaking Khambas are only those who hail from the Tibetan province of Kham, while those from the nearby frontier regions of Tibet should be described as Pheipa. But in practice the term Pheipa is rarely used, and everyone who is not a member of one of the recognized Sherpa clans is labelled 'Khamba'" (p. 24).—Eds.]

From chapter 6, "The Practice of Religion" (p. 208)

Yer-chang: The Rite of Summer

After the Dumje* all cattle-owners leave the village, and move with their herds to the one or other of the high-altitude settlements. It is there, among the pastures and glacial moraines, that the Sherpas celebrate the rite known as Yer-chang, which means literally 'summer-beer.' This rite aims mainly at securing the welfare of the herds, and those families that own no cattle and remain throughout the summer in the village content themselves with a pale imitation of the festivities devoid of their ritual core.

Most yak-owners own houses and land in more than one summer settlement (yersa), but though their movements from one to the other do not necessarily conform to a fixed routine, it is usual for a family to celebrate the Yer-chang year after year in the same locality and in co-operation with the same neighbours.

The Yer-chang celebration which I attended in 1957 was held in Machherma, a settlement well above the 15,000-feet line, high above the right bank of the Dudh Kosi. Six yak-owners of Khumjung are in the habit of performing the Yer-chang in this place, and as there is no lama among them, they invited Lama Sharap to minister at the rites. . . .

The main rite was held on August 1, the sixth day after new moon, but this date is not prescribed and people in some other settlements had performed the Yer-chang two days earlier.


*[As described earlier in the chapter, the Dumje is a major community festival held every year in late June or early July.—Eds.]

Source: Christophe von Fürer-Haimendorf, The Sherpas of Nepal: Buddhist Highlanders (London: John Murray, 1964)