Mountain and the Sherpa Worldview
Written by Mahesh Paudyal
The thrill of transgressing into a region considered ‘dangerous’ or naturally ‘out-of-bound’ for man has always fascinated the daring and adventurous humankind. An unknown drive for playing with danger is the principle that drives the adventure industry that is a million dollar worth industry across the world today. Ever since the onset of the human civilization, man has been inventing ways to conquer the ‘unconquerable’. Man taming wild and dangerous animals and reptiles, climbing mountains, faring into the sea, falling off the sky on a parachute, flying into the outer space and conquering the frigid north and south poles etc. are among the most fascinating adventure activities the human race has taken up as a thrilling pastime, and mountaineering is one of the oldest of such pastimes.
In fact, why man loves to conquer dangerous zones, like the ones cited above, has an underpinning philosophy. If the action is not rooted on need and sustenance, and is purely driven by adventurous motif, the philosophy is consumeristic. It means the dangerous zone out there challenges man’s masculinity, and out of vanity, he resorts to the sport to conquer the virtually unconquerable and to prove the primacy of his masculinity. This view is totally anthropocentric, and does little good to nature and its pristineness.
Another philosophy that explains man’s advent into the zones of danger pertains to the idea of subsistence. Communities traditionally living in and around those zones enter the dangerous realms to collect resources or to earn money to run their lives. As for example, a Majhi man entering the river has nothing to do with showing off. In the same way, a chidimar going into the woods to catch birds, or a grass-cutter haunting grasslands and groves with leafy branches in the forest for fodder is driven by the imperatives of subsistence. Mountain climbing is another case in point. The adventurers, coming from outside, tend to step onto the mountain for the thrill of the task, for making name and fame, and for testing and proving their masculinity. One instance of this view comes from the British climber George Mellory, who said, he attempted to climb Mount Everest “because it is there”. He made three attempts to climb Mount Everest, of which, the third attempt claimed his life. Yet, his view allows us an entry into the mind of a consumer, inspired by the idea of radical masculinity. In an interview given to the New York Times in 1923, Mr. Mallory explained his view in the same article: “Everest is the highest mountain in the world and no person has reached its summit. Its existence is a challenge.”
Reading almost all the literature on mountain climbing and conquest by the outsiders is based on this very idea of conquest. Be it Edmund Hillary’s High Adventure: The True Story of the First Ascent of Everest, Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air (1997), Mark Synnott’s The Third Pole: Mystery, Obsession, and Death on Mount Everest (2021), Ed Caesar’s The Moth and the Mountain (2020), Sharon Wood’s Rising: Becoming the First North American Woman on Everest (2019), Nick Heil’s Dark Summit (2009) or Anatoli Boukreev’s The Climb: Tragic Ambitions on Everest (1997), all these books, as many of titles suggest, are inspired by the idea of conquest. Let’s veer into a few titles written either by the natives, or by those who share the native’s faith about the mountain. Jamling Tenzing Norgay, in 2001, titled his memoir Touching My Father’s Soul, whose spiritual tilt becomes immediately understandable. Another book, The Summit of the Gods by Baku Yumemakura also upholds the spiritual side of the mountain, simply because, the author, Yumemakura is a Japanese citizen and heir to a culture that regards the mountains as gods or abode of gods. As for example, Mount Fuji, the tallest mountain in Japan, is believed to be the dwelling of the Shinto goddess Konohana Sakuya Hime, who is still the principal deity of the sacred mountain.
Of late, the Mountain people of Nepal, who were once considered good only for mountaineering, have entered writing, and a few of them have written their memoirs, commemorating their life and struggle on the mountain. Forty Years in the Mountains by Lhakpa Phuti Sherpa, and The Shepherd of the Mountain by Sunar Bahadur Gurung are examples.
Communities, who move into the mountains as mountain guides, or as seekers of other resources like herbs, fodder and snow-borne materials, do not do that for mere pleasure; theirs is an endeavor of sustenance, and their action is defined by an age-old, culturally defined and geographically ordained occupation.
This paper argues that the Sherpas, living in the high Himalayan region of Nepal, climb the mountains as guides, not because they enjoy the sport or are after name and fame, but because their worldview is, to a great extent, shaped by their interaction with the mountain. This view of the Sherpas finds its expression in their literature, both religious and secular, oral and written. This stands in contrast with the view of the outsiders, who come to the Himalayas for mountaineering. The outsiders pose as consumers, caring little about the sanctity of the mountains, as they are guided more by the idea of conquest. The insiders, however, look at the mountains as a source of life, and the view is, in no case, anthropocentric or consumerist.
The Sherpa worldview, as evident from their oral and written literatures, depict the mountain as a deity. To take an example, the Sherpa name for Mount Everest is ‘Chomolongma’, which means the abode of a Goddess. They particularly believe in five goddesses, Tashi Tseringma, Thingki Syalsangma, Chopen Disangma, Takar Dosangma and Zhyomo Miyo Langsangma, represented by five high mountains, of which, the goddess Zhyomo Miyo Langsangma is believed to be the resident deity of Mount Everest. Because the mountains are abodes of their guardian deities, the Sherpas worship the mountains, as Researcher Serku Sherpa claims in his book The Sherpas and Their Original Identity. He writes:
The Sherpa community performs Kangso Puja to worship them, believing that each of the goddesses will give their blessings to the devotees. The youngest of the five Devis is Zhyomo Miyo Langsangma. People believe she blesses them with cereals. The abode of this goddess is called Zshyomolangma, later simplified as Zhomolangma, which is further corrupted as Jyomolongma in some places. Since the ancient times, the Sherpas have been worshipping Chhering Chenga.
It might be noted that Shomolangma, later corrupted as Chomolongma, is the popular Sherpa name for Mount Everest.
The mountain, for a Sherpa, is therefore a mother, a deity. Their climbing into the mountain is analogous to a child sucking a mother’s milk, or a farming community deriving life from the careful harnessing of the soil.
What complicates the idea, therefore is the question as to how the Sherpa steps onto the mountains, including their tops, if they consider them abodes of God? Don’t they consider it a crime worthy of earning them a sin? The Sherpas have their answers. Every time they climb a mountain, they launch their ascent after duly worshipping the mountain, praying to it, and asking it to forgive the crime of stepping upon them, though they convince themselves by saying, their climbing is for sustenance and not for any kind of office. On the completion of their climbing too, they perform rituals of apology. This means, the idea of conquest, coercion and harm of any kind, upon the mountain, is outside the Sherpa worldview. The relation, therefore, is one of dependence and not of confrontation. It is understandable that it is quite fair to harness nature without deliberately harming or defaming it, and the Sherpa climbers do the same.
This finding can be extended to generalize the idea that the indigenous communities that derive life from nature, do not harm nature consciously; they don’t bear any kind of anthropocentric, consumerist or colonial attitude towards natural and geographical resources. By corollary, the natives are friendlier to the environment than the outsiders are.
There is a formidable volume of literature from the Sherpa insiders available now in the public domain, and each of them endorses this worldview. To name a few, one may consult popular books like Tenzing Norgay and the Sherpas of Everest by Tashi Tenzing and Judy Tenzing, and Sherpa: The Memoir of Ang Tharkay by Ang Tharkay, Sherpa: Stories of Life and Death from the Forgotten Guardians of Everest Pradeep Bashyal and Ankit Babu Adhikari, though not by a Sherpa writer, still gives a more realistic picture of the minds of the Sherpas, vis-à-vis the mountain.
Bio of the writer: MAHESH PAUDYAL (b. 1982) is a critic, poet, fiction writer, lyricist and translator. Assistant Professor of English at Central Department of English, Tribhuvan University, Mr. Paudyal is the author of story collections Little Masters, They Didn’t Return, Anamik Yatree, Tyaspachhi Phulena Godawari, Aparichit Anuhar and Of Walls and Pigeons, poetry collections Sunya Praharko Sakshi and Notes of Silent Times, and the novel Tadi Kinarko Geet. He has also authored half a dozen of books for children, and about two dozens of school textbooks. Also a well-recognized translator, Paudyal is a recipient of several literary awards including Bimal Gurung Literary Award, Prasiddha Kandel Youth Literary Award, Sudish Niraula Youth Literary Award, Banita Literary Award, Govinda Gothale Manuscript Award, Moti Award, etc.