Himalayan Journal vol.35
The Himalayan Journal
Vol.35

Publication year:
1979

Editor:
Soli S. Mehta
Index
  1. EDITORIAL
  2. THE STORY OF THE HIMALAYAN CLUB, 1928-1978
    (JOHN MARTYN)
  3. FIFTY YEARS RETROSPECT AND PROSPECT
    (TREVOR BRAHAM)
  4. THE PASSANRAM AND TALUNG VALLEYS, SIKKIM
    (DR EUGEN ALLWEIN)
  5. NANDA DEVI AND THE SOURCES OF THE GANGES
    (H. W. TILMAN)
  6. THE MOUNT EVEREST RECONNAISSANCE, 1935
    (ERIC SHIPTON)
  7. THE SHAKSGAM EXPEDITION, 1937
    (MICHAEL SPENDER)
  8. GANGOTRI TRIANGULATION
    (Major GORDON OSMASTON)
  9. EVEREST, 1976
    (MAJOR M. W. H. DAY, R.E.)
  10. LHOTSE, 1976
    (KANJI KAMEI)
  11. THE SECOND ASCENT OF LHOTSE, 1977
    (DR HERMANN WARTH)
  12. MAKALU, 1976
    (ANDERS BOUNDER & OTHERS)
  13. THE CLEAN-UP TREK, 1976
    (MICHAEL CORDELL)
  14. THE THIRD KOREAN MANASLU EXPEDITION, 1976
    (JUNG SUP KIM)
  15. THE HONGKONG KANJIROBA EXPEDITION, 1976
    (DICK ISHERWOOD)
  16. AVALANCHE ON SISNE, 1977
    (R. A. L. ANDERSON)
  17. DHAULAGIRI IV, 1975
    (KUNIAKI YAGIHARA)
  18. NORTH SIKKIM, 1976
    (HARISH KAPADIA)
  19. NANDA DEVI FROM THE NORTH, 1976
    (H. ADAMS CARTER)
  20. NANDA DEVI SANCTUARY - A NATURALIST'S REPORT
    (LAVKUMAR KHACHER)
  21. A BOTANICAL SURVEY IN THE NANDA DEVI SANCTUARY, 1974
    (N. C. SHAH)
  22. AN ATTEMPT ON NITALTHAUR, 1974
    (MANIK BANERJEE)
  23. CHAMRAO GLACIER EXPEDITION-1977
    (M. DEY)
  24. CHIRING WE, 1977
    (HARISH KAPADIA)
  25. KINNAUR-1976
    (LIEUTENANT-COLONEL BALWANT SANDHU)
  26. BLACK PEAK, 1976
    (MANDIP SINGH SOIN)
  27. NILAMBAR EXPEDITION, 1977
    (RANVIR SINGH)
  28. POLISH K2 EXPEDITION, 1976
    (JANUSZ KURCZAB)
  29. A CRAWL DOWN THE OGRE
    (DOUG SCOTT)
  30. ISTOR-O-NAL NORTH I, 1976
    (RONALD NAAR)
  31. THE ASCENT OF SHERPI KANGRP 1976
    (PROF. KAZUMASA HIRAI)
  32. AFGHAN DARWAZ, 1975
    (RYSSZARD W. SCHRAMM)
  33. SWISS THUI EXPEDITION, 1975
    (DR ADOLF DIEMBERGER and HANS SCHIBLI)
  34. CLIMBING SHERPAS OF DARJEELING
    (DORJEE LHATOO)
  35. OF MOUNTAINS & MEMORIES
    (SITU MULLICK)
  36. EXPEDITIONS AND NOTES
  37. OBITUARIES
  38. BOOK REVIEWS
  39. LETTERS TO THE EDITOR
  40. CLUB PROCEEDINGS, 1976
  41. EXPEDITIONS 1975-1977

CLIMBING SHERPAS OF DARJEELING

DORJEE LHATOO

IT was one of my very proud and pleasurable moments, when a group of climbers and tourists came over and patted me on the back, shook my hands and some of them even kissed me on the cheek saying a few pleasant sounding words on my being introduced as a Sherpa, in the Refuge Couvarcle on the Mont Blanc Range in 1976. One of them, a young prospective climber, asked me whether I was from Namche Bazar or Kathmandu. I said that I was from neither and that I was. from, Darjeeling, a hill station in the north-east of India, the home town of Tenzing Norgay. But he thought that Darjeeling was the place for tea and Sherpas and Tenzing came from Solo Khumbu in Nepal. He was right in a way.

There is no recorded history of the first arrival of our people in Darjeeling. But there is evidence of their being here as early as towards the end of the last century. Like many of the plainsmen who came up as the followers of the British and the eastern Nepalese who came across attracted by labour and other employment prospects in the tea plantations, many Tibetans and Sherpas came here to work as "coolies" and "dandy bearers" for the tourists after Darjeeling was established as a hill resort by the British East India Company.

The early Sherpas were called Bhutias or Sherpa Bhutias, because the term Bhutia was then applied to people of Tibetan stock all along the Himalaya. As the manners and customs of the Sherpas and Tibetans were very similar there were many cases of intermarriage among them. However, the former did not lose their identity as an ethnic group and their society underwent very little or no change in spite of integration with the Tibetans. Among our 18 clans we are still exogamous and we observe this rule as strictly as our brethren do in Solo Khumbu. Sherpas being basically cultivators, raisers of cattle and traders in a small way, they were never out of occupation when not in employment with the Sahibs. In fact some of our ancestors settled themselves down as such in. and around Darjeeling.

More Sherpas arrived from. Solo Khumbu with the arrival of the romantic age of Himalayan exploration and mountaineering. The mountainous terrain, the cold climate and the higher altitude of the Himalaya evidently suited the Sherpa temperament. Their ability to bear heavy burdens cheerfully, their willingness to go forward and. upward, and their friendliness were qualifications which helped them to become an essential part of major Himalayan expeditions as carriers. In course of time they were considered not mere porters but comrades in high enterprise and brothers in the fraternity of climbers. The Sherpas! were treated with respect. 'Their names would be inscribed in letters of gold in the book that would be written . .’ said the famous Norton of Everest. The early mountaineers cared for them and led them well, and then Sherpas responded to them whole-heartedly. Their spirit of adventure, their love of fame and honour, and their ambition to make a name for themselves were stirred. Soon a stern mountaineering tradition was built up among them. Mallory called them 'Tigers', the name given to the early British climbers.

It will be an endless narration to mention at length about the deeds of our renowned forefathers. So will it be, to mention about the accidents in which many of them died tragically. One can read about them in numerous books. Their exploits and heroism are mentioned throughout the history of Himalayan mountaineering. They were there on Mt Everest, K2, Kangchen- junga, Annapurna, Nanga Parbat, Nanda Devi and scores of other less known but equally difficult mountains.

When the Himalayan Club was founded in 1928, the Sherpas were listed in the books of the Club. They were issued with personal books, which appeared somewhat like the 'pay book' of the Indian soldiers, for entering their records by which they were graded. As the name 'Tiger’ has been constantly used since the Everest expedition of 1924, it was decided that the superior grade of these people should be known as Tigers and that they would be awarded a bronze medal in form of a tiger's head. So, the first Tiger medals were awarded on 30 May 1939 to those picked ones, who had gone high and had qualified for the grade. Of these first Tigers, there are four still living-Tenzing, Ang Tharkey, Pasang Dawa Lama and Ang Tshering. In fact, Ang Tshering was, apart from three other Sherpas, the recipient of the German Ked Cross Medal (an important civil award of Germany), even before the Tiger medal was introduced.

Then came the terrible Second World War. After it ended, many far-reaching changes took place. The British left the subcontinent and India and Pakistan became independent. The access through Tibet to Mt Everest was closed, after the Communists look over. Nepal opened its doors to foreign climbers to climb its mountains. Due to this important development fewer Sahibs came to Darjeeling for recruiting porters, which consequently lost its importance as the landing and taking off stage for major expeditions. Most climbers were attracted by the virgin Nepal Himalaya which was hitherto closed to foreign climbers.

These developments influenced the traditional way of life of the Sherpas of Darjeeling. The influx from Solo Khumbu stopped and of the permanent residents here, many enterprising and prospective ones left for Nepal to find work. The ones-who had taken root here and had settled down adapted themselves to the prevailing conditions,

Then came the glorious day-29 May 1953, when Tenzing and Hillary reached the summit of Mt Everest. The British were rewarded by their being the first Expedition to successfully climb the mountain whose importance as the highest in the world was discovered by them. The Sherpas received more than the high honour. We received recognition as a group of people of the Himalaya who have contributed and endeavoured in no small measure towards the achievement, when one of our own stood on the summit of this supreme peak.

Tenzing became a hero to the world. And we looked up to him as he once looked up to 'Chhomolungma'.

After the ascent of Mt Everest and Tenzing's achievement, the people of India were inspired, and the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute was established in 1954 in Darjeeling with the aim of introducing, teaching and promoting mountaineering as a sport among the youth of India. The great men of India-Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Dr Bidhan Chandra Roy and many other friends and well-wishers of the Sherpas, in their recognition of the good deeds of our people selected seven Sherpas asi Instructors of the Institute of whom Tenzing was the Chief. They were sent to Switzerland for a formal course on methods of instruction. Of these, two have already retired from the roll of Instructors. And presently, these two Tigers work for some local travel agency as cooks for trekking groups.

The Himalayan Mountaineering Institute has eminently achieved its aim. Its accomplishments are well known throughout the world. Now there are twelve of us employed here, and we are directly dependent on it for our livelihood. The Sherpa community looks up to this Institute as a symbol of its past glory. It is even called the Sherpa School or Tenzing School. We are very proud to be a part of it.

The Climbing Sherpas are most grateful to these great men for their decision that only Sherpas would be employed in the roll of Instructors of this Institute. This tradition is not broken, and we hope that it remains so forever.

In 1955 Tenzing founded the Sherpa Climbers Association here, whose primary object was to promote the welfare and well-being of the Climbing Sherpas. Presently Tenzing is the President and one of his daughters, the Secretary-cum-Treasurer of this Association.

Soon after this the Indian Mountaineering Foundation was founded in Delhi. The objectives of the Foundation are manifold. One of them, we are told, is to raise and control the rates of pay and the rates of compensation to the families of the disabled Sherpas and porters dying in mountaineering expeditions. The Indian Mountaineering Foundation has, however, in many cases helped poor and needy Sherpas by offering financial aid to them. For that matter, the 'Sherpa Trust Fund' which was set up by the Himalayan Club has also been helpful in giving financial aid to needy Sherpas.

Besides these, we have a Sherpa Buddhist Association which was founded in Darjeeling in 1924. It was set up as a community centre- essentially of the Climbing Sherpas. But now it has grown and advanced and has accommodated Sherpas from all walks of life. The basic aim of this Association is to preserve the Sherpa culture and promote their welfare through mutual help. It is indeed the community centre for all practical purposes of the needy Sherpa. The most needy Sherpa being the Climbing Sherpas, we recently had managed to elect one of our leading climbers as its President, but he failed to get re-elected. The present office-bearers are mostly younger, educated and trustworthy men and women. He- elections take place once every year at a General Meeting when all members (nearly the whole community) come to the temple building built by its own funds in Tungsung Busti, to discuss various affairs of the community. Another occasion when we all- meet under the auspices of the Association is on the 5th day of the Sherpa New Year at the Mahakal Shrine on the Observatory Hill, to offer prayers to the various deities of Tibetan Buddhism. The occasion is known as 'Lhapsoo'. This being in the festival season even the poorest Sherpa man and woman is decked up in fine clothes and ornaments. We are most colourful and picturesque on this day. It is on this day that we drink a lot of Chhang and dance in public and make merriment. We do this kind of thing on a wedding also, but not as often as people think we do. We cannot afford it and this is not Solo Khumbu. By the looks of this gathering, an outsider would not know that there were any poor Sherpas (though there are many).

Unfortunately, the poorest are the Climbers and their widows and the orphans of those Sherpas who fell on the mountains or died otherwise.

At present, we are 27 Climbing Sherpas of sorts on record. Of these 3 are retired and 12 of us including Tenzing and Gombu, are permanently employed in the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute. The younger lot are all educated. Leaving aside the two heroes, whose posts are Adviser of Mountaineering and Director of Field Training respectively and who get special pay and allowances, the Sherpa Instructors are much better off than the others. The rates of pay and allowances are as per number of years of service. The juniormost Instructor receives a little over Rs. 400 and the senicrmost Instructor who has completed the scale receives just over Rs. 700 per month. There is neither gratuity nor pension provided after retirement. Compensation to our families in case of death on the mountain is Rs 5000. As there are no written rules, we are unaware about the amount to be paid as disability benefit.

The other Sherpas are not permanently employed by any concern. They are employed once or twice, if very lucky thrice, a year, for periods of one month to two months during the climbing seasons. They are paid on the basis of daily wages at the rate of Rs. 20 per day. As the Sherpas are not issued with climb- mg gear in Indian expeditions, they wear their own for which they are paid at the rate of Rs 300 per month as equipment allowance. Compensation to the families in case of death is Rs 3,000 and in case of disability, it' is up to the discretion of the organisers. During off seasons, in monsoon and winter when they are not employed on mountaineering expeditions they work as labourers on road or building constructions, or anything that gives them a few rupees.

We understand that one of the reasons for the low rates of pay and rates of compensation for Climbing Sherpas is to keep mountaineering budgets low to foster mountaineering as mountaineering is subsidised by Government in a big way. On the one hand, the Sherpas did always go to the mountains for just a few rupees even when they could earn more doing something else. But now, the times are also changing. On the other hand, the Climbing Sherpa has also to think about his wife, his children, his parents and his home. He always had them like that. They are his inspiration, his driving force, his hope and the centre of his Universe. The old-timers, Galey, Pasang Kiguli, Pasang Kitar, Phenjoo, Nima Dorjee and scores of others who were less known but who were equally gallant and brave who perished in mountaineering accidents had left their families behind them. As it happened a long time ago, we do not know how these families managed their livelihood. But we do know about the difficulties of the families of the Climbing Sherpas who died on the mountains during our time.

Five years ago our number was over 40 strong, but we are reduced to so few now that we can count our numbers on our finger tips. They are gone in all directions. Some to Kathmandu, some doing business and trade in small way here, and some have joined the services.

We have the confidence, as far as our livelihood is concerned, that the Sherpas being a hard-working and resourceful people, we are not easily lost. We say this with pride that so far a Sherpa has not sat on the roadside with a begging bowl in his hand. India is a big country. It is a land of opportunities. And we have many friends here. But we are sad and sorry to find the "stern mountaineering tradition" built up by three generations of our forefathers receding. Must we live only on our past glories ? Will our proud heritage come to an end during our lifetime ? These are some haunting questions uppermost in our minds. We hope these conjectures prove false, and the Sherpas will continue to blaze new frails of heroism and glory for ever and evermore.