the Sherpas of Nepal
Reviewed by GEOFFREY E. GORER, Sunte House, Haywards Heath, Sussex
p. 128 American Anthropologist [67, 1965)
The Sherpas are a small scattered tribe of yak-herdsmen and cultivators living in the high Nepalese Himalayas. Professor von Fiirer-Haimendorf does not estimate the total population; but Khumbu, the biggest of the three Nepalese areas chiefly inhabited by Sherpas, consisted of 596 households, mostly made up of nuclear families, in 1957. By no means all of these households belonged to one of the Sherpa patri-clans; over a third of the households were Khamba, relatively recent migrants from Tibet; and in the last few years there has been a considerable influx of Tibetan refugees. A large number of Sherpas-over 6,000 in the 1947 census-live in the Darjeeling district of India; but Professor von Fiirer-Haimendorf does not deal with these in any way. His monograph is predominantly concerned with the Sherpas and Khamba of Khumbu; he has paid four visits to them between 1953 and 1962; the longest of these was a six months’ visit in 1957, when he took a household census, on which nearly all his figures and percentages are based.
Although yak herds are the most esteemed form of wealth, less than half the households in Khumbu owned yak; but the pattern of annual migrations for the yak pasturage, with special houses for the herdsmen in the high pastures, seems to have been influential in the lives of those who do not own yak; they go on long trading expeditions (or did until the Tibetan frontier was closed) and hire out as porters; their role on mountaineering expeditions is world-famous. Their most important agricultural crop is the potato; Professor von Furer-Haimendorf sees a connection between the introduction of this crop about a century ago, and the four-fold increase in the population of Khumbu from 1836 to 1957, and the increasing wealth of the Sherpas. This increasing wealth is used partly in conspicuous generosity, in the providing of calendrical village feasts, and above all in religious benefactions and constructions. Five Buddhist monasteries have been built in the last 50 years, as well as numerous chdrtelt and smaller pious
s. The land is all individually owned, portions being assigned to both sons and daughters when they finally leave the parental home-this may be after two or three children are born-to set up individual households. Professor von Furer-Haimendorf gives the rules for land-ownership and distribution but does not go into sufficient detail, nor provide maps, to enable the reader to understand how excessive and continuous fragmentation of the cultivatable land is avoided. On occasion, this fragmentation of property is avoided by fraternal polyandry; out of 236 marriages recorded, 19 were polyandrous and five polygynous. The younger brothers (they may be classificatory) can, if they wish, subsequently withdrawn from polyandrous marriages; but only a few examples are given of this. The Sherpas enjoy a full, continuous, and promiscuous sex-life, bounded only by the prohibition of intra-clan intercourse; illegitimate children are numerous, the fines for discovered adultery insignificant; even in a monogamous marriage the partners have no realistic expectation of exclusive sexual possession. Divorce is by consent and entails a division of property; women seem to be under few civil disadvantages, except that they apparently never hold any of the elective or rotating village offices. In religion, the more prestigeful and respected Buddhist roles are exclusively male-all the reincarnated lamas are men-although the nunneries have analogous organizations to the monasteries.
The Sherpas are adherents to the Nyingmapa sect of Mahayana Buddhism, until recently in constant contact with the Rongphu monastery in Tibet; and well over half of Professor von Fiirer-Haimendorf’s monograph is devoted to a description of the monastic institutions and religious practices; much the most detailed section of the book is the description of an annual village feast (23 pages), of a monastic ceremony (1 4 pages), and of the religious ritual surrounding death (26 pages). Although described with clarity, this emphasis on relatively infrequent rituals contrasts markedly with the comparative terseness of the descriptions of the lay institutions of Sherpa society, SO that the book is somewhat unbalanced. Professor von Furer-Haimendorf gives references to seven previous studies of aspects of Tibetan religion, usually to point out correspondences between Sherpa and Tibetan practice.
As has been the case in the previous monographs of this author, the reader is left with a desire for more information than is provided. Thus, for example, we are told something about the performances of the non-lamaist oracle-priests or shamans, Ilawa, and the sooth-sayers, mindung; but we are not told whether they have any validating mythology, nor is any connection drawn between these shamans and similar groups functioning throughout the Himalayan region. Similarly, we are told that “ceremonial friends” exist and that intercourse between the children of ‘‘ceremonial friends” is counted as incestuous; but this is all the information we are given on an institution of (presumably) considerable importance to a trading society, and one which links many of the Himalayan societies across political frontiers. No comparisons are made with the other Buddhist societies of the Himalayas. There is very little information on the children.