Sagarmatha National Park: Sacred Land and the (In)Dependence of the Sherpas
What is a land if not for its people? What is a land that has become rapidly Westernized, caters to Westerners, and makes its living off of Westerners? What is a land that is sacred to some and adventure to others?
This land is Sagarmatha National Park. This vaguely unrecognizable name contains one of the most storied and celebrated mountains in the entire world: Mount Everest. Called Sagarmatha (Goddess of the Universe) by local Sherpas, the mountain is the tallest on our planet. Stretching 29,029 feet above sea level, the mountain can be viewed quite literally as axis mundi for Planet Earth.
Sagarmatha National Park is located in eastern Nepal. It contains three of the tallest ten peaks in the world: Everest, Lhotse, and Cho Oyu. Notice that only Mount Everest is named after a Westerner. Sagarmatha National Park is home to the Sherpa people, who came to the region about 450 years ago from Tibet to escape war, persecution, or famine (Sacred Mountain Site 222). The region was uninhabited before their arrival. Up until about 60 years ago, Sherpa people were involved in subsistence agriculture and trans-Himalayan salt trade. This trade made the Sherpas inevitably connected to their land. Not only were they experts at traversing the enormous mountains, but they were also united with them in a transcendent and spiritual way.
Sherpas consider the mountains within Sagarmatha National Park to be the “dwelling of supernatural beings” (Sherpa 102). The mountains are sacred; they “act as monitors and judges of human behavior. They are always there and remain unchanged” (Sacred Mountain Site 223). The valleys surrounding the mountains are considered Beyuls, or, “Sacred hidden valleys said to be set aside by Padmasambhava” (Sherpa 101). Much of the Sherpa culture is associated with the Beyuls and mountains. Legends, myths, and songs deal with the massiveness, beauty, and spiritual importance of the mountains within Sagarmatha National Park (Sacred Mountain Site 222).
Sherpas practice a blend of pre-Buddhist Bon shamanism and Nyigma Buddhism. For them, different deities and spirits protect the mountains. Jomo Miyo Lang Samba is the goddess that protects Mt. Everest . In addition, the Beyul encapsulated within Sagarmatha is said to be ‘set outside’ by Guru Rinpoche. This designation means that within Sagarmatha, no sentient being is supposed to be killed. For some deities like Yul-Lha, climbing mountains inside Sagarmatha is prohibited (Sacred Natural Sites).
Within a rapidly industrializing world, it was unavoidable that the tallest mountain on earth would quickly become an attractive location for tourists to visit. After Sir Edmund Hillary became the first confirmed person to summit Mount Everest in 1953, interest among trekkers and climbers quickly grew. Under the direction of New Zealand, Sagarmatha National Park was established in 1976. By 1982, 5,000 trekkers frequented the Park annually. This number was twice the Sherpa population (Hillary, 699). Today, around 25,000 people come to the park in hopes of seeing the tallest mountain on earth. Two airstrips in the region have reduced travel time from Kathmandu – the Nepalese gateway to the rest of the world – from 14 days to 40 minutes (Fisher 2).
The main conflict of this sacred land is that it is quickly becoming over-utilized and under-appreciated. Sherpas are mostly Buddhists who generally refrain from killing (Sherpa 102). Thus, collecting essential firewood presents a moral problem. Sherpas have responded by picking up dead firewood 30 days per year. Yet tourists who come into the area are largely unaware of these practices and sometimes go against the Buddhist traditions for the land. Tourists coming into Sagarmatha sometimes cut down trees or take branches to make firewood themselves. This is a direct contradiction to not only park regulations, but also, spiritual laws within the land. The act can be seen as an external disregard to a spiritualism that is seen as inherent to the land.
This leads to one of the main issues in Sagarmatha National Park. As Lhankpa N. Sherpa writes, “National and regional laws have replaced locally grown and customary regulation governing forest and wildlife conservation” (Sherpa 103). The area has become maintained, serviced, and planned mostly by outsiders. Instead of Sherpas having control over their land, the National Park designation has forced control out of the Sherpas hands and into the hands of non-Sherpa park managers. As Jeremy Spoon notes, these managers generally have less knowledge about the spiritual values and landscapes than the native Sherpas (Spoon 657). As such, “Government agencies, resource managers, and scientists alike have thus far overlooked the value of traditional knowledge systems” (Sherpa 103).
The issue over land relates to an insider vs. outsider debate. Sherpas have largely lost control over managing their land. Their beliefs are not taken into account when discussing park issues. In fact, the current drastic forest thinning goes directly against the Buddhist notion of non-killing. The very notion of what it means to have lived in the region is being ignored. Instead, Sagarmatha has become a tourist attraction for outsiders. It has become a place to visit, see, look, but not to experience. Because of the relative short stay for most visitors, they do not get to know their surroundings but only use them as a resource for some ultimate goal. The height of surrounding mountains forces the gaze upwards instead of outwards. Tourists do not experience the world in front of them, they see the world above them. When a visitor does have an interaction with a Sherpa, it is usually in a café, bar, or lodge in which the Sherpa caters to the visitor’s comfort. It seems that tourists are involved with the topos of seeing a place. Tourists use Sagarmatha National Park as a means to some end. The chora – the appreciation for a space in and of itself – is falling out of view.
An interesting case study of this insider vs. outsider debate is the Alex Lowe Charitable Foundation. The Foundation was established after Lowe perished in an avalanche, and functions as a means “to increase the safety margin of Nepali climbers and high altitude workers by encouraging responsible climbing practices in a supportive and community-based program” (Mission Statement). As a whole, the group, made up mostly of Westerners, teaches Sherpas how to lead climbing expeditions in Sagarmatha National Park.
I emailed Jennifer Lowe-Anker, the President of the Foundation, to inquire about how she felt about the insider-outsider dilemma. In addition, I asked if she felt that increasing mountaineering had any negative consequences for the Sherpa. In her response, Ms. Lowe-Anker stressed that the Foundation is not religiously based. Instead, she wrote, “The Nepalese have a long tradition of encouraging Mountain tourism which is a huge part of their economy. Our work has to do with technical education of the people who are already working in the mountains so they welcome it and clamor to attend” (Email from Jennifer Lowe-Anker). The Foundation is indeed very necessary for the safety of the Sherpa and the tourists they guide. Yet it can also be seen as a Western import to a people that only began recreational climbing 60 years ago. The Foundation does good work, yet the larger picture is that what they are teaching is not natural to the people of the region and makes them rely on a foreign industry as a means for economic subsistence.
Following from this idea, it seems that more than any misuse of the land itself, a more pertinent and threatening issue is the misuse of the people of this land. The Sherpa people have survived in the region for almost five centuries. With the dramatic increase in tourism, however, Sherpa people are quickly losing control over their traditions and values. It is estimated that tourism contributes to about 80 percent of household incomes (Ridgeway 712). Thus, Sherpas have become largely dependent on tourism as a means for economic prosperity.
Effects of tourism on Sherpas are not entirely negative. Sir Edmund Hillary built schools in the region that stress science, mathematics, and English. The schools facilitate some Sherpa control over what is occurring on their land. It lessens the extent to which Sherpas can be exploited by visiting Westerners. As James F. Fisher writes, “It is what Sherpas have learned and are learning in the schools that enables them to exploit the change, to control and confront it on their own terms, rather than be exploited and victimized by it” (Fisher 6).
On the other hand, these schools further the presence that Western ideals are having on the Sherpas. While there remains some control in the educating of Sherpas, the education is based in ideals that stress Nepalese or Western values. The education leads to reduced ownership of values that have survived 450 years of Sherpa culture. In his research, Jeremy Spoon found that Sherpas who mainly catered to tourists as a source of income knew less about spiritual values than Sherpas who still operated in subsistence farming (Spoon 668). In addition, younger members of the Sherpa people knew less about these spiritual values. This research exemplifies that spiritual values are being corrupted by the tourist industry pervading Sherpa culture. The Sherpas themselves are contributing to their own spiritual demise with their close connection to the tourist industry. But they are also forced into the work, in a sense. The tourist industry yields the most opportunity for economic success, and the Sherpa culture has shifted to idealize this idea of wealth.
Besides a loss of the spiritual connection with the land, the Sherpa people face devastating social loss from tourism, as well. Rick Ridgeway notes that the divorce rate among Sherpas is staggeringly high. This is due to the fact that male Sherpas often serve as trekking or mountaineering guides and spend nine-twelve months away from the household per year (Ridgeway 712). In addition, Fisher notes that Sherpas who have spent time climbing the sacred mountains feel an internal pollution, or Tip. He writes, “Many Sherpas returning from expeditions had to be purified before they were allowed back inside their own houses” (Fisher 4). By serving as guides and climbing the sacred mountains, the Sherpas seem to be going against some tenet of their belief. Yet they persist because it is their only way to provide for their families. Nepal’s family income rate is one of the lowest in the world, yet the tourists who visit Sagarmatha have some of the highest mean incomes in the world (Sacred Natural Sites). Guide and host jobs are seen as one of the only means of economic prosperity.
The tourist industry as a whole does not focus on the Sherpa people. Instead, the Sherpas are a merely a gateway for tourists to the area. The Sherpas cannot control the number of people that visit the park, and their means of subsistence is largely out of their hands. Along these lines, David Zurick writes, “If tourism is the proverbial hen that lays the golden eggs, the villagers are vulnerable because they have put them all in one basket (Zurick 16). Indeed, the fact that Sherpas rely so heavily on other people as a means for economic success is threatening. They are highly susceptible to economic downturns across the globe of which they have no influence.
Any conclusive opinion about the sacredness and use of Sagarmatha National Park and its native people is difficult to arrive at. On one hand, the park containing the tallest mountain in the world is obviously going to attractive masses of tourists. In our highly industrial world, it is inevitable that Sagarmatha National Park has become a hotspot for adventurers and sightseers alike. Much good has been done for the people of the region. The schools that have been built have garnered some control on behalf of the Sherpas for controlling their own land. Moreover, the very status of a National Park preserves and sanctifies the land. Yet at the same time, this designation takes away from the Sherpa tradition and culture in the region. It takes the Sherpa tradition and wipes it away in a sea of foreign bureaucracy. The people of this land have become deeply intertwined with an industry that caters to others. Because of this, Western ideals have inevitably seeped into the Sherpa way of life. Their native cultural status runs the risk of becoming much more hybrid in the coming years.
Some resources to check out:
The Alex Lowe Charitable Foundation Website: http://www.alexlowe.org/
Alex Lowe Charitable Foundation. 1 Nov. 2012. <http://www.alexlowe.org>.
Fisher, James F. “Has Success Spoiled the Sherpas?” Natural History 100.2 (1991): 38-45. Academic Search Complete. Web. 1 Nov. 2012.
“Email from Jennifer Lowe-Anker.” E-mail interview. 2 Nov. 2012.
“Khumbu Sherpa Place-based Spiritual Values | Sacred Natural Sites.” Sacred Natural Sites. Web. 18 Nov. 2012. <http://sacrednaturalsites.org/items/khumbu-sherpa-place-based-spiritual-values/>.
“Sagarmatha National Park: A Sacred Mountain Site.” UNESCO Thematic Expert Meeting on Asia-Pacific Sacred Mountains. Academic Search Complete. Web. 1 Nov. 2012.
Sherpa, Lhankpa N. “Sacred Beyuls and Biological Diversity: Conservation in the Himalayas.” Presentations of Case Studies from Asia Pacific: 101-05. Academic Search Complete. Web. 1 Nov. 2012.
Spoon, Jeremy. “The Heterogeneity of Khumbu Sherpa Ecological Knowledge and Understanding in Sagarmatha (Mount Everest) National Park and Buffer Zone, Nepal.” Human Ecology 39 (2011): 657-72. Academic Search Complete. Web. 1 Nov. 2012.
Zurick, David. “Tourism on Top of the World.” Focus on Geography Apr. 2006: 9-16. Academic Search Complete. Web. 1 Nov. 2012.