Sherpas and Sikkim: An overview; OPED

Every year on the ninth day of August month is observed as World’s Indigenous Peoples Day, the purpose behind the celebration is to promote and protect the rights of the world’s indigenous population.

Likewise, Sikkim also this day was observed, Bhutia and Lepchas and Nepali are regarded to be the three ethnic groups in Sikkim.

However, when we see Sherpa as a community in Sikkim, the mass population fails to recognize it as an indigenous group in Sikkim. Sherpa is also clubbed u

When we look into history, according to Sikkim University, “Sherpa is one of the indigenous communities found in Sikkim, India and in Nepal. Sherpa is generally defined as ‘people from the east’, or ‘people who live in the east’. Sherpa has a rich oral tradition, culture, and folklore of their own.”

The population of Sherpa in India is found mainly in Sikkim and North Bengal. The Sherpa population in Sikkim is found in all four districts of Sikkim. They are mostly settled in the Perbing area of South Sikkim, Okharey area under Sombaria of West Sikkim, Phadamchen (Nimachen) area under Rongli subdivision in East Sikkim, and Kabi Tingda area under Mangan subdivision in North Sikkim. Sherpa population in Sikkim is largely concentrated in the South Sikkim district.

Generally, the Sherpa community traditionally practices Buddhism. Among the several sects of Buddhism, the Sherpa community follows the Vajrayana sect. Other sects in Buddhism are Mantrayana, Tantrayana, Tantric Buddhism, Esoteric, and so on. Mountains are also worshipped as gods with several beliefs and interpretations among the Sherpas.

Sherpa language belongs to Bodish or Bodic group within the Tibeto-Burman family. The language is spoken in Sikkim and North Bengal in India. Within Sikkim, Sherpa may be spoken by about 20,000 people. Sherpa variety varies from village to village particularly on lexical words with no major mutual unintelligibility.

Likewise, the Government of Sikkim recognized Sherpa as one of the State Official languages of Sikkim in the year 1997. Sherpa is being taught as a subject in some government schools in Sikkim, like Government High School, Perbing, Namchi subdivision, South Sikkim. Sherpa is well-spoken typically by the older generation.

The future of Sherpa as a language is quite vulnerable. Most of the Sherpa members in Sikkim are bi-lingual. They can speak Sherpa and Nepali. Among the younger generation, most of them are not fluent or know little Sherpa. Nepali is often used by the community among themselves and this is the most worrisome factor. Members of the community understand the importance of maintaining Sherpa but due to economic and job opportunities, its importance is dwindled by major languages like Nepali, Hindi, and English. The youth dance, sing and socialize predominantly in Nepali. Between husband and wife of many families, Nepali is predominantly used.

Sherpa is written in Sambhota (Tibetan) script. School education materials are written in Sambhota/Tibetan script. Sambhota is used mostly by those who learned it formally from Tibetan schooling or modern schooling. Due to technology and its easy access to it, Nepali (Devanagari) or Roman script is commonly used in writing on a daily basis among the Sherpa community members.

Likewise, According to a report by the Denzong Sherpa Association (DSA) in 2017, the Sherpa population in Sikkim is around 50,000.

Further, the association has requested the Department of Economics, Statistics, Monitoring & Evaluation (DESMI) for a separate census of the Sherpa population in Sikkim. This was again taken to the centre at National Commission of Scheduled Tribe Chairperson, Nand Kumar Sai, and demanding protection of the land and a separate census for the tribal Sherpa community of Sikkim.

Rinzing Ongmu Sherpa, a Doctoral Candidate in Centre for Study of Social Systems (CSSS) at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi said, “Being born a Sherpa in Sikkim, we have had own share of struggles. From being called a ‘latecomer’ or worst so an ‘immigrant’ we have all found ourselves introspecting upon our identity. Despite being one of the indigenous sub-groups, we have time and again felt like an ‘outsider’.”

“A section still labels us as a sub-group of Nepalis with whom we share no cultural proximity, while the Nepalis least identify us as one among them, given that we instead share a close cultural and linguistic proximity, with the Bhutia and its sub-groups. Thus, the stark feeling of lack of belongingness to any one group in Sikkim has made us struggle amidst the identification of ‘self in the context of the ‘other’ for many years.”

“Despite the Sherpas being one of the oldest inhabitants of the state, they do not have a separate census representation for themselves. They are till today still being included under the census representation of the Bhutias. Therefore, demand is also ongoing for a separate census representation as it ascertains the ethnic community’s exact numerical strength.” She added

Despite recognition of the Sherpa Language in the year 1997, the Sherpa section of people feels left out in the state.

The Sherpas of Sikkim over the years have been demanding inclusion of their rights under this order, as they are rightfully defined under the Bhutia-Lepcha category, but the Land Revenue Order No.1 has not included them under their legal right.

The good news remains that the Sherpas have started to reconstruct their identity discourse in the state of Sikkim. On August 6, Sikkim Sherpa Protection Board celebrated their fifth foundation day in which the Sikkim Sherpa Protection Board reiterated its demands of land protection of the Tribal Sherpa community of Sikkim and the socio-economic census of the Sherpa community.

In Sikkim, Denzong Sherpa Association is the parent organization under which there are many sub-groups and respectively Global Sherpa association has also been formed in which Sherpa-speaking communities across the state have been working for the safeguard and welfare of the Sherpa Community.

Sherpa community is also nowhere untouched with the impact of modernization and globalization leading to fear of cultural assimilation, thus many community-based organizations are actively working amidst the Sherpa community to raise awareness on the conservation of the intangible and tangible cultural heritage of the Sherpas.

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