Songs from ChomolungmaSherpa folk music predate climate change in sanctifying protection of the mountain environment
The Sherpa people who live below Mt Everest are so famous globally as intrepid mountain guides that their surname has been expropriated by SUV, lounge chair, pet accessory, momo restaurant brands.
But their cultural history of being the custodians of the world's highest mountains and intimate relationship with the mountains is reflected in their folk songs. The lyrics point to the Sherpa reverence for nature, and their innate ecological consciousness.
Today, the climate emergency is impacting on the Himalaya through no fault of the inhabitants. Rising temperatures are accelerating the melting of glaciers in the Khumbu region, with the threat of glacial lakes bursting. Flora and fauna in the region have been disturbed by weather extremes.
But awareness about protecting nature has been Sherpa folklore for generations, long before climate scientists coined the terms greenhouse effect and climate change. Syar Thinche Nima, a song by Rinjin Lhamo Sherpa, a teacher and member of Himalayan Sherpa Cultural Centre in Khumbu, goes like this:
The sun rises in the east
If the sun doesn’t rise, the mountains will not glow bright
The mountains will not remain
If there is no snow on the mountains, there will be no rivers
There will be no green water
If water does not flow, the fish cannot live
If there are no fish, there can be no forests
Plants cannot grow
If plants cannot grow, there will be no birds
There can be no life, creation cannot exist.
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Explains Rinjin: “This song is proof that our community was conscious of the ecology since they have been living here under the mountains.”
The song not just portrays the importance of the mountains, but also vocalises the need for their conservation, on which the fates of the very existence of human civilisation depends.
This song is also an example of the role of traditional cultures in combating the climate emergency which threatens to destroy the Himalayan ecosystem, and is caused by the overexploiting of nature. In contrast, indigenous cultures like Sherpa culture, reveres and respects the earth and considers it holy.
Many Sherpa songs passed down from generations carry this ethos. Another song shared by Pasang Chhiring Sherpa of the Himalayan Sherpa Cultural Centre, Khangdi Thombi, views the mountains as awe-inspiring and sacred:
Look at the mountains to the North
How tall they are
The heart is glad to see them
There is a tall, golden wall here
Inside the wall are our priceless treasures
Our sages reside there
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“The song talks about the mountains protecting our most precious possessions, priceless things which we cannot buy with money,” explains Pasang.
Sherpas, who know their mountains better than most outsiders, regard them as symbols of purity, greatness, and mystery. These metaphors can be found in much of South Asian literature and religious scriptures like the Rig Veda which regard the icy summits as the abode of the gods.
Another song of the Sherpa links the mountains with spirituality and spiritual practices. Another song created by the revered religious leader Thuchi Nyima Rinpoche goes:
There is a peak called Kelung Domirila in Tibet
It is powerful and sacred
We must make many prayer wheels there
“Prayer wheels are very important in our religious practice. However, the song does not talk about prayer wheels literally, it implies that we must do good deeds and practice our religion,” explains Pasang. “This song is sung on auspicious occasions and gives a good message.”
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With modernisation, global travel, tourism and monetary upliftment of the Sherpa people, many songs and traditional practices are also in danger of being lost. “Our children are more familiar with English songs and discos, so we made an effort to teach these sacred songs to them,” says Rinjin, who helps with Sherpa culture classes once a week.
Activists have also set up the Himalayan Sherpa Cultural Centre to teach the new generation about different types of Sherpa songs, among other activities.
There are many songs in Sherpa culture, sung on different occasions and in various settings. ‘Lu’ means song, and there are songs of sorrow (Kyo-lu), songs for weddings (Janti-lu), courtship songs (Ja-lu). Shyabru-lu are sung while dancing around in a circle.
Pasang adds: “Until now, we have educated more than a thousand children about these songs, and taught them to sing and dance the old way.”
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Sewa Bhattarai is a freelance journalist. Her series, On The Margins, focuses on folk music, folklore, and mythology of Nepal's diverse communities.