The Shépa lexicon

Many browsing the shelf of a bookstore or library may see Shépa written in bold all caps on the cover of this book, and misread it as 'Sherpa' and think it is yet another book on the ethnic group from the Khumbu.

That happened to this reviewer when a copy arrived by mail. But Shépa in Tibetan actually means ‘explanation’ and is a unique form of oral poetry sung in the question-answer style and the intangible heritage of Tibetan-speaking people in danger of dying out. 

The book contains Shépa poetry that has been passed down from one generation of the Choné people of Amdo to the next. The original Tibetan verse is translated into English and Mandarin, and includes animistic beliefs before Buddhism got to the plateau. There are Bon Po legends, explanations of various Mahayana traditions, as well as the shared memory of the ebb and flow of history.  

The Shépa has a wide range of subjects and has been recited and shared for hundreds of years, and the book is a result of contributions from researchers, monks, and devotees. It is thus a valuable undertaking to document this oral tradition before it disappears forever. The book is part of the World Literature Series and the ebook version is available for free from OpenBook Publishers. 

“This trilingual publication is a landmark in Tibetan studies, making research findings accessible to the community for whom Shépa is a living practice,” says Tsering Shakya of the University of British Columbia. 

Why the Choné people came to embrace the Shépa oral tradition is buried in history, but it does resemble the recited verse of the Himalayan rimlands. Shépa performances can be religious or secular, sing about the Tibetan cosmology, history and recite chants at weddings. The verses are rendered by elderly men and are performed somewhat like the back-and-forth dohori in Nepal. 

Shépa orature is varied and constantly revised, its mutability giving it relevance as Tibet is swept by change. The book may be a bit too detailed for the lay reader, but will be valuable for students and researchers of Himalayan linguistics, ethnicity, and even for those studying Nepal’s indigenous groups. 

More importantly, the book is an invaluable documentation of an oral tradition that is hanging by its thread, made accessible because of the translation of the stanzas into English and Mandarin.


Kunda Dixit


Kunda Dixit is the former editor and publisher of Nepali Times. He is the author of 'Dateline Earth: Journalism As If the Planet Mattered' and 'A People War' trilogy of the Nepal conflict. He has a Masters in Journalism from Columbia University and is Visiting Faculty at New York University (Abu Dhabi Campus).