The Construction of Sherpa Identity in Darjeeling: A Sociological Study
Since the mid-nineteenth century, Darjeeling emerged as an observatory point, with the process of developmental construction for the British. The building of roads, railways, mines and tea plantations made it an economic hub that encouraged cheap labour from the adjoining countries of Sikkim, Bhutan and Nepal. A huge influx of Nepalese population was encouraged through such expansionist policies. From the 1850s, communities of Eastern Nepal like Rai, Limbu, Magar, Gurung, Murmi and so on, flocked to Darjeeling, in search of new opportunities. It was at this junction that the Sherpas migrated from Northeastern Nepal. Being recognized for their abilities in undertaking high-altitude mountaineering expeditions, the British in no time started preferring only a Sherpa man as their high-altitude guides or porters. Their occupation started defining their identity, where Sherpas became synonymous with a ‘high-altitude porter’. Given such a backdrop this study aims to shift the one-sided Eurocentric portrayal of the Sherpas and tries to understand them through an emic perspective. Through an ethnographic enquiry, the work historically locates how the Sherpa identity has evolved in Darjeeling. The fieldwork was carried out among the Sherpas of Lamba Dara Busty and Lower aloo bari, who is the third generation of Sherpas to have migrated to Darjeeling. They are also the last generation of ‘climbing Sherpas’ left whose lives have been most impacted by statehood movements in the region. The study tries to understand who are the Sherpa of Darjeeling and how they reflect upon their experiences and narratives, which to date remain embedded behind their highly sketched and romanticised image. Thus, the main aim of the study is to understand how the Sherpas as an ethnic group in Darjeeling have created an understanding of themselves. The fieldwork was carried out from January to November 2021 (excluding the month of April till mid of May, due to the pandemic). A Semi-structured interview, in-depth interview and observation methods were conducted for the study.
Key Words: Sherpa, ethnic community, identity construction, associations, mountaineering, expedition, Darjeeling