“Tenzing, your immortality is assured the world over”, sang Nepal’s folk poet Dharma Raj Thapa in celebration of Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary’s ascent of Everest on 29 May 1953. A joyous Nepal had welcomed him on his return from Everest. So intense was the feeling at that time that other members of the expedition, including Hillary, felt quite left out in the cries of ‘Tenzing Zindabad’ that rent the air wherever he went. Dharma Raj Thapa penned two songs glorifying Tenzing. King Tribhuvan awarded him with the Nepal Tara (Star of Nepal) medal, the highest civilian honour of Nepal (Hillary and Col John Hunt, the team leader, were granted lesser medals), and an offer was made of a house and other facilities should he decide to live in Nepal. Fifty years later, the name of Tenzing, the man who helped put Nepal firmly on the world map, seems to have been all but forgotten by the state.
Tenzing, the climber
Born in 1914 in the Kharta valley of Tibet, northeast of Everest, Tenzing moved with his family to the Khumbu area of Nepal when he was a child. He spent his early years in Thame village on the route that led to the Nangpa-la, the pass that allowed cross-border trade between the Tibetans and the Sherpas of Khumbu. As a young boy growing up in the shadow of Everest, he heard stories of men from foreign lands trying to climb Chomolungma, the Mother Goddess of the Earth, as the Sherpas and Tibetans called Everest. That would have been the first three attempts on Everest by the British from the north. Nepal was literally a ‘forbidden kingdom’ and totally off-limits to foreigners then.
At the age of 18, Tenzing left for the hill station of Darjeeling in India, following a path that had been taken by many Sherpas before him in search of a livelihood. Sherpas had become an integral part of Himalayan climbing, providing the much-needed high-altitude support for the ‘assault’ that characterised climbing in this part of the world, and he hoped he could be one of them. He tried to get into the 1933 expedition to Everest but was unsuccessful since there were many other experienced Sherpas who got first preference. He survived by doing odd jobs before receiving his first break as a porter with the 1935 Everest reconnaissance expedition led by Eric Shipton.
He was back on Everest in 1936 and 1938. In the course of the latter expedition he was awarded the Tiger Medal for reaching Camp VI at 27,200 feet. In between he took part in teams exploring the Garhwal Himalaya. After the second world war started and the expeditions stopped coming, he moved his family to Chitral (now in Pakistan) and worked in the officers’ mess of the Chitral Scouts. After the war ended Tenzing returned to Darjeeling and survived by taking foreign tourists on trips around Darjeeling.
In 1947, he led a trip to Everest as part of a clandestine expedition for a eccentric Englishman. He did some more climbing in Garhwal that year and became the sirdar, head of porters, following an accident that incapacitated his predecessor. In 1947, he travelled to Tibet as sirdar of the well-known scholar Giuseppe Tucci, and in Lhasa met Heinrich Harrer (of Seven Years in Tibet fame).
Tenzing came to Nepal in 1949 with HW Tilman, the leader of the 1938 Everest expedition, who had managed to wrangle permission from the Nepali authorities to explore the central Nepal Himalaya and do some climbing. Then it was to other parts of the Himalaya again, Bandarpunch (which he scaled), Nanga Parbat and Nanda Devi.
By then, the southern route to Everest from Nepal had opened up, and in 1951 Shipton was again leading another reconnaisance expedition. But Tenzing could not join that trip due to prior commitments elsewhere, and he felt quite disappointed. As he wrote in his autobiography, Tiger of the Snows, “I had been so many times to Everest, and I felt so much it was my mountain, that I hated to miss this chance”.
His opportunity came a year later when he became the sirdar, literally, the head porter, of the Swiss expedition on Everest, the first to tackle the mountain from the south side. With Raymond Lambert, he reached a height never before reached by humans, but had to turn back 800 feet from the summit. The Swiss made another attempt in the autumn of that year, without success. The latter expedition was to prove a milestone in Tenzing’s career since he was finally made a climbing member of the team as well apart from his duties as a sirdar.
He was back the next year for his seventh attempt on Everest, and succeeded in reaching the top of the world with Edmund Hillary on 29 May 2003.
Tenzing, the hero
On his way back from Everest, Nepal’s king sent an emissary on horseback to meet Tenzing on the way and to ask him to declare that he was a Nepali. He was even forced into Nepali daura-suruwal clothes to emphasise his Nepali-ness. In a fit of misplaced nationalism, the illiterate Tenzing was even made to sign papers stating that it was he who had reached the top first. Nepal had found a true hero. For a country coming out of a century of a dark age under the Rana shogun rulers, it was sorely in need of one, and Tenzing’s fame spread far and wide in the land. In a new biography of his, a Nepali public figure is even quoted as saying, “At one time Tenzing was more popular than King Tribhuvan”.
But the Nepali establishment’s enthusiasm died out when he decided to make India his home even though that was a most natural decision for him to take. For 21 years since leaving Khumbu, apart from a quick visit back to Thame and the expedition with Tilman, Tenzing had lived in India, and that is where his family lived. After all, Tenzing was only doing what millions of Nepalis have done over the centuries. At the time he left Nepal to seek work in Darjeeling, it was easier for him to reach India than it was to go to Kathmandu, which symbolised everything of the state. As he writes in his autobiography: “In Solukhumbu we were remote from the rest of the country. What went on there did not seem to affect us; we had our own customs and ways of life and knew almost nothing about the nation of which we were politically a part”.
Tenzing opted to live where he was comfortable. He did not disown Nepal. It is the latter that has done that. Despite his association with Nepal and his having made the name Sherpa a household name the world over, there is nothing in Nepal to remember him by. And because of that Nepalis are woefully ill-informed about him or his life. As would be expected, school children do not read about him in their texts, and neither has any monuments have been erected to the most famous Sherpa of all. He seems simply to have been erased from the state’s official memory.
In his latter years he seems to have felt the slight rather deeply. In his second autobiography, After Everest, he said, “Since then [ie 1932] I have lived in Darjeeling continuously – for one thing it has been necessary for my work as a mountaineer – but it is one of the reasons for a certain amount of hostility to me in my native country of Nepal, not whilst I was unknown but only since I acquired fame on Everest”.
During the 50th anniversary celebrations of the first ascent of Everest, the Nepal Mountaineering Association did raise the question of recognition for Tenzing and proposed declaring him a national hero. But there has been no official response so far on that.
Nepal may have chosen to forget Tenzing, but Nepalis, wherever they live, Nepal, India, or elsewhere, never will. The second song by Dharma Raj Thapa mentioned above is the more famous. The first line of this song that almost every Nepali knows begins with “Hamro Tenzing Sherpa”, Our Tenzing Sherpa.