The Hyolmo people are an indigenous people of the Eastern Himalayan Region. They refer to themselves as the "Hyolmopa", and natively reside in the Helambu and Melamchi valleys (situated over 43.4 kilometres/27 miles and 44.1 kilometres/27.4 miles to the north of Kathmandu respectively) and the surrounding regions of northeastern Nepal. The combined population of Yolmos in these regions is close to 10,000. They also have sizeable communities in Bhutan and some territories within India, primarily Darjeeling and Sikkim. They are among the 59 indigenous groups officially recognized by the Government of Nepal as having a distinct cultural identity and are also listed as one of the 645 Scheduled Tribes officially recognised by the Constitution of India.
The Yolmo people speak the Yolmo language of the Kyirong-Kagate branch of the Sino-Tibetan language family. Accordingly, it has a high lexical similarity to Tibetan, although the two languages are not completely mutually intelligible. They are traditionally known to wear the chuba, which shares its name and many stylistic cues with traditional Tibetan attire. However, a large number of Yolmos native to Nepal, notably from Tarkeghyang, Milimchim Gaon, Sermathang, Dhana, Sarkathali among others, prefer to wear the daura-suruwal, the national attire of Nepal.
Yolmos may have migrated from the Gyirong Valleys of southwestern Tibet between 200 and 300 years ago. They settled in the valleys of Helambu, and gradually, intermarriages between the male Yolmo lamas and the Tamang women local to the region became common.
Identity Clash with the Sherpas
In the 1980s, an increasing number of Yolmos began identifying themselves as the Helambu Sherpa, even using the appellation as a surname to align themselves with the more prominent Sherpa people of the Solukhumbu District. Although this name is still used to refer to the Yolmo people and their language in certain instances, including the ISO 639-3 language codes, very few members of the Yolmo community would likely identify themselves as a subsection of the Sherpas in the current date.
An ethnic group related to the Yolmos are the Kagate (or Kagatay) who stem from the original Yolmo inhabitants of the Helambu and Melamchi valleys. What distinguishes them is that the Kagate began migrating southeast from Helambu, and eventually, into the Ramechhap District over 100 years ago, and that they practiced the craft of paper-making during their peregrinations in order to make a living — thereby earning themselves the moniker "Kagate" (which is Nepali for "paper-maker"). They have since developed certain characteristics in their speech that are distinct from traditional Yolmo. The Yolmo speaking groups in the Lamjung District and Ilam District have also historically been called "Kagate" although both groups claim a clear distinction between themselves and the Kagate of Ramechhap. However, "Yolmo" and "Kagate" are often used as terms for both the ethnic group and their dialect interchangeably.
The Yolmo tribe is organised into several clans, viz. Dhongba, Dangsong, Ghale ,Sharma-Lama, Lhalungpa, Chyaba, and Yeba, all of which follow the patrilineal system of descent. "Bride-stealing" used to be a staple among their customs but it is no longer practiced or encouraged.
The Yolmo language shares high lexical similarities with Sherpa and Tibetan. It is traditionally transcribed in the Sambhoti (Tibetan) script, but many modern academics use the Devanagari script as well. The Yolmo language is also very closely related to Kagate, another language of the Kyirong-Kagate language sub-group.
Essentially, the Yolmo people are agriculturalists. Potatoes, radishes, and some other crops constitute their primary sustenance, along with milk and flesh from the yak which the Yolmos are known to herd. In the last few decades, the Helambu region has also become a popular site for tourism and trekking, and many Yolmos are now employed in the tourism industry as tour-guides either in their own respective villages or in various other parts of Nepal.
According to the Nepal National Census of 2011, the population of the Yolmo people living within Nepal is 10,752, who are distributed over 11 districts of the country, and 99% of this population speak the Yolmo language. However, the number of monolingual Yolmo speakers is very low and on a gradual decline, as the number of monolingual Nepali-speaking Yolmos and bilingual Yolmos with English as their second language increases. The largest Yolmo settlements in Nepal (and also internationally) are in the Helambu and Melamchi Valleys which are home to over 10,000 Yolmos. A separate group of about 700 reside in the Lamjung district while some have settled closer to Pokhara. There are also a number of villages in the Ilam district where Yolmo is spoken.
Bhutan and Tibet
The term "Yolmo" or "Hyolmo" consists of two separate words — Hyul, which means "a place or area surrounded by high mountains", and Mo, which means "goddess", indicating a place under the protection of a female deity. For centuries, Tibetan Buddhists have referred to the Helambu region using the term "Yolmo". In recent years, most people, Yolmos and otherwise, seem to prefer the name "Helambu" itself. It is also often claimed that the name "Helambu" is derived from the Yolmo words for potatoes and radishes (Hey means "potato" and lahbu means "radish"). This etymology, however, is disputed and often considered spurious. Some refuters of this explanation argue that "Helambu" is an ambiguation of the word "Yolmo" phonetically contoured by the speakers of Nepali.
There is an ongoing discussion amongst Yolmo scholars regarding the spelling of "Yolmo" in the Latin script. Some favour "Yolmo" while others prefer "Hyolmo" or "Yholmo" wherein the presence of the letter "H" indicates that the first syllable of the word is spoken with a low, breathy tone. It is worth noting that Robert R. Desjarlais (except in his most recent work) and Graham E. Clarke (works cited below) both use "Yolmo", while the Nepal Aadivasi Janajati Mahasangh (Nepal Federation of Indigenous Nationalities) uses "Hyolmo".
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