Mongolian Culture & Traditions
In Mongolia , young people favor western style clothes, many people wear cashmere and fur during the winter. But older Mongolians still wear the traditional deel (pronounced as del ) in and outside of work. In the countryside most people also prefer the deel and boots ( gutuls ). They're just more practical.
The deel is a calf length, loose tunic made of one piece of material. It has long sleeves, a high collar and buttons on the right shoulder. The three right shoulder buttons are either silver balls, or narrow strips of cloth tied into intricate knots. Deel is worn with a brightly colored sash. Deels have the same cut whether worn by men or women. Male deels are wider and made of more somber colors. Each ethnic group living in Mongolia has its own individual deel , distinguished by its cut, color and trimming. These distinctions go unnoticed by foreigners, but are obvious to Mongolians.
There are three different types of deel , each worn during a particular season. The dan deel is made of light, thin, brightly colored material and is only worn by women and only during the late spring and summer. The terleg is a slightly more padded version and is worn by both men and women. The winter deel is a serious, padded tunic, lined with sheepskin or layers of raw cotton.
Gutuls are knee high, unheeled boots made from thick, stiff leather, decorated with leather applique. The toes of gutuls are upturned and several explanations have been offered for this unconventional style. One of the most plausible explanations is the religious motive. Lamas were traditionally forbidden from disturbing "the earth's blessed sleep" i.e. kicking soil as they walked. The gutuls were designed to prevent them from harming the earth as they moved around on foot. Another explanation is that the unturned tip prevents a rider's feet from slipping out of the stirrups. However, it's also true that gutuls are so thick and rigid that if they were flat they would be almost impossible to walk in. These hefty boots are still worm in Ulaanbaatar and are particularly in the countryside.
With regards to hats, the fur-trimmed hats, mostly made of sable, are popular in urban Mongolia . This essential piece of headgear has two flaps, which can either be tied to the top of the hat , or lowered to cover the wearer's ears. Both men and women wear this fur hat.
Ger - nomads' dwelling
A round wooden-framed felt tent covered in durable while canvas seems to be the most simple description on this portable home, familiar to many from the Russian word " yurt ". The modern shape of the Mongolian ger has been formed as the result of the long development through huts, marquees and wheeled abodes.
During ancient times, people made shelters from dry branches and animal skins. This could have been the first version of current Mongolian ger . The history of the ger goes back to 2500-3000 years BC. In medieval era large gers that belong to kings and nomadic chieftains were on special wheeled floors and were dragged by a number of oxen (22 was usual).
The Mongolian ger has two key components: the wooden frame work and the felt cover. The wooden wall shell is called " khana ", the upper wooden poles (measuring 1.5-3 meters) are " uni ", the central supporting two columns are known as " bagana " and the uppermost smoke hole is " toono ". A ger 4-12 khanas , depending on its size. The number of uni or upper poles ranges between 45 and 120 depending on the number of khanas . Any ger has a toono , the smoke hole and baganas , 2 columns supporting the toono .
There are several felt layers, covering the wooden frame work and outer white canvas which is designed to make the ger look prettier and protect the felt covers from rain and snow.
Mongolia nomads, who move several times each year, pack their gers onto the back camels or camel and ox carts. The weight of a ger is approximately 250 kgs. It only takes half an hour to collapse an average ger and a bit longer to rebuild it.
Assembling of a ger is done in the following order.
The collapsible wooden floor is laid.
The khanas and the door are erected in a circle and tied together with a long rope.
Baganas , the two wooden columns are tied to the toono and erected in the center the circle.
The toono and upper edges of the khanas are connected with unis , the long thin poles.
Once the wooden frame work has been erected directly on the ground or wooden floor, it is overlaid with the cover, as well as, the outer while canvas.
Then the felt and canvas covers are fastened with 2-3 girdles that keep them tight.
The outer bottom edges of the flaps are covered with a long thin felt belt (30 cm-s wide) so that strong wind flow doesn't go into the ger .
The uppermost smoke hole is partly covered with rectangle felt, cover, which is used to totally cover the hole during the nights and harsh climate.
The door is always on the southern side facing the sunrise, providing more light inside the home. This is also designed not to let the northern wind into the ger through its door. However, Mongolians build their gers with the doors facing the door to the south, as it has become a long-rooted tradition, whether the wind is usually from the north or south.
There is appropriate rules on placing the furniture in the ger . The central area with stove, which is called " golomt " in Mongolian is the most respected part of a ger . The ger is divided into two areas. The western half is male section, while the eastern half is regarded to be female section. Male belonging including the family host's bed is placed in western section. His saddles, bridles and other horse harness are also kept in this side. Women occupy the eastern side, where they keep their kitchen utensils, their own and their children's belongings. It is customary for a man entering a ger to step to the western side and a woman to the east. The hoimor , which is directly opposite the door, is where the valuable objects are stored or displayed.
The ger furniture is well-known for its bright colored patterns drawn on red and yellowish background. All the furnishings including beds, wardrobe, cupboard and even the cooking utensils bear such vivid multi-colored decorations.
While modern, western style houses are being built in Ulaanbaatar and other cities, rural Mongolians have retained their traditional lifestyle, of which the ger is an integral part. As a visitor, you have a chance to stay in this unique dwelling at one of the ger camps in the countryside or experience living way of Mongolian nomads by visiting their homes.
Traditional music and dancing
Laments about the open steppe, natures and horses are popular themes of traditional Mongolian music. Long songs, as the name suggests, last quite a while and are loved by Mongolians. The original long songs were written about eight hundred years ago and there are special songs written for weddings, festival and religious ceremonies.
There are traditional Mongolian string and wind instruments, as well as drums and gongs. Mongolians have made their music through the ages using metal, stone, bamboo, leather and wood. The most popular musical instrument is Morin Khuur (horse fiddle) which is said to represent the movement and sounds of a horse. It is a square fiddle with a long, straight handle curving at the tip and topped with a carving of a horse's head. Every Mongolian family strives to have a morin khuur in their ger , although they are hand made and fairly expensive instruments. Small flutes and pipes are also popular.
Many musical instruments are used purely for religious ceremonies. A shell shaped bugle called dun is used to gather lamas before ceremony and ganlin horns are still used to dispel bad spirits. The ganlin is made from the femur of an eighteen-year-old female virgin (who died of natural causes) and is filled down to size. Example of this instrument can be found in Choijin Lama museum in Ulaanbaatar (see the city guide section) and in Manzushir monastery 50 km-s south of the capital.
Mongolia 's Buddhist temples host the spectacular Tsam dances during special religious ceremonies. Lamas wearing huge, ornate masks and brilliantly decorated costume sway and circle to the sound of gongs and trumpets. It is theatrical art by those bearing the external appearance and characters of different apostles and devils, animals and real people. The scenery opening, inaction, musical climax and outcome of tsam dance reflect the character of the participants in different ways: cruel, calm or humorous.
But Mongolia 's best known traditional music is Hoomii , described as "throat singing". Perfecting this eerie, beautiful, acoustic singing takes lengthy training. Hoomii originates from western Mongolia , but is performed across the country.
Mongolia 's two biggest national holidays are the lunar new year celebration Tsagaan Sar and Naadam sports festival. While Naadam is always held on 11-12 July, Tsagaan Sar dates vary, as it reflects the irregular lunar calendar cycles. Both holidays are celebrated nationwide. Mongolians dress in their most elegant deels and the best-known wrestlers acquire super star status. Mongolians are intensely proud of both holidays, which also offer interested foreigners the opportunity to see the nation celebrate in style.
The name means while month and celebrates the passing of winter and beginning of spring. Tsagaan Sar was originally an end of summer festival, but once again it was Chinggis Khan who changed things, moving the event to the end of winter in 1216. The Mongolian lunar calendar uses five cycles of twelve years, each cycle being named after an element (earth, water, fire, iron and wind) and each year after one of twelve animals. The Lunar calendar doesn't operate within European twelve-month system and hence Lunar New Year dates change every year. The festival is celebrated at the end of January or beginning of February and officially lasts three days.
The best place to celebrate Tsagaan Sar is in the countryside, where it is a real demonstration of Mongolia 's traditional customs and culture. People greet each other in a unique way, young people cross their hands under the hands of older people and say Amar baina uu, which is the traditional new year greeting that means how are you.
During Tsagaan Sar , almost everyone visits everyone, whom they know or who their relatives are. Much of the festival involves sitting round the ger stove passing food and drink backwards and forwards, always using right hand to accept food or alcohol. Visitors are given gifts in almost every ger they visit. In Ulaanbaatar Tsagaan Sar is a shorter holiday, but with the same hospitality, visiting schedule, food and drink.
This annual sports festival Naadam is the most famous celebration across the country. It features the three manly sports: wrestling, archery and horse racing. Naadam is celebrated across the country and every town and village will hold its own wrestling, archery and horse racing contests. The official Naadam opening ceremony in Ulaanbaatar is quite spectacular. Riders dress as Chinggis Khan's entourage lead the huge procession around the Naadam stadium, which features hundreds of adults and children dressed in costumes representing all Mongolia's ethic groups. In Ulaanbaatar , wrestling takes place in the main Naadam stadium. Archery competitions are outside the stadium everywhere, while the famous, perilous horse races take place near the Buyant Uhaa airport.
Wrestling is the most national and popular of all Mongol sports. It is the highlight of the Three Games of Men Historians claim that Mongol-style wrestling originated some seven thousand years ago. The technique and ritual of Mongolian wrestling is distinctly national.
There are no weight categories or age limits in Mongolian national wrestling. The wrestlers wear heavy boots ( gutuls ), a very small tight-fitting loin cloth (known as zodog and shuudag ), a pair of sleeves which meet across the back of the shoulders, resembling a tiny vestige of a jacket, and a pointed cap of velvet. The contestants come out on the leaping and dancing flapping their arms in imitation of an eagle. Each wrestler has his attendant herald. The aim of the sport is to knock your opponent off balance and throw him down, making him touch the ground with his elbow and knee. The loser walks under the raised arms of the winner in a sign of respect, and unties his vest, after which the victor, again leaping and dancing, takes a turn round the flag in the center of the field. The victor is a awarded symbolic prizes-biscuits and aaruul , or dried curds; once he has tasted these, he offers them to his seconds and to spectators.
Traditionally, either one thousand and twenty-four of five hundred and twelve wrestlers participate in the contest. Today the latter number usually take pan. At the National Naadam held in Ulaanbaatar , nine rounds are held. Those who lose in one round are eliminated from further rounds.
A wrestler who beats five opponents in a Naadam is awarded the title of " Falcon "; one who wins seven rounds is given title " Elephant ". A wrestler become a champion by winning nine rounds and is given the title of " Lion ", and if he wins two years in row, he is called " Giant ". If a wrestler become a third-time champion at the Naadam , the attribute " Nation-wide " is added to his title, and the fourth time, he is styled " Invincible ".
The winners of the tournament receive honorary titles and are also awarded various souvenirs. But for them, the main award is the truly nation-wide popularity and fame that they gain.
This sport is also centuries old, dating back to the Bronze Age. The horses for the Naadam races are selected a month before the big day. They are then taken to an adequate pasture separate from the herd and trained. Race-horses are divided into several age groups: two, three, four and five years old; over five years or adult horses; and stallions. The riders are aged from 5 to 12. Mongolian children of these ages are good riders, as both boys and girls have been riding since infancy. As the popular saying goes, "The nomad is born in the saddle".
Small saddles are made especially for children, but they usually prefer to ride without them. They are not only superb riders, but also skillful tacticians. They know how to hold the horse back so it has enough strength to last the entire distance of the race. Competitions are not held on special racetracks, but right across the steppe, where riders are confronted with various obstacles such as rivers, ravines and hills. The distance varies according to the ages of the horses, between 15 and 35 km. The riders are dressed in bright, colorful and comfortable cloths. On their backs are various symbolic pictures. Symbolic ornaments and designs also embellish the horse-cloth. The most exciting moments are the start and the finish. Before the beginning of the contest the young horsemen ride round the starting point three times yelling the ancient call, " Giingo! ", a kind of war-cry. When all the horses step behind the boundary line, the starting command is given and the riders surge forward, setting in motion the long-awaited race.
The winning riders do a full circuit of the stadium, each accompanied by a herald. The winning horse receives the honorary title "Forehead of Ten Thousand Race Horses" and the five runners-up are awarded with medals. They are popularly called the " Airag Five ". In accordance with tradition, the riders on the winning horses do three laps of honor, then ride up to the grandstand, and each child is offered a large bowl of airag -fermented mare's milk-from which he drinks and then pours some on the rump of his horse. The herald in turn, chants in poem-form the virtues of the horse its rider and owner. But there is also an interesting tradition in connection with the losers. Honor and praise of the winners of the race is to be expected; but the losers are also rewarded and honored. After the awards ceremony for the victors, the racer who came in last is led up to the main stand with his young rider. The loser's face show vexation and shame. But the spectators do not make fun of him. Instead they shout encouragement and try to give him confidence in himself. The national story-teller recites a special ode to the loser. The ode encourage him with words expressing faith in his future success.
Ample information about archery can be found in literary and historical documents of the 13 th century and even before. It is an ancient sport of the Mongols which can be traced back to as early as 300-200 BC. According to historians, archery contents began in the 11 th century.
The Mongols use a compound bow, built up of layers of horn, sinew, bark and wood. When unstrung it is not straight, but curved. Archery is more archaic and ritualistic than other sports and posture.
The target consists of a row several meters across, of small woven leather rings, some painted red, which are laid out laterally on the ground. The openings face upwards, providing challenging exercise in trajectory for the archers. In olden times, women did not participate in the contest, but in the last few decades they have started to do so. The distance is about 75m for men and 60m for women. Men shoot about 40 arrows and must score not less than 15 points and women shoot 20 arrows and must score at least 13 point using the same bow as the men.
When the arrow hits the target, a group of people standing near the target, acting as judges, raise the cry " Uukhai! " and make signs with their hands to indicate the result. The one who score the most points is the winner and the title of Mergen (Super-marksman) is bestowed on him or her.