During three days, the Mongolian folly is unleashed with the celebration of the biggest festival in the country, where traditional games, parades and all kind of popular folklore is displayed to form one of the most amazing spectacles in the world: the Mongolian Naadam.
Naadam (written Наадам in Mongolian) literally means “games” and takes place from 11th to 13th July every year. It’s also called Eriin Gurvan Naadam (эрийн гурван наадам) meaning “the three games of men”, as the participation in the games was reserved only for men until some years ago and it’s still a true test of manhood for most Mongolians. It’s believed to be celebrated since the early Middle Ages, being already held during Genghis Khan times, presumably with a different format than it’s now. Its origins probably come from the ancient military parades, wedding assemblies, hunting competitions and old sporting activities. Now, the dates have been fixed to celebrate the 1921 revolution, which marked the independence of Mongolia.
The biggest celebration is held in Ulanbaatar, the Mongolian capital, in the National Sports Stadium and its surroundings, but most of the cities and towns across Mongolia and those with Mongolian people in China have their own Naadam celebrations, evidently smaller. It’s a time when Mongolians get dressed with their finest deel, their traditional colorful silken robe, the typical boots and the touch of a hat.
Dressed up and ready for a magical day, the people rides even a car or a horse to the place where the games take part. And there are principally three games: wrestling, horse racing and archery. Other popular games about throwing a shigai (sheep ankle bones) are also played, but they are only official tournaments in the larger Naadam festivals.
Naadam was inscribed on the List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity of UNESCO in 2010.
Like all the valued festivities, it all begins with a ceremony. Dancers and musicians make the delights of the public while athletes and horse riders march across the National Sports Stadium in Ulanbaatar, something like the Olimpic Games Opening Ceremony, but in the genuine to Mongol style. And after the ceremony, the competitions begin.
Three Mongolian games
Known as the “Three Manly Games”, these games are the core of the party and, as said, they are Mongolian Wrestling, Horse Riding and Archery. They are deserved for man to prove their manhood and virility, but lately women began to participate in parallel competitions, except for Mongolian Wrestling, still deserved only for man.
- Mongolian Wrestling
Known as Bökh, Mongolian Wrestling is the most important of the historic “Three Manly Games”, with different varieties throughout the Mongolian land. There are no categories of weight and no time limit, and the goal is to get your opponent to touch the ground with his elbow, knee or upper body.
About 1000 wrestlers step out onto the arena at the start of the tournament waving their hands imitating the flight of an eagle, a dance called devekh that honors the judges and their attendants. Songs are sung to praise the wrestler’s qualities and the first round of fights begins, repeating the practice during the two days that the tournament lasts, until the strongest fighter have defeated all his rivals. Depending of his performance, every wrestler receives a title: Lion, Elephant, Falcon, etc., until the strongest one, who receives the title of The Titan.
- Horse Racing
As known for everybody, Mongolia is the land of horses, so horse riding couldn’t be out of the fest. Up to 1000 Mongol horses from all over the country (smaller than the western horses and known for their stamina, endurance and strengh) are taken to Ulanbaatar to participate in the races, an event that truly unleashes euphoria. The races are much longer than the western-style horse races and the distance varies depending on the age of the horse, 15 km for the younger ones and up to 30 km for the older ones, all conducted on the open grassland steppe with no set track or course. The jockeys are mostly children between 5 and 15 years who are trained since their first steps, like most of the Mongol people, but here, as people who have devotion for horses, the real winner and most venerated is the horse instead of the jockey. Thats’ why the jockeys are so young, because it’s believed that the horse can give his best with a light weight on his shoulders.
A little ritual is displayed before the race begins and songs called Gingo are sung by both jockeys and public, just before a spectacular stampede of hundreds of horses start the race amidst a crazy moment of clouds of dust and shouts. When the game finishes, another ritual takes place, the award ceremony. The five firsts horses are granted the title of airgiyn tav and they are revered in poetry and music, while the winner jockey receive the title of tumny ekh, meaning “leader of ten thousand”. The last horse to finish is called bayan khodood (full stomach) and people sing a song whishing him a better luck next year.
Apart of a horse, Mongolians are said to be born with a bow in their hands, and they are trained and nourished to be good archers since childhood. They invented one of the most effective bows of the militar history, the Mongolian recurved composite bow – made with horn, bark and wood -, and now they are happy to use it in their festivities.
Like in horse riding, Mongolian archery competitions are quite different from those held in the western world: the archers have not only one target, but hundreds of beadrs or surs (some sort of leather cylinders) on a huge wall. Teams between 5 and 10 men and women (they also participate in this competition since some decades ago) have to hit 33 surs, with a throwing distance of 75 m for men and 65 m for women, being the winner the first team to hit all targets. Uuhai song is sung when the archer is pointing, changing its intonation if target is hit, practice coming from the times when the target was 200 m away, being the song a good way for everybody to know if the target was hit. The winners of the game are granted the tittle of “national marksman” and “national markswoman” (mergen).
Around the fest
Naadam represents a great excuse for all Mongolians to put on their traditional dresses and get into traditional festivity acts like singing, dancing, eating and drinking. This is the only time when a country known for its emptiness (only 2.6 million people in more than 600,000 sq m) experiences crowds and chaos.
Mongolians dressed in Chinggis-style warrior uniforms, soldiers and monks make themselves visible all around the tournament place, as well as many families sit on the ground to enjoy the traditional Mongolian meals. On the evenings, meals are accompanied with ancient songs, legends and stories about great horses, strong man and their deeds, just like the third day of the festival, mostly reserved to merry-making.
And pointing on this, the meals served during the festival are also a good reason to head there. You’ll be able to taste khuurshuur¸ a delicious kind of fried meat dumpling; Mongolian-style meat, bread and dried curds, among other traditional food, all accompanied with tea and bowls of the traditional airag (or arak), Mongolian alcoholic drink made from fermented mare’s milk.
And after all, a lively discussion of the Naadam Festival will go on throughout the year, until the next Naadam. Will you be there?