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 Mongols. It’s believed to be celebrated since the early Middle Ages, being already held during Chinggis Khaan 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 the capital of Mongolia – Ulaanbaatar, in the National 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 Mongols get dressed in 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 ride even a car or a horse to the place where the games take place. And there are principally three games: wrestling, horse racing and archery. Other popular games about throwing a shagai (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.
The ceremony like all the valued festivities, all begins with a ceremony. Dancers and musicians make the delights of the public while athletes and horse riders march across the National Stadium in Ulaanbaatar, something like the Olympic Games Opening Ceremony, but in the genuine to Mongolian style. And after the ceremony, the competitions begin.
Three Manly Games
Known as the “Three Manly Games”, these games are the core of the festival and 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.
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. 512 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 has defeated all his rivals. Depending on his performance, every wrestler receives the title of the strongest creatures: Lion, Elephant, Falcon, etc., until the strongest one, who receives the title of The Titan.
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 strength) are taken to Ulaanbaatar 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, 11km for the younger ones and up to 25km for the older ones, all conducted on the open grassland steppe with no set track or course. The jockeys are mostly children between 7 and 12 years who are trained since their first steps, like most of the Mongolian people, but here, as people who have devotion for horses, the real winner and most venerated is the horse instead of the jockey. That’s why the jockeys are so young because it’s believed that the horse can give his best with a lightweight on his shoulders.
A little ritual is displayed before the race begins and songs called “Giingoo” 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 receives the title of “Tumnii ekh”, meaning “Leader of Ten Thousand”. The last horse to finish is called “Bayan khodood” (full stomach) and people sing a song wishing him better luck next year.
Apart from a horse, Mongolians have grown 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 military history, the Mongolian recurved composite bow – made with horn, bark and wood -, and now they are happy to use it in their festivities. Like a horse race, Mongolian archery competitions are quite different from those held in the western world: the archers have not only one target, but hundreds of beads 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 75m for men and 65m 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 the target is hit, practice coming from the times when the target was 200m away, is the song a good way for everybody to know if the target was hit. The winners of the game are granted the title of “National Marksman” and “National Markswoman” (Ulsyn Mergen).
Around the Naadam festival 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 3 million people in 1,564,115.75 km2 or 603,909 sq mi) experiences crowds and chaos.
Mongolians dressed in national costume, 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. In the evenings, meals are accompanied by ancient songs, legends and stories about great horses, strong man and their deeds, just like the third day of the festival, mostly reserved for 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 khuushuur¸ a delicious kind of fried pastry with meat filling; Mongolian-style meat, bread and dried curds, among other traditional food, all accompanied with tea and bowls of the traditional airag, Mongolian alcoholic drink made from fermented mare’s milk.
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