Mongolia’s fascinating culture and deep history has been formed in large part by the dynamic forces of nature and struggle that are embodied in the ancient nomadic existence of the Mongolian people. From the time of the earliest known signs of human presence in the Mongolian heartland till today, Mongolia has been the birthplace of many famous tribes like the Huns, Scythians, Turks and Mongols that went on to become powerful catalysts for change in world history.
The culture and society of Mongolia is greatly influenced by the central role of nomadism which is still the way of life for half of Mongolia’s population of 3.1 million people. Mongolia is one of the last nations in the world today that has such a high proportion of nomadic citizens.
The extreme climactic conditions of Mongolia bring fluctuations of weather conditions ranging from very hot, parched summers to winters with temperatures of 50 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. The sustained severe cold weather during the winter season has significant impacts on livestock herds almost every year.
This very difficult environment requires great strength and deep reserves of will to survive and thrive in. Even with such severe climatic conditions, Mongolian people have lived and thrived in this unforgiving environment for many hundreds of years and have a deep enduring fondness for their homeland.
The Mongolian language is the official language of Mongolia. It belongs to the Ural-Altaic language family, which includes Kazakh, Turkish, Korean and Finnish. Today, more than 10 million people speak Mongolian. They live in Mongolia, the Republic of Buryatia – Russian Federation, Inner Mongolia in the Republic of China, Tibet and even a few number of people living in the State of New Jersey in the United States of America . In Mongolia, the Khalkha dialect, written in Cyrillic, is predominant. The classical Mongolian script, also known as Uyghurjin, was the first writing system created specifically for the Mongolian language, and was the most successful written form until the introduction of Cyrillic in 1946.
Shamanism – Shamanism goes back in Mongolian history long before Chinggis Khan’s time, but it was Chinggis Khan that made it into such a fundamental part of the Mongolian tradition. At that time the Mongolians were worshipped “Hoh Tenger” (blue skies). According to this belief the skies are the father, and the earth is the mother of all beings in the universe. As a civilization totally dependent on the forces of nature, the Mongolians worshipped the various elements of nature, praying to their ancestors who have transformed into mythical spiritual animals to provide them with good weather, health and success. Though oppressed during communist time, Shamanism is still practiced in Mongolia, and people who seek help will approach a Shaman for a blessing or cure and even to get hints about their future.
Buddhism – Mongolians have followed Buddhism since the 16th century, when the Mongolian king, Altan Khan, was converted by Tibetan lamas. Mongolians follow Tibetan Buddhist teachings, (also called Lamaism), the body of religious Buddhist doctrine and institutions characteristic of Tibet and the Himalayan region. Today, Mongolia still embraces its Buddhist heritage. Monasteries are being restored, and are once again crowded with worshippers. The Dalai Lama is an enormously popular figure and has visited the country several times. For many Mongolians, the practice of Buddhism is flavored with traces of Shamanism, an even more ancient spirituality.
Other Religions- Mongolia also has a small Muslim community — about 6 per cent of the population. These are mostly ethnic Kazakhs living in the far west of the country.
The foundation of the traditional Mongolian food is based on the products of the animal nomadic herders raise in the Mongolian steppes – meat and milk. Those simple materials are processed with a variety of methods, and combined with vegetables and flour.
Mongolian traditional music composes a wide range of instruments and uses for the human voice found almost nowhere else. For instance, the “Khoomi Singing” may be fascinating for foreigners. “Khoomi Singing” which is also known as Throat Singing, allows the singer to produce harmonic tones that can mirror the sounds of waterfalls, the steppe winds blowing, and the chants of Buddhist monks. Khoomi singers use their diaphragms like the bellows of a bagpipe to emit a steady bass note while simultaneously producing a higher nasal tone and essentially producing two sounds at the same time.
The unique traditional singing style is known as “Urtiin duu”. It is one of the most ancient genres of Mongolian musical art, a professional classical art of the 13th century. “Urtiin duu” involves extraordinarily complicated, drawn-out vocal sounds. It has philosophical style, evocative of vast, wide spaces and it demands great skill and talent from the singers in their breathing abilities and guttural singing techniques.
Mongolian music conveys deep appreciation that the Mongolian people have for their country, its natural beauty and the inspiring deep blue sky above the vast landscape. Nomadic herders sing while riding their horses and most Mongolians are expected to know at least one song to be shared with others on special occasions or just to lighten the heart during a gathering of family and friends.
Of all the Mongolian musical instruments in our culture, the “Morin Khuur” (Horsehead Fiddle) is still one of the most meaningful traditional musical instruments and has been identified by UNESCO as one of the Masterpieces of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. Legend has it that a shepherd named “Namjil the Cuckoo” received a gift of a flying horse; which he would mount at night and fly off to meet his beloved. A jealous woman had the horse’s wings cut off, so that the horse fell from the sky and passed away. The grieving shepherd made a horsehead fiddle from the now-wingless horse’s skin and tail hair, and used it to play poignant songs about his horse. The Morin Khuur can produce the rich varied tones of a cello or be coaxed to sound like a horse neighing and galloping.
National sports include wrestling, archery and horse-racing and they are known as the Three Games of Men, rooted in the mists of antiquity and continue to be very popular among the Mongolian people today. Every year in mid-July, communities across Mongolia celebrate these sports during a national celebration called “Naadam Festival”.
Traditional Mongolian wrestling called “Bukh” is the most prominent sport amongst the Mongolian people and is one of the three main competitions in the above-mentioned annual national celebration. Archery and horse racing are the two other main competitions in the “Naadam Festival” but he who emerges victorious in the wrestling competition wins the greatest glory and praise. Mongolian people prize the strength, skill and dignified character required to win the wrestling competition, and of which are the hallmark characteristics of great wrestlers.
Wrestling is the most popular of all Mongolian sports and is the highlight of the “Naadam Festival”. Historians claim that Mongol-style wrestling originated some seven thousand years ago. Hundreds of wrestlers from different cities and provinces take part in the national wrestling competition. There are no weight categories or age limits. Each wrestler has his own attendant herald. The aim of the competition is to knock one’s opponent off balance and throw him down, whereby making him touch the ground with his elbow and knee.
Horse-racing is an important part of the “Naadam Festival”. The riders are aged from 5 to 12, the kids being excellent riders, for both girls and boys have been riding since infancy. As a popular saying goes, “The nomad is born in the saddle”. Competitions are not held on special racetracks, but right across the steppe, where riders are confronted with various obstacles like rivers, ravines and hills. The distance varies according to the age group of the horses, somewhere between 15 km and 35 km.
Information about archery can be found in literary and historical documents of the 13th century Mongolia and even before. According to historians, archery contests began in the 11th century. The Mongols use a compound bow, built up of layers of horn, sinew, bark and wood.
Beginning the 20th century modem types of sport started to develop in Mongolia. After the Mongolian Sports Committee was founded in 1947 voluntary sports clubs and associations were formed. These organizations played a tangible role in promoting sport as a mass movement. Nowadays, track and field sports, football, basketball, volleyball, skating, skiing, motorcycle racing, mountain climbing, chess and other sports are widely played in Mongolia.
TRADITIONAL HOUSING – “GER”
With a history of over a thousand years, this portable dwelling made of wood lashed together with leather thongs and covered with felt is the home of the Mongolian nomads. Easy to erect and dismantle, the ger, its furnishings, and the stove inside can be carried by just three camels, or wagons pulled by yaks making it ideal for the nomadic way of life.
The average dwelling is small but spacious enough to provide adequate living space for a family, while being wind resistant with good ventilation. Gers are constructed of a latticed wood structure covered with layers of felt and canvas. The felt helps the ger retain heat and the canvas over it protects from rain.
Naadam Festival – probably the most well-known Mongolian Festival. Originating from the beginning of the previous century, the festival consists of the “three manly sports”- wrestling, horse riding and archery, accompanies by festivities, dancing, singing and socializing. The event is celebrated all over Mongolia, with the main events taking place in the capital.
Tsagaan Sar – the “white moon” celebrations are celebrated at the Lunar New Year. It is a tradition to climb a sacred mountain on the first day of the New Year, to welcome the first morning of the New Year on the mountain peak. On the three following days, Mongolians visit their relatives and friends, and enjoy traditional food and drink.