Nomadic Wedding Ceremony

Wedding ceremonies among nomads vary according to the customs of the ethnic group or groups to which the bride and the groom belong. All weddings, however, must take place on an auspicious day, as advised by a local lama after he consults a traditional lunar calendar. Before negotiating the wedding date, relatives of the groom arrive at the bride’s house (or ger) with a load of presents. Historically, livestock made up the primary gifts, and in the countryside, this tradition continues. The number of livestock given depends on the wealth of the groom’s family, but an odd number of animals are always presented to the bride’s family (e.g. 7, 9, or 11). Her father is given special presents (including a pot of glue) symbolizing the strength of the future relationship between his daughter and the new husband. If the bride’s parents accept all these gifts, they are agreeing to the wedding. At this point, both parties then discuss the date of the ceremony and consider the couple formally engaged.

In the countryside, a groom-to-be prepares his new ger with the assistance of his parents. The future bride’s responsibilities include buying cooking pots and cleaning materials, preparing the stove in the new home, particularly the layer of felt on the ger ceiling. Tradition clearly defines who completes each task. A man always takes care of the walls and wooden furniture. On the day of the wedding ceremony, the groom visits the bridal family with an elderly, respected member of the local community. When the two men arrive at the in-laws’ door, they find it locked and must persuade the family to open the door by uttering wise, appealing words. Once they have charmed their way into the home, the hosts provide them with Mongolian dairy products and meat, as they approach the new bride. The family then utters phrases such as “the deer hunter (husband) is ours and the sable weaver seamstress (wife) is yours; we hold both their fates in our hands and these fates have to be merged.”

The bride, dressed in her most elegant deel, follows the groom and his companion to her new home, followed by her own closest friends. The party arrives at the ger on horseback, where a carpet is rolled out from the entrance to welcome them. The bride tradition¬ally enters her new ger by noon and a huge meal begins, with the father offering the first toast of the groom. For the rest of the day the two families, their relatives, and friends sing, eat, and drink to celebrate the wedding, all sitting around a large ceremonial table.
The next morning the new bride has to open the smoke holes of her own ger and the ger belonging to her in-laws. Three days later her own parents visit the new couple.

Tsagaan sar – Lunar new year

Its name means ‘White Month’ and the holiday welcomes the spring while commemorating the passing of winter. Tsagaan Sar originally marked the end of summer, 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 the European twelve-month system, hence the Lunar New Year dates change every year. The festival is usually celebrated at the end of January or the beginning of February, and officially lasts three days.

The best place to celebrate Tsagaan Sar is the countryside, where a visitor can clearly see Mongolia’s time-honoured traditional customs and culture. During the holiday, people greet each other in a unique way: young people place their hands under the outstretched arms of older people and say Amar baina uu, a traditional new year greeting that means ‘how are you’.

It will seem like everyone visits everyone (from close relatives to acquaintances) for Tsagaan Sar. The three days honouring the White Month principally involve sitting around a ger stove and passing food and drink back and forth, always using the right hand to accept food or alcohol. Visitors are given gifts at almost every ger they visit. In Ulaanbaatar Tsagaan Sar is a shorter holiday, but with the same hospitality and visiting schedule, as well as eating and drinking behaviour.

Mongolian Music & Singing

Odes about the open steppe, nature and horses make for popular themes in the various genres of traditional Mongolian music. A popular one of these is known as long song (Urtyn Duu)—a name which refers to the technique of elongating every syllable in a ballad. The original long songs were written about eight hundred years ago, and a well-trained singer can extend 10 to 15 words of lyrics into a five minute song, much to the delight of an audience.

However, Mongolia is best known for its hoomii, described as “throat singing”. Perfecting this beautiful, almost otherworldly, acoustic singing takes lengthy training. The style originates from western Mongolia, but is performed across the country.

In addition to singing, Mongolians also play a variety of 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 country’s most recognizable and beloved musical instrument is the morin khuur (the horse-head fiddle), which Mongolians say can recreate sounds akin to the movement of a horse. A square fiddle, the instrument has 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 handmade and fairly expensive instruments. Small flutes and pipes are also popular.

While music is a popular form of entertainment in the country, many musical instruments are used purely for religious ceremonies. A shell shaped bugle called a dun is used to gather lamas before a ceremony and ganlinhorns 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 filed down to size. An example of this instrument can be found at the Choijin Lama Museum in Ulaanbaatar (see the city guide section) and at the Manzushir Monastery, 50 kilometers south of the capital.

Mongolia is also home to some remarkable dances, and the nation’s Buddhist temples host the spectacular tsam dances during special religious ceremonies. Lamas wearing huge, ornate masks and brilliantly decorated costumes sway and circle to the sound of gongs and trumpets. It is theatrical art form, requiring dancers to assume the external attributes of different apostles and devils, animals and real people. The scenery, opening, action, musical climax and outcome of a tsam all play an important role in illustrating the characters of the personages depicted: whether cruel, calm or humorous.

Mongolian Ger

A round, portable, wood-framed felt tent, covered in durable white canvas, provides the basic description on the traditional Mongolian home, known to many familiar with Russian as a yurt. The modern shape of a Mongolian ger has evolved from huts, marquees and wheeled abodes.

During ancient times, people in what is now Mongolia made shelters from dry branches and animal skins, which may well have been the forerunner of the contemporary ger. The first gers to very closely resemble their modern day equivalents date back to 2500-3000 BC. In Mongolia’s medieval times large gers belonging to kings and nomadic chieftains could be found on carts dragged by oxen (typically, 22 beasts were hitched to these wagons).

ger has two principal elements: the wooden frame and the felt cover. In Mongolian, its essential components are called the khana (the wooden shell), the uni (the poles that support the ceiling, measuring 1.5-3 meters), the bagana (the two central support columns, and the toono (the hole in the roof through which smoke escapes from the ubiquitous woodstove). A ger has between 4-12 khanas and 45 to 120 unidepending on its size, but only one toono, and only two baganas

Several felt layers cover the wooden frame and external white canvas; they are designed to make the geraesthetically appealing, while protecting it from rain and snow.

Mongolia nomads, who move several times each year, pack their gers onto the backs of camels or camel and ox carts. The weight of a ger is approximately 250 kg. For an expert, it only takes half-an-hour to collapse an average ger and a bit longer to rebuild it.

Nomads, experienced urban Mongolians, or an intrepid traveler assembles a ger in the following order.

  1. Lay the circular, collapsible wooden floor.
  2. Erect the khanas and the door in a circle and tie them together with a long rope.
  3. Erect the Baganas, the two wooden columns, in the center of the floor, tie them to the toono.
  4. Connect the toono and the upper edges of the khanas with the unis: the long thin poles.
  5. Now that the frame stands upright, drape the canvas, then the white felt covers over it.
  6. Fasten these covers securely to the frame using ties
  7. Wrap a long, thin felt belt (30 cm-s wide) around the outer edge of the cover, to prevent strong wind from blowing into the ger.
  8. Partially cover the toono, the smoke hole, with a rectangle of felt. Use this felt to fully cover the hole at night or when weather conditions turn harsh.

A Mongolian ger’s door traditionally faces south, ostensibly providing more light and protecting inhabitants from northern winds. This practice is so strongly ingrained, that no matter which direction the wind comes from, the ger’s always opens in the same direction.

Tradition also dictates the arrangement of furniture in the ger. The stove, called the golomt, invariably stands in the center of the ger, serving as its most important object. A ger is divided into a western, male half, and an eastern, female half. Mongolians place objects traditionally associated with men on the west side of the ger, including the host family’s bed, and any horse saddles, bridles or other harnesses. Women’s and children’s possessions are found in the east of the ger, along with any cooking utensils belonging to the family.  Custom dictates that when a man enters a ger he steps to the western side and a woman to the eastern side. The hoimor, a kind of shrine, sits directly opposite the door and houses and displays valuable items and momentums, including family photos and usually an image of the Dali Lama and or Chinggis Khan.

Renowned for its red and yellow backgrounds decorated with brightly colored patterns, ger-style furniture includes beds, wardrobes, and cupboards, while even cooking utensils bear these vivid, multi-colored designs.

While modern, western-style houses have become regular fixtures in Ulaanbaatar and Mongolia’s other cities, rural Mongolians have retained their traditional lifestyle, of which gers remain an integral part. Visitors can take the opportunity to experience unique dwelling and the life-style it fosters at one of the countryside’s many ger camps or visiting the home of a nomadic Mongolian family.

Nomadic Lifestyles

Over the centuries the people of the steppe have developed their own ethics of social conduct. Mongolians are known to be a very hospitable nation. The hard conditions of life, far from embittering them, gave rise to the long-standing traditions of friendliness and hospitality. The host is well aware that the wayfarer entering his ger is tired and may still have a long way to go. Of course, he has also found himself in similar situations more than once. And so he does his best to anticipate and satisfy his guest’s wishes.
The Mongols do not like to talk about unpleasant things. It is believed that such talk may invoke trouble. It is even more impermissible to say bad things about friends and acquaintances. If at times something unpleasant has to be said, people try to do it as tactfully and inoffensively as possible. On the other hand, expressions of goodwill and praise are widespread. Praise of their mother country, the beauty of the natural scenery, the hospitality of the host, etc., presents a special form of folklore.

There are many types of greeting in the Mongolian language that is used depending on the situation and the time. The townsfolk usually say “Sain bainuu?” which is equivalent to “How are you?” The expected answer is “Sain”, which means “Fine”. National ethics do not permit a negative answer. It is only later in the conversation that you may mention your problems if you have any. Countrymen often salute each other with the question “Are you wintering well?” or “Are you spending this spring in peace?” Needless to say, the greeting should suit the season. Shepherds ask each other “Are sheep grazing in peace?” or “Are your sheep fattening well?”
The word “peace” often figures in greetings and good wishes. In the Mongolian semantics, it is equivalent to happiness. After all, when a person has no worries, he is at peace and, consequently, happy. In the village, the guest finding his host or hostess at work expresses specific good wishes. For instance, if the hostess is milking the cow, he says, “May your bucket be brim-full of milk.” If she is beating wool, he says, “May the wool be as soft as silk.” If the family is playing some game, his wish will be that everyone should win if only once. The answer to good wishes is always the same: “May it be as you say.”

When you are talking to an elderly person whom you know you are expected to add the respectful “guai” to his name, for instance, Dorj-guai. Addressing a stranger who is older than you, say “Akh-aa” which can be translated as older brother or uncle. Family Relations also have their ethics. We say for instance, “My Wife” and the “Father of my children”. One always has to use the correct form of address depending on the person’s age or position. If in the cities a foreigner may safely behave like elsewhere in the world, in the countryside at every step he stumbles against all kinds of customs and traditions that he violates without even knowing it. Especially in remote regions where traditions and customs are stronger. True, people are not offended if foreigners do something the wrong way because of their ignorance. “The ignorant will not be punished”, the Mongols say.

In Mongolia, it is not accepted to knock at the door of ger or say, “Can I come in?” The guest as he approaches the ger is supposed to shout loudly, “Hold the dog!” (“Nokhoi Khori!” in Mongolian) even if there is no dog, for what he actually means is to let the host know that he is coming. The host and hostess emerge from the ger wearing their hats and buttoned-up deels. As for the hats, if in Europe men take off their hats when greeting each other, in Mongolia the rules of good behavior demand that they wear their hats in such cases. The host helps the guest dismount from his horse and takes him into the ger.

To begin with, the men exchange snuff bottles. Never mind if you do not have one. You should accept the host’s snuff bottle, take some stuff and return it. The bottle should never be returned with the lid tightly on. Then the hostess begins to serve tea, often made in the guest’s presence. It is not acceptable to ask the guest outright where he comes from and for what purpose. He should say this himself at some point during the conversation or after asking the traditional questions about the weather, the cattle, etc. The hostess serves tea in a small bowl, holding it with both hands stretched out towards the guest, or with the right hand supporting the elbow with the left arm. The guest is supposed to accept the cup in the same fashion. It would be very proper to let down the sleeves for it is considered extremely impolite to expose your wrists. The Mongols have their own ideas about the hearth, the ger and what is inside it, and the guest should take care to respect the old taboos. It is forbidden, for example, to pour water on the hearth or throw garbage into it, to touch the fire with a knife, step over the hearth or spill milk. Whistling in the ger or leaning against the supports is considered an ill omen.

In summer the host will offer you koumiss (fermented mare’s milk) instead of tea. To establish friendly relations it is customary to eat off a common plate and drink from a common cup, notably koumiss. The host fills the cup and hands it over to the guest. The latter drinks a little and returns the cup to the host who refills the cup and hands it over to another guest. The host drinks after all his guests have drunk from the cup. Nobody will insist on the faultless observance of all the customs and rules but learning at least some before a visit to Mongolia would please your hosts and allow you to get a real feel of Mongolian culture.

Naadam Festival

This annual sports festival 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 holds 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 and lead a huge procession around the Naadam Stadium, which features hundreds of adults and children dressed in costumes, representing all Mongolia’s ethnic groups. In Ulaanbaatar, wrestling takes place in the main stadium, while archery competitions occur all around the structure; the famously perilous horse races are held near the Chinggis Khan Airport.

Wrestling is the most popular of all Mongol sports. While the sport takes place in countries all over the world, Mongol-style wrestling involves distinct rituals and techniques, which some historians claim originated 7,000 years ago.

There are no weight categories or age limits in Mongolian national wrestling. The wrestlers wear heavy boots (gutuls), a very small, tight-fitting loincloth (known as zodog and shuudag), a pair of sleeves that meet across the back of the shoulders, resembling a tiny vestige of a jacket, and a pointed cap of velvet. The contestants come out during the competition, leaping, dancing, and flapping their arms like 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 as a sign of respect and unties his vest, after which the victor, again performing the eagle dance, takes a turn round the flag in the centre of the field. The victor receives symbolically important prize-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 a contest–today the latter is more common. At the National Naadam festival held in Ulaanbaatar, nine rounds are held. Those who lose in one round are eliminated from further rounds.

A wrestler who beats five opponents at the event is awarded the title of “Falcon”; one who wins seven rounds is given the title “Elephant”. A wrestler becomes a champion by winning nine rounds, obtaining the title of “Lion”, and if he wins two years in a row, he is called “Giant”. If a wrestler becomes a three-time champion at Naadam, the attribute “Nation-wide” is added to his title. A fourth such accomplishment and he is dubbed “Invincible”.

The winners of the tournament receive honorary titles and are also awarded various souvenirs. For them, however, the main award is the truly nation-wide popularity and fame that they acquire in the process.

Horse Racing
Another popular and ancient Mongolian sport, which traces its origins back to the Bronze Age, is horse racing. For the Naadam races, trainers select horses at least one month before the big day. The animals are separated from the herd, taken to an adequate pasture, and trained. Racehorses are divided into several age groups: two, three, four, and five-year-olds; over five years or adult horses, and stallions. The riders range in age from five to 12. Mongolian children are generally excellent equestrians, as many 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 skilful tacticians; they know how to hold the horse back so it has enough strength to last the entire 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 age of the horse–between 15 and 35 kilometers. Riders dress in bright, comfortable clothes. On their backs, they wear various symbolic designs, which also embellish the horses’ attire. The start and the finish provide a race’s most exciting moments. Before the beginning of each contest, the young jockeys ride round the starting point three times yelling the ancient call, “Giingo!”, a kind of war-cry. When every horse steps behind the boundary line, an official gives the starting command and the riders surge forward, setting the long-awaited race in motion.

After the main Nadaam races, winning riders trot a full circuit around Ulaanbaatar’s Central Stadium, accompanied by a herald. The winning horse receives the honorary title “Forehead of Ten Thousand Race Horses”, and the five runners-up are awarded medals and are informally dubbed the “Airag Five”. Tradition dictates that the victorious riders do three laps on their mounts, on the winning horses do three laps of honour, then ride to the grandstand, where each child drinks a large bowl of airag—fermented mare’s milk. He or she (most riders are boys, but some girls have been known to compete) then pours some on his mount’s rump. The Herald, in turn, chants a poem about the virtues of the horse, its rider, and its owner. Riders who finish last also figure into the post-race ceremony. The slowest horse and his jockey make their way to the main platform after the winners have departed. Although the young boy’s face typically conveys vexation and shame, he faces no derision from the spectators. Instead, they shout encouragement and to boost his confidence, and a nationally renowned storyteller recites a special ode expressing faith in the boy’s future success.

Ample information about archery appears in historical documents dating back to the 13th century and even before. Many believe the technology for this celebrated ancient sport emerged in the region as early as 300-200 BC, but historians say, archery contests were first held in the 11th century.

Mongols use a compound bow, built from layers of horn, sinew, bark and wood. When unstrung it is not straight, but curved. Archery remains more archaic and ritualistic than the nation’s other sports.

Targets consist of small woven-leather rings (some of which are painted red), laid out on the ground in a row, several meters across. Flat targets offer a challenging exercise in gauging trajectory for the archers. In olden times, women did not participate in these contests, but in the last few decades, they have started to do so. The distance to the targets is about 75 meters for men and 60 meters for women. Men shoot about 40 arrows and must score no less than 15 points to advance in the competition; women shoot 20 arrows and must score at least 13 points using the same bow as the men.

When an arrow hits the target, a group of people standing near the target (acting as judges) raise the cry of “Uukhai!”, and make signs with their hands to indicate a hit. The archer who scores the most points wins, earning the title Mergen (Super-marksman) as a result.


National Clothes of Mongolian Nomads

Young people in Mongolia favour western style clothes, while older Mongolians still wear the traditional deel (pronounced del) at and away from work. In the countryside, most people also prefer deel and boots as they’re more practical. In winter, young, and old, city and urban dwellers wear cashmere and fur to keep warm.

The deel is a loose, calf-length, tunic made from a single 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. A deel is worn with a brightly coloured sash and has the same cut whether worn by men or women, although male deels are wider and made of more sombre colours than their female counterparts. Each of Mongolia’s ethnic groups boasts its own deel style, distinguished by cut, colour and trim; despite being obvious to Mongolians, these differences typically go unnoticed by foreigners.

Generally, there are three different types of deel, each worn during a particular season. The dan deel is made of light, thin, brightly coloured material and is only worn by women, only during the late spring and summer. The terleg possesses slightly more padding and is worn by both men and women, while the winter deel is a seriously padded tunic, lined with sheepskin or layers of raw cotton.

Gutuls are knee-high, heelless boots, made from thick, stiff leather, and decorated with leather appliqué. The gutuls’ toes are upturned and several explanations have been offered for this unconventional style. One of the most plausible explanations is a religious motive. Lamas were traditionally forbidden from disturbing “the earth’s blessed sleep” i.e. kicking soil as they walked, so, the story goes, gutuls were designed to prevent devout Buddhist practitioners from disturbing the earth as they walked. Another explanation is that the unturned tip prevents a rider’s feet from slipping out of the stirrups. Whatever the historical rationale, it’s also true that gutuls are so thick and rigid that they would be almost impossible to walk in if they were flat. These hefty boots are still worn by some in Ulaanbaatar and by many people in the countryside.

With regards to hats, fur-trimmed hats, mostly made of sable, maintain their popularity in urban Mongolia. This piece of headgear, a staple of male and female winter attire, has two flaps, which can be tied to the top of the hat, or lowered to cover the wearer’s ears.