Eight centuries ago, Genghis Khan and his armies rampaged across the steppe in central Asia, conquering lands and peoples to create a Mongol kingdom whose reach exceeded that of any other empire before or since. History gives us a view of the Mongols as vicious and unkempt heathens, but we know from books such as the 13th century The Secret History of the Mongols that cultural life on the steppe was alive and well, ritualized in both athletic and spiritual realms.
Mongolia’s most famous festival, Naadam, has its origins in the steppe celebrations and competitions that began in Genghis Khan’s day, perhaps in concert with weddings and other spiritual assemblies. Then and now, sporting competitions took place in three areas: horseracing, archery, and wrestling. Starting in 1639, these “Three Manly Sports” were integrated into an event called Danshig Naadam, a yearly gathering of nomads, nobles, and monks from across the country to participate in both sports and spiritual activities.
Nowadays, Mongolia aficionados may know that Naadam is held on July 11-13, and in fact, it remains a national holiday on those dates. But that festival – still the most popular time to visit Mongolia – is actually the secular celebration of this ancient gathering. After the 1921 People’s Revolution, the government recast the event as a sporting event only, eliminating the religious and spiritual aspects.
With the end of Communism in 1990 came a return of Buddhism, and the monks and monasteries began to flourish once again. Finally, in 2015, the city of Ulaanbaatar and the monasteries came together to reestablish the original Danshig Naadam festival, held August 6-7, adding back the religious competitions and cultural performances, such as the Buddhist tsam dance, to the Three Manly Sports.
We spent two days enjoying the carnival atmosphere of Danshig Naadam. Like a state fair, the festival is filled with animals, game booths, crafts, picnics, cotton candy, and happy crowds under the beating summer sun.
About an hour outside of Ulaanbaatar, at Hui Doloon Hudag, the main stadium and the other sporting venues became my substitute for the Olympic Games this summer. In marked contrast to that modern extravaganza, however, here the opening ceremony featured bleating Buddhist horns and clanging cymbals, chanting monks, and colorful parades of horses and flags.
Also unlike modern sporting events, the competitors here wear traditional clothing and follow ancient customs as part of their sports. In wrestling, male participants don an unusual outfit of briefs, a skimpy open-chested, sleeved top and leather boots with upturned toes, and they perform an ancient eagle dance before and after they clash. Top-ranked wrestlers choose their opponents, so early matches are uneven and quick, while later ones can be long stand-offs. Matches are not timed, and competitors lose if they touch the ground at any time with a body part other than hands or feet.
Mongolia has a horse-based history and culture; children learn to ride early and are seemingly as comfortable on horses as we are in chairs. The main horse race at Danshig Naadam is a 30-km cross-country event with children aged 5-13 as jockeys. By the end of that age range, many children are already too heavy, so the races are usually won by tiny youngsters. We stationed ourselves near the finish line and, true to form, this year’s winner looked like a 6 or 7-year-old boy, galloping in a cloud of dust as he whipped his mount to victory. Boys and girls compete together in this race, and many of the top finishers we saw were female.
Men and women both compete, but do so separately, in the archery tournaments. The handmade bows and elegant costumes captivated me so much I don’t even know who won these events! Men shoot from 75 meters and women from 65 meters; both are so accurate that officials stand right near the targets to repair the walls after a hit.
Danshig Naadam was a great way to experience Mongolian culture, ancient and current. Families rode in from near and far, on horses or in pick-ups, and set up tents for the festivities. Competitors and spectators alike were dressed in colorful fashions, and there was a sense of holiday merriment in the air.
I felt very lucky to be part of the real Danshig Naadam festival in only its second year back in existence after its Communist-triggered hiatus. If you have a chance to visit Mongolia in summer, aim for mid-July or early August to take advantage of these fabulous opportunities to mingle with Mongolians at their most famous festivals.
Part of a series of posts on my trip to Mongolia in August 2016. Other posts can be found here:
Framing a House Mongolian Style: https://lexklein.wordpress.com/2016/08/26/framing-a-house-mongolian-style/
A Steppe Out of Time: https://lexklein.wordpress.com/2016/08/19/a-steppe-out-of-time/
Ulaanbaatar’s Contrasts and Surprises: https://lexklein.wordpress.com/2016/08/16/ulaanbaatars-contrasts-and-surprises/
Nothing Narrow Here: https://lexklein.wordpress.com/2016/08/01/nothing-narrow-here/