Mongolian Culture

The Mongolian way of life is nomadic and intimately connected with the ways of animals. Despite urbanisation, the traditions of the steppes live on. Even in the cities, most Mongolians continue to live in a ger, a large, white felt tent that can be moved easily and has a universal layout: the door always faces south; towards the back and a little to the west is the place of honour set aside for guests; the back of the ger, the khoimor, is the place for elders and most treasured possessions; and on the back wall is the family altar, with Buddhist images, family photos and suitcases. Get a local to explain the dozens of traditional, religious and superstitious rules and customs associated with gers.

More Mongolians are moving to the cities, and living in Russian-style apartment buildings, but the old nomadic lifestyle is still a way of life for many Mongolians.

In the country, families move with the seasons to find food for their animals. They live in a large circular tent, called a ger, which has been cleverly designed to provide warmth in the bitterly cold winter, and cool shade in the summer. Gers are strong enough to withstand the fierce winds which sweep the steppe, yet they can be packed onto a single cart and reassembled in a few hours when the family reach their new grazing grounds.

Even in the city, many families prefer to live in a ger in the “suburbs” on the outskirts of the cities. Others live in Russian-style apartment buildings, or in baishin – homes made of wood, mud and cement.

The predominant religion is Tibetan Buddhism, with small numbers of Christians and Sunni Muslims. During communist rule, all religions were outlawed and thousands of Buddhist monks were arrested. Many were never seen again. Freedom of religion was restored in 1990, and since then, there has been a dramatic resurgence of interest in Buddhism and in many other religions.

Breakfast and lunch are the most important meals of the day. Both usually consist of a soup made from boiled mutton with lots of fat and flour with perhaps some rice or yoghurt (fresh or dried). The main drink is salty tea, but men also drink either vodka or a home-made drink called airag, which is made from fermented mare’s milk.

In the countryside, people use animal dung as fuel for their cooking fire. It’s the daughter’s job to collect the dried dung from the paddocks. In the cities, there is electricity and gas in most homes, but poor families would collect fallen coal from near the railway tracks and use that for cooking and heating.

Every year in July, Mongolians celebrate the anniversary of the 1921 Mongolian Revolution by holding the Naadam festival, a series of sporting events featuring Mongolia’s three “manly” sports – wrestling, archery and horse racing. The other major festival is Tsagaan Sar, or “white month”. Held in January, it celebrates the lunar new year with three days of eating, drinking and singing.

Mongolians have always taken wholeheartedly to Tibetan Buddhism and the links between Mongolia and Tibet are old and deep. Once in a lifetime, every devout Buddhist Mongolian tries to reach the holy city of Lhasa; the Tibetans in turn have relied on various Mongolian tribes to sustain their power. In Mongolia at the time of the communist takeover in 1921, there were 110,000 lamas (monks) living in about 700 monasteries. Beginning in the 1930s, thousands of monks were arrested, sent to Siberian labour camps and never heard from again. Monasteries were closed and ransacked and all religious worship and ceremonies outlawed. Not until 1990 was freedom of religion restored. Since then, there’s been a phenomenal revival of Buddhism (and other religions). Monasteries have reopened, and even some ex-Communist Party officials have become lamas. Monasteries and temples (s?m) always have Tibetan names. There’s a significant minority of Sunni Muslims in the far western regions of Mongolia, most of whom are ethnic Kazaks.

Mongolia’s paintings, music and literature are dominated by Tibetan Buddhism and nomadism. Tsam dances are performed to exorcise evil spirits and are influenced by nomadism and Shamanism. Outlawed during communism, they’re beginning to be performed again. Traditional music involves a wide range of instruments and singing styles. In Mongolian khoomi singing, carefully trained male voices produce harmonic overtones from deep in the throat, releasing several notes at once. Traditional music and dance performances aren’t complete without a touch of contortionism, an ancient Mongolian tradition.

Mongolian, the official language, is a member of the Ural-Altaic family of languages, which includes Finnish, Turkish, Kazak, Uzbek and Korean. Since 1944, the Russian Cyrillic alphabet has been used to write Mongolian. The country has produced a huge literature, almost none of which is known to speakers of European languages. Only recently have scholars translated the most important text of all – Mongol-un Nigucha Tobchiyan (The Secret History of the Mongols) – which celebrates Mongolia’s days of greatness.

Breakfast and lunch are the most important meals of the day. Both usually consist of a soup made from boiled mutton with lots of fat and flour with perhaps some rice or yoghurt (fresh or dried). The main drink is salty tea, but men also drink either vodka or a home-made drink called airag, which is made from fermented mare’s milk.

In the countryside, people use animal dung as fuel for their cooking fire. It’s the daughter’s job to collect the dried dung from the paddocks. In the cities, there is electricity and gas in most homes, but poor families would collect fallen coal from near the railway tracks and use that for cooking and heating.

Events

The biggest event of the year is the Naadam Festival, known as the eriyn gurvan naadam, after the three ‘manly sports’ of wrestling, archery and horse racing. The festival is held all over the country, normally between 11 and 13 July, the anniversary of the 1921 Mongolian Revolution. The major events take place during the first two days. Tsagaan Sar (White Month) is the start of the lunar new year in January or February. After months of enduring a bitter winter, Mongolians celebrate over three days with a lot of food, liquor and singing.

Ascendancy of Tibetan Buddhism and nomadism is visible in Mongolia’s paintings, music and literature. Tsam dances, influenced by nomadism and shamanism, are performed to expel evil spirits. Outlawed during communism, they are coming back on stage and to ritual ceremonies again. 

Traditional music involves a wide range of instruments and singing styles. In Mongolian khoomisinging, carefully trained male voices produce harmonic overtones from the depth of the throat, releasing several notes at once. 

Arts

Ascendancy of Tibetan Buddhism and nomadism is visible in Mongolia’s paintings, music and literature. Tsam dances, influenced by nomadism and shamanism, are performed to expel evil spirits. Outlawed during communism, they are coming back on stage and to ritual ceremonies again.

Traditional music involves a wide range of instruments and singing styles. In Mongolian khoomi singing, carefully trained male voices produce harmonic overtones from the depth of the throat, releasing several notes at once.

Traditional music and dance performances are not complete without a touch of contortionism, an ancient Mongolian body art.

 

Mongolian language

Khalkha Mongolian, the official language, is a member of the Ural-Altaic family of languages, which includes Finnish, Turkish, Kazak, Uzbek and Korean.

Since 1944, the Russian Cyrillic alphabet has been used in written Mongolian. The country produced a huge literature, almost none of which is known to European language speakers.

Only recently have scholars translated the most important text of all – Mongolyn Nuuts Tovchoo (The Secret History of the Mongols) – which celebrates Mongolia’s days of prominence and glory.

 

Food

Most famous Mongolian recipes

An old Mongolian saying advices: “Keep breakfast for yourself, share lunch with your friend and give dinner to your enemy”.

The biggest and most important meals for Mongolians are breakfast and lunch, which usually consist of boiled mutton with lots of fat and flour and maybe some dairy products or rice.

Kazakhs in western Mongolia add variety to their diets with horsemeat.

Mongolians are big tea drinkers and the classic drink is süütei tsai (tea with milk). Men who refuse to drink arkhi (vodka) are usually considered wimps. Herders make their own unique home brewed airag, which is fermented mare’s milk with an alcoholic content of about 3%.

Many Mongolians distil it further to produce shimiin arkhi, where the alcohol content is boosted to around 12%.

 

History

Tsagaan Sar (the white month), the first month of spring, has been one of the most important celebrations of Mongols for centuries. This is a time of the year when winter passes away and spring comes in.

The Great Chingis Khaan played an important role to make Tsagaan Sar a State ceremony. In 1207, at the Mouse hour of the first day of the Year of the Red Rabbit, the Great Khaan, wearing all his new clothes, prayed to Blue Sky and Vast Land, paid respect to the elderly and visited his Oulen mother. In 1216, the year of the Red Mouse, the Khaan issued a decree to award people on the day of Tsagaan Sar with gold and clothing materials taken from the State reserve. The Khaan also decreed to award a special title to anyone who is over 120 years old and to release prisoners on the day of Tsagaan Sar except those convicted of the 5-cruelty case.

In 1723, the “Mongol Tsaaz” (Mongol Law) stated that all governors and noblemen were obliged to wear a “Jinst Malgai” (special ceremony hat of the high society) and a “Zaht deel” (deel with a collar) on the day of Tsagaan Sar and to pray in front of the Ministry 9 times with 3 praying words each time. Tsagaan Sar is considered the beginning of the lunar calendar year.

In 1911, the political and religious leader of Mongolia Bogd Khaan approved a new State flag featuring Soyombo (the national symbol) on yellow background. He ordered that all government houses, ministries, the army and monasteries keep this flag raised outside their compounds from the 30th day of the last month of winter to the 15th day of Tsagaan Sar. In other times, the flag was to be kept inside the compounds.

Despite restrictions of Tsagaan Sar during the communist time, thousand years old traditions were never given up and informal celebrations continued among family and relatives especially in the countryside. Since 1990, with democratic changes in the country, Tsagaan Sar has become a nationwide celebration of people.

 

How Mongolians celebrate Tsagaan Sar

Tsagaan Sar is a celebration of New Year, addition of age and safe ending of winter for animals. Tsagaan Sar is a festival of white food (food with white color – milk and diary products, rice, etc.) Tsagaan Sar represents a heartfelt spirit of people. On this day, people clean their body and mind from all bad things and start a new fresh clean life. Tsagaan Sar is the day when people express respect to elder people and relatives, renew friendship and sympathy to each other and reconfirm family ties. Family and relatives gather together.

The Tsagaan Sar eve or the last day of winter is called “Bituun”, which means “full darkness”. It is a single night when no moon is visible in the sky. On this day people eat to be really full. It is believed that if you stay hungry, you will be hungry all the coming year around. All the Bituun ceremony is supposed to start when it gets dark outside.

On the first day of the new year, people get up early before sunrise, wear new clothes, open the “Orkh” (ger’s top window cover) and make a fire. Tsagaan Sar signifies the beginning of spring. Although steppes are still covered with snow, the scent of spring is already in the air. The coming year’s weather is analyzed based on animals’ mood and behavior as well as other signs of nature. All men go to the top of a nearby hill or mountain carrying food and make a pray to the Nature and the State. Then, men go to certain directions prescribed by the Buddhist horoscope. This ceremony is called “muruu gargakh”, which means “starting your footprints”. It is believed important to start your way in the right direction on the first day of the new year as prescribed by your lunar horoscope in order to be lucky all year round.

With the sunrise, the greeting ceremony starts inside the family. The oldest person stays in “Hoimor” (ger’s northern side) and younger family members greet him or her first and then greet each other. The younger greets the older by extending arms with palms up and holding the older’s arms from underneath. Everybody greets each other except husband and wife. Usually, people hold “Khadag” (long and narrow piece of yellow, white or blue silk with a spiritual meaning) in their arms.

When the greeting ceremony is over, everyone sits behind the table and starts exchanging “Khoorog” (a snuff bottle made usually of semi-precious stones and filled with finely pulverized tobacco). The typical greeting words are “Daaga dalantai, byaruu bulchintai, sureg mal targan orov uu?”, which can be translated as “Does your 2-year old horse have enough fat on the withers (means good health), does your 2-year old yak have enough muscles (means good power), did all your animals pass winter safely?” and “Sar shinedee saihan orov uu? Nas suuder hed hurev?”, which is used to ask an old person about his/her good health and age as people are proud of old age. Exchanging Khoorog means expressing friendly intentions to each other and is usually the starting point of introducing a stranger. Exchanging Khoorog creates a warm atmosphere between people and makes the start of a friendly talk that helps to learn the true heart of the stranger. People eat lot of “Booz” (steamed Mongolian dumplings) and drink “Airag” (fermented mare’s milk). When the ceremony finishes in the family, the hosts give presents to each person. The present symbolizes a wish for wellbeing, health, wealth and power. Everyone moves to the next family starting with the next oldest person’s ger first. The Tsagaan Sar celebration can continue for a month, but the first, second and third days are the most important.

 

Food and drinks

Following the traditions of centuries, every family prepares the Tsagaan Sar Plate, which is the main food decoration of the table. It consists of “Ih Idee” (big plate) and “Baga idée” (small plate). “Ul boov” (Mongolian traditional biscuit) are put in layers on the big plate. The number of layers should be odd. Traditionally, grandparents have 7 layers of Ul boov, parents – 5 layers, and young couples – 3 layers. “Uuts”, sheep’s back and tail, is a must on the table. Bigger and fatter tail is considered more delicious. Airag is the important drink during Tsagaan Sar, however, “Shimiin arkhi” (milk vodka) and regular vodka accompany food as well.

DO NOT during Tsagaan Sar…

– Do not wear a black color deel

– Do not drink too much alcohol

– Do not spend overnight in another ger (not at home)

– Do not leave animals at the pasture overnight (animals should be close to ger)

– Do not greet your husband or wife

– Do not do a haircut

– Do not embroil or fix old clothes

– Do not get anything from another ger

– Do not kiss during greetings (old people may kiss their children and grandchildren)

Tsagaan Sar in Ulaanbaatar

Tsagaan Sar is a thriving holiday season in Ulaanbaatar. It has been an official nationwide celebration since 1990. Today, it is one of the most favorite holidays for UB people.

The Tsagaan Sar national wrestling championship is held in the wrestling palace. It is one of the most important wrestling events where the winner earns the next title (the other one is the Naadam, July 11-12, wrestling). UB is full of heavy traffic during the Tsagaan Sar days. Everybody wears new national costumes and goes out to visit relatives, friends and family. Early in the morning, UB streets are full of people who “start their footprints”. The main Buddhist monastery Gandan holds the Tsagaan Sar prayer, which is visited by President and Prime Minister.

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