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Archery at Mongolia's Naadam Festival

Mongolian Archery

Mongolian archery remains a national sport in the country in modern times – one of the “Three Manly Sports’ of the annual Naadam Festival but its history stretches back centuries and it helped the Mongols to conquer the largest land empire in history.

Mongolian archery competitor

Historical Perspective

The Mongols have used bows and arrows for centuries including on the battlefield  – from standing and from horseback – and when hunting for food.  There’s even a legend of Erkhii Mergen, an archer who saved the Mongolian people from a drought by shooting six suns out of the sky. Also, according to The Secret History of the Mongols, when one of Chinggis Khan’s ancestors wanted to demonstrate the strength of unity she instructed her feuding sons to snap a single arrow – which was easy – and then to repeat the action with a set of five arrows which was impossible because of their combined strength.

Bows And Arrows

Mongolia’s composite bow has multiple layers and is handmade from multiple materials found within Mongolia including horn, leather, birch wood and bark, and fish glue. When unstrung, Mongolian bows retain a curve. The arrows are made from birch, the fletchings of the arrows from the tail feathers of birds, and the arrowheads from metal blades, bone, or wood.

Mongolian bows and arrows used in Mongolian archery

Mongolian composite bows and arrows handmade by master craftsman Tomorkhuu Batmonkh who provides our one-day archery experiences.

During Mongolia’s archery competitions,  the archers are constantly calculating and calibrating. A softened bow needs to stretch further to reach the target, while a hardened bow needs to be stretched less. Variables include the changing temperature and weather conditions throughout the day of the competition.  Another important variable is the strength and direction of the wind. The winning marksmen and women are awarded the title of ‘state marksman’  – also known as ‘mergen’ or sharpshooter.

Three Styles Of Mongolian Archery

There are three main archery styles in Mongolia – Buriat, Uriankhai and Khalk. All three are included in Mongolia’s state Naadam competition with Khalkh style being the common national archery style. The national title-winning archery is Khalkh archery as the shooting distance is the furthest and it is standardised by age and gender. The other two styles are considered national heritage styles. Typically over 300 archers compete in the three different styles during the state Naadam. In Uriankhai style archery, male-only competitors shoot from  30 and 40 meters. In the Buriat style, both men and women compete and shoot from a distance of 30 to 45 meters.

Khalkh Mongolian Archery

Teams of twelve archers emerge onto the shooting line and in turn launch four arrows each at the targets which are leather cylinders installed in the ground. The shooting distance is 75 metres for men and 60 metres for women. For those under 18, the distance is set at a rate of three to four metres per year of age.

 

A Mongolian archery competitor taking aim at the Naadam Festival (Three Manly Sports Festival) n Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

The Target  – There’s no such thing as a bad score in Mongolian Archery!

When you are on the archery field, look out for the small brown and red leather cylinders stacked in two or three rows on the ground. They are the targets – called ‘hasaa’.

The red ones in the middle of the brown targets are the central targets for the archers, but hitting the red ones won’t grant the archer an extra score. The score is given only if a hasaa moves at least eight centimetres from its original location – the width of one hasaa. So long as it moves the requisite distance, hitting any hasaa is equally scored ‘1’. There are no special high-score hasaas.

An archer is given 40 shots in total. Twenty of them are given to hitting 60 hasaas lined in three rows. The next twenty chances are given to hitting 30 hasaas lined in two rows.

 

A Mongolian archery competitior at the Naadam Festival

Judging In Mongolian Archery

A group of judges (surchid) stand near the target area (generally named as zurkhai).  Archers, after shooting four times, will be obliged to stand at the zurkhai to serve as  a judge or co-judge, for the two next shifts.

  • The judges at the targets will use body language to convey technical information to the shooting archers. In the case of a successful hit, the surchid will raise their hands with the palms up and shout ‘uukhai’ which means a point is counted.
  • When the arrow flies over the target, the surchid will make a sliding movement with their hands (with the palms down) over the targets, thereby showing the archer how high the arrow sailed over the hasaa. Watching this body language, the archer calculates their next shot.
  • If the arrow strikes the ground short of the target, the surchid will show the length of the gap by their arms. If both arms are far stretched out, it will mean that the flight of the archer’s arrow was quite short of the target.
  • Sometimes, the arrows reach the targets, but don’t hit the hasaa strong enough to make a score. The surchid will make a stepping or drumming movement with their hands.

A Mongolian archery competitor at Mongolia's Naadam Festival

Mongolia joined UNESCO’s Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2005. Included on the list is the Naadam Festival which includes Mongolian archery. Learn more here (link).

 

The images used throughout this post were taken by EL guests. We work in long-term local community partnership with Tomorkhuu Batmonkh – one of Mongolia’s most successful archers but also a talented craftsman of the Mongolian composite bow. To meet him and to learn more about the skill involved in making Mongolian bows and arrows and in the skill of archery, look at our archery workshop.

Jess @ Eternal Landscapes

Jessica Brooks
Jessica Brooks
I’m Jess Brooks. I am the founder of Eternal Landscapes Mongolia - a registered Mongolian business and social travel enterprise that focuses on providing travellers with a real 21st Century insight into Mongolia. I have been based in Mongolia since 2006 and together with my beloved Mongolian team, we focus on tourism that makes a positive difference. I'm also a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society - awarded for my work in Mongolia and a published guidebook author - having worked together with World Adventure Guides to produce a digital interactive guide to Mongolia. http://www.jessbrooks.co.uk/
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