(Informal) Notes From The Mongolian Road
November 2, 2020
Mongolia's Orkhon River Valley
Mongolia’s Orkhon River Valley
November 9, 2020
Mongolian children on their horses at the start line of a Naadam Festival horse race

Mongolia’s Naadam Festival

Mongolia’s Naadam Festival is a national celebration.  It is also a favoured public holiday, one of Mongolia’s top sporting events, a celebration of culture and tradition and pride, and a vibrant festival. It is a celebration of first-class sportsmanship, ordinary people taking pride in their country and century’s old tradition melded together.  It is also a time when Mongolians celebrate who they are, how proud they are to be Mongolian, their heritage and the qualities that produced the warrior nation of Genghis Khan. It is not a tourist event.

The Three Manly Sports
Well. There’s four. Horse racing, wrestling, archery and also shagain kharvaa – ankle bone shooting.
A Mongolian archer at Mongolia's Naadam Festival

Winners of the archery competition are usually awarded the title of ‘mergen’ meaning ‘sharpshooter’. Archery competitors are accompanied by a choral tune (uuhai) where men and women stand on either side of the target (set up to 75 metres away for men) and sing with their hands raised to indicate the results.

Young jockeys heading for the finish line of one of Mongolia's horse racing competitions during Mongolia's Naadam Festival

The horse racing is a test of speed, stamina and strength. In Mongolia, it is the horse and not the jockey that wins the race. Child jockeys are chosen as they are lighter – their role is not to force the horse but only to guide it to the winning post.

Mongolian wrestlers doing their famous 'eagle dance' prior to competing at Mongolia's Naadam Festival

The participants of the 5th round of wrestling at the national Naadam Festival in Ulaanbaatar.  Before and after every match, each wrestler does the traditional ‘Eagle Dance’ (devekh) based on the flight of the mythical Garuda bird – said to symbolise power, strength and invincibility. This unique dance is an integral and indispensable aspect of the wrestling tradition. The fifth round (Falcon) is a dream title for every young or new wrestler as they qualify for their first state title.

 

Ankle bone shooting at Mongolia's Naadam Festival

It’s all about accuracy. Teams of 6-8 members (typically one or two have to be younger) flick domino-like tablets on a smooth wooden surface towards a target of sheep knuckle-bones, aiming to knock them into a target zone. Each shooter possesses their own adjusted shooting tools including stools and wears uniforms embossed with distinguished characteristics depending on their rank and merits.

The Historical Perspective
The origins of Naadam can be found in the khan meetings – the traditional councils held by warrior Mongols. Victory on a battlefield alone did not confer legitimacy of rule until publicly acclaimed at a gathering of representatives from every part of the territory/empire. At the gatherings, competitions were held in traditional games – considered essential skills for warriors.
In 1641, on the selection of Mongolia’s first Living Buddha (Zanabazar), Naadam was celebrated every three years to pay tribute to the new Living Buddha. On the death of the eighth Living Buddha in 1924, Mongolia became a Communist state and Naadam was celebrated on the date of the 1921 Revolution that brought independence from Chinese rule – July 11th. In 1925, the first post-revolutionary Naadam marked the first anniversary of the Mongolian People’s Government – it featured tanks, heavy propagandist parades and showcased socialist military might.
As Mathilde Michaud wrote in the UB Post:
‘The Naadam Festival is a unique demonstration of this mixing of eras in Mongolian culture…. Emblematic of Mongolia’s independence and national identity, Naadam took a new turn, as it became the country’s national day, a commemoration of the two revolutions that brought the country to its newly redefined national identity. Naadam has also more recently been a celebration of the foundation of the Mongolian Empire by Chinggis Khan.’
Mongolian flag at Mongolia's Naadam Festival

Saikhan Naadaarai! The Mongolian flag is displayed with pride throughout Mongolia’s Naadam festival – whether on a vehicle, at the stadium or as a face painting!

Countrywide Naadam

This national event is held in Ulaanbaatar on July 11th and 12th (with horse racing taking place in the week leading up to the event). The dates are the anniversary of the 1921 Revolution led by the Mongolian revolutionary Sukhbaatar that brought independence from the Qing Dynasty.

Then, each aimag (province) also holds its own Naadam with each aimag deciding on their own festival dates. Often, the dates of these provincial celebrations are announced roughly one month in advance only.   Each province is split into districts and so most of the districts will also hold a Naadam. Naadam celebrations are also held by small communities – as an example, herders coming together to honour the community ovoo (sacred stone shrine). Naadam is a holiday and a celebration and so most communities decide an auspicious day from the Mongolian Lunar Calendar. These smaller community events are typically only advertised by word of mouth within the local community.
Opening Ceremony

Young horse head fiddle musicians preparing for the opening ceremony at Mongolia's Naadam Festival

It’s not just the National Ulaanbaatar Naadam that holds an opening ceremony – no matter the size, each Naadam will have an ‘opening’ of some kind. For the Ulaanbaatar (national) Naadam, each year the Opening Ceremony is designed by a leading Mongolian artist with a different theme. Previously, N. Naranbaatar (the director of the National Academic Drama Theatre) was the artistic creator. In an interview he was asked about his plan for the opening ceremony:

‘Mongolia has a great and rich history. Our ancestors had great tradition, customs that we should still follow and value today. In the old days, Mongolians valued water like one’s eyes, they never washed their head in the river, and never wasted any water. So this year’s Naadam will take visitors through four historical eras of Mongolia – starting from the Hunnu era, the Great Chinggis Khaan era, Bogd Khaan era and through to the People’s Revolution era. The main idea of this year’s Naadam Festival is try to give people “what will we do without water, and how important water is to our lives.”

The President Takes Part
The National Naadam in Ulaanbaatar is always officially opened by Mongolia’s President. Here are a couple of examples of the opening speech:
President Tsakhia Elbegdorj:

‘The national Naadam, the tradition of our statehood, historical and cultural wonder, and delight of the people of Mongolia begins with pride and vigour. I wish the wrestlers be strong, the cheer of horse riders be clear, the horse racing astonishing, archers be sharp and our people be peaceful. From this rostrum, I declare the supreme festivity of the Mongol people, the Naadam, open. Have a great Naadam festivity. May my Mongolia dwell eternally.’

President Kh. Battulga:

‘Everywhere around the world, our people are raising the fame of our beloved country, Mongolia. The banner of our independence is still standing strong. The hardworking Mongolia has won and is striving for development … Naadam celebration is a significant cultural heritage that is spreading the name of our country in the world. In the sweet times of summer, our tradition of statehood, wonder of cultural history and pleasure of our people National Naadam celebration has now started. In the days of laughter and hardship of our proud people with great history and culture, let their hearts be at ease, horses be quick and bows be accurate … Happy Naadam. Let our sovereign state be flourished. And let my people be at peace.’

If you would like to experience Mongolia’s Naadam Festival, have a look at the experiences we offer. Naadam will be so much more than you will probably expect it to be.  The most important thing to remember is to experience Naadam from a Mongolian perspective. Apart from the stadium events in Ulaanbaatar (the Opening Ceremony and wrestling), it’s free for all members of the public and it draws a large number of Mongolian families – there are far more Mongolian spectators than foreigners – creating a vibrant holiday atmosphere.
Saikhan Naadaarai!
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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