Travel across the landscapes of Mongolia and you’ll frequently come across small mounds made up of rocks and stones. In the forest-steppe regions, these mounds often consist of branches of trees. These are Mongolia’s sacred ovoos and here’s your introduction to what they symbolise.
A Sacred Landscape
Mongolia is an ancient land of marked extremes, from its climate to its extraordinary natural environment. This boundless land stretches from horizon to horizon in bands of colour with constantly changing light and shadows. It is a land of contrast and unmatched geographical diversity (the remote Gobi Desert, the forested and alpine north, the mountainous west, the endless rolling steppe and the rivers and lakes that bring vital life to Mongolia’s herders and their livestock). Mongolia’s ‘ecosystems are of global importance because of their diversity, size and continuity.’ (Bradt Guide to Mongolia).
Mongolia’s vast landscapes are matched only by the vast stretching sky and both landscapes and sky are considered sacred by Mongolia’s nomadic herders. Mongolia is known as the ‘Land of the Eternal Blue Sky’ and the Mongols practised ancestral shamanism worshipping the Eternal Blue Sky (Tenger) and the many spiritual forces of nature. The Eternal Sky was the most powerful and mighty of all forces and Chinggis Khan believed that he conquered with the Rule of Heaven – the supreme god of the Eternal Blue Sky. In 21st Century Mongolia a combination of shamanistic and Buddhist beliefs remains as an easy and unselfconscious part of Mongolian life. It is expressed in Mongolia’s sacred ovoos erected by local families and travellers to show gratitude and respect, and to honour the spirits of the surrounding land. and the names of mountains: most are holy or sacred.
Look more closely at an ovoo and you will see steering wheel covers, plaster casts, crutches, empty bottles of vodka, sweets, small pieces of dairy products such as cheese and blue scarves. The discarded casts, crutches, steering wheel covers and food offerings are people’s ways of giving thanks for better health, a safe journey or maybe thanking the spirits for the much-needed rain.
Mongolia’s ovoos are circled three times in a clockwise direction and a small offering is made in order to ensure the safety of the trip or to ensure good fortune in life. You don’t need to find a plaster cast or consume an entire bottle of vodka – small stones are enough of an offering.
‘With time, the ovoos become strange spiritual junk heaps piled with the debris of Mongolian life – a rickety construction of anxieties and hopes.’ Tim Severin
‘Creating them remains an easy, unselfconscious part of travel. a ritual by which Mongolians assert their heritage and the network that binds them’. John Man
Khadag – Sacred Scarves
Ovoos are an integral part of Mongolian culture. The scarves (known as khadag) are the traditional ceremonial scarf of Mongolia. The blue scarves represent the Eternal Blue Sky although you will also see khadag of other colours left on an ovoo (gree represents land, yellow the sun, red represents fire and white honours milk and dairy products). You will also find prayer flags (known as Wind Horses) and with either, the essence and the image of the prayer scarf/flag is activated when the wind blows and creates auspicious energy for the area in which the flags/scarves are located.
Mongolian Lunar New Year
On the morning of Mongolian New Year, everyone rises before sunrise to greet the sun. Traditionally, the male head of the household honours the nature and spirits of Mongolia by going to an ovoo used by the family. They will take food and offerings and the oldest will voice words of gratitude and praise to the spirit of the mountain and the surrounding area. There are two parts to sunrise on New Year’s Day in Mongolia – sending out the old, and welcoming in the new. Most bring offerings with them: milk, rice, and juniper. First, while it’s still dark, you need to send out the old. And then as the sun rises, so you welcome in the new. Why not consider joining us on our Tsagaan Sar small group winter experience?