A Fire On The Steppes
Religion and public
celebrations of Greater Mongolia.
Guido Verboom -
Although divided in three countries, all parts of
Greater Mongolia have been under a communist regime, and for the regions
in China this is still the case. In Russia, China and the independent
country, confusingly, simply called Mongolia it has had mayor influences
on the lives of its people. One of the fields most affected by the communist
regime was religion, seen as “opium for the people”. Untill the 1930's
religion had a great impact on the public and every day life of the
people and also played a major role in celebrations and their rituals.
In this paper I will focus on these celebrations and their connection
with religion in particular.
When describing something as
`Mongolian celebration´ a wide variety of influential fields can be
distinguished. It starts with something I would call Mongolian folklorism,
which is sometimes hard to distinguish from the second: shamanism. The
third source of rituals I would categorise as institutionalised
religious traditions mainly being Buddhism, but also Islam and Christianity.
The latter has its influence in a forgotten past, from which hardly
any traces seem to have survived. Apart from objects like the gravestones
rediscovered in Inner Mongolia by Tjalling Halbertsma (2002). More recently
in the parts belonging to the Russian territory the Russian orthodox
church has been influential, mainly converting Buryats
. Islam is up until now present in western parts of Mongolia. Buddhism
then, is influential in about every region in Mongolia.
The aim of this paper is
to get an insight in the ritual traditions of Greater Mongolia and their
relation to the religious history. There is a focus on the two most
important events in public life and that are discribed from the context
of the different religious background as well as their secular component.
The area and its people
Greater Mongolia consists of three mayor parts, nowadays divided over
three countries. Inner Mongolia, a part of China; the Buryatya republic,
and some other smaller parts, of Russia; and Outer Mongolia, an independent
country in between the bear and the dragon, as Russia and China respectively
are sometimes reffered to. The division of the Mongolian territory
over three states was established in 1911 when the region also known
as Outer Mongolia declared independence from China. All three states
have had communist governments. For those parts in China this is still
the case, but Russia and the independent state are more or less succesfully
adapted to a democratic state system (Worden & Savada).
is one of the most scarcely populated regions in the world, with the
Mongolian Republic the country with the lowest population density of
the world. The Mongolians can be considered rather homogeneous. Most
groups speak rather the same language except for the Buryats and some
scattered isoglosses. The most important group of Mongolians are the
Khalkha, who make up about 80 percent of the population of the Mongolian
Republic (Worden & Savada).
The idea of
a collective Mongolian identity sometimes is traced back to Khabul Khan,
the grandfather of Chinggis (or Genghis) Kahn (1167-1227), who united
all of the Mongolian peoples. This seems to be more a political unification
of related ethnic groups, but nevertheless has had a great influence
on shaping Mongolian identity. This identity is for a great deal based
on the nomadic, pastoralist lifestyle of the Mongolians. They live in
gers, felt tents, and they rely very
much on there staple. Their diet traditionally consists mainly of meat
and dairy products. Especially those milk and dairy products are considered
very good and important and also often have sacral connotations.
Historical developments in the field of
The history of religion in Mongolia
Now having seen the history of religious activity we can point our
focus towards celebrations. First I will try to give a general overview
of the festivities celebrated by the Mongolians and after that I will
pick the two most important public festivities and explore some of their
The festivities and rituals can be categorized in many ways. There
are local and national celebrations, public and private celebrations.
But a division that seems difficult to apply on Mongolian festivities
is that between religious and secular celebrations. Before the appearance
of communism almost every festivity was in someway incorporated or related
by religion and during communism effort has been made to secularise
Rituals and festivities are very much linked to the Mongolian calendar,
which is closely related to the Tibetan Buddhist. Here years are named
after one of the animals of the Mongolian zodiac (rat/mouse, cow/ox,
tiger, hare/rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, hen, dog, pig).
Together with this cycle of twelve years is a cycle of ten years in
which two subsequent years are indicated with one of five elements (iron,
water, wood, fire, earth). These cycles combined give a sixty (12x5)
year period of unique combinations of an animal with an element. Every
year is divided into lunar months which in principal consist of thirty
days but might be shorter because unlucky days are not counted and some
holy days are counted twice. Then in Buddhism every month has four special
days of worship: the 8th, 10th, 15th
and 25th. In Mongolia the lunar New Year is called Tsagaan
sar, which is celebrated during a few days at the end of the 81 days
winter period. Nomads divide the year in periods of nine days and the
winter thus is nine of these periods. The periods have names like: `Lambs
must be covered´ and `Not cold enough to freeze the soup´.
During the communist period a set of celebrations were introduced
like labour day on the first of May and the remembrance of the Russian
revolution in October. One of the most important was women’s day which
used to be celebrated on March 8 and this has remained an important
festivity in the lives of the Mongolians.
Celebrations related to religion
often take place near an oboo, a heap or cairn. The Lamaist equivalent
of a shamanists´ sheree. This is a heap of stones and/or bones
formed on the stone altar by the remains of sacrificed animals at the
tailgan, a ritual of animal sacrifice. They would be inhabited
by spirits of the locality. These tailgans that take place here
were being altered during the nineteenth century among western Buryats
to coincide with saints’ days of the Orthodox calendar. In the eastern
part Lamaism replaced the tailgans with similar rituals, though
often without blood sacrifices. These rituals take place according to
the Lamaist calendar.
In the next paragraph I will
turn the focus to the two most important public celebrations, the lunar
New Year and the festival of manly games.
Two main public celebrations
The festival of the lunar New Year, Tsagaan Sar, is celebrated around
the same time as the Chinese New Year, which celebration is widespread
throughout Asia. Mongolians however deny any Chinese origin or influence.
In the 1960s, the communist government tried to transform it into Cattle
Breeders` Day and official celebration was stopped. When the party tries
to reaffirm traditional in the late eighties it again becomes a public
holiday. Still the festival has its pre-revolutionary character of reaffirming
their kin ties. (Worden & Savada 1989). Tsagaan Sar, meaning
White Month, is one the two big public annual events, next to the Nadaam.
It marks the end of Winter and the beginning of the new year´s cycle
The eve before New Years Day
is known as Bituun, meaning “to close down”. There is a
big amount of “covered food”, where the meat is covered by for instance
a layer of dough. Everyone has to try all the dishes. Later traditional
games are played. It is said that at Bituun Baldanlham, a local
god, is riding her mule. She would be coming by three times so every
family puts three pieces of ice on the top of the door of the ger, or
on the balcony for people living in an apartment, for the mule to drink
(Enkhbold; oral information Lkhagvadulam Tomorochir).
On the morning of the New Year
traditionally the head of the family goes outside
and walks in a direction which is prescribed in a book of Buddhist
astrology (oral information Lkhagvadulam Tomorochir). During New Years
day itself the children honour their senior relatives. They start with
their parents and then following the rules of genealogical seniority
the other relatives, presenting them an amount of white food or pastry
. White and blue scarves, khadag, are presented to the most
honoured. (Humphrey 1983: 379). The rest of the festival which goes
on for several days, is a celebration of present kinship. It is a occasion
to publicly define your kin. One Buryat says his kin-group is “all the
people he visited at tsagaalgan” (Humphrey 1983: 379).
The main shamanistic ritual
called the Great sacrifice is held on the third day of Tsagaan sar (Enkhbold
2000). With the Daur Mongols, as described by Caroline Humphrey in Shamams
and elders: Expierence knowledge and power among the Daur Mongols,
the tsagaan sar is very much related to shamanism. On the eve of the
lunar New Year there is an offering to the Sky. In this ritual Seven
Stars, also known as seven old men, and all of the spirits of a household
are remembered as well. A small table is placed in the yard, on which
nine bowls of water and sticks of incense are placed. A huge fire is
lit outside the courtyard, its smoke rising to heaven. The heat of the
smoke should melt the icicles on the whiskers of the dragon (Humphrey
& Onon 1996: 146). Furthermore the shaman will have a communal ritual
shortly after New Year in his home and there will be a “purifying body
ritual” done by the shaman at the beginning of the first month of each
lunar New Year. The breast mirror and some coloured stones are put in
a pot of water and boils the water, transforming it into arshan
– sacred water. And it is splashed over the shaman’s body with a kitchen
brush, then over the clan members. The ritual is also to give protection
(Humphrey & Onon 1996: 256, 259).
For the Buryats the lunar New
Year is very much related to Lamaism. In the monasteries on New Year’s
eve rubbish is burned, symbolising people’s sins over the past year
and after this a service to Lhame, the protector of the faith. In the
more religious families the Lamaist religious paintings are for the
only time in the year. The paintings are done in canvas, with a wide
silk border and have similarities with the thankas. In front
of the paintings lamps of oil and incense are burned and small prayer
wheels are turned. Prayers are said in honour of the dead kin and especially
for patrilineal ancestors (Humphrey 1983: 379).
Nadaam, the `manly games´ or suur-kharbaan as it is called in Buryatya
is a festival of the three mayor traditional sports in Mongolia: wrestling,
horse racing and archery
. It is the biggest event in Mongolia´s public life. All over the
countryside small Nadaams are celebrated and in the first part of July
the big Nadaam in Ulaanbaatar is celebrated. This event lasts for three
days of which the first is mainly reserved for the competitions and
the third is dedicated to merry-making. The origin of this festival
should go back centuries as an annual sacrificial ritual honouring various
mountain gods or to celebrate a community endeavour (CSEN).
Humphrey describes how suur-kharbaan, the Buryat equivalent
of nadaam, was very much secularised by the communist. At first
being a ritualised archery competition, accompanied by other the other
main traditional sports wrestling and horse racing, being held near
an oboo, it is reshaped into a `combination…of sports day
and prizegiving´ (Humphrey 1983: 380).
Also within Buryatya there was a great variety of practises. In some
regions the festival would have very much been under Lamaist influence,
while in other parts it would be more of `a local affair´ (Humphrey
1983: 381). 381>>>
Since 1924 the festival has been held every year on the first Sunday
in July as a commemoration of the founding of the Buryat republic. Like
in the Mongolian republic there is one big celebration in the stadium
of the capital, being Ulan Ude and smaller versions in the country.
But in Buryatya these are simultaneously, while in the other Mongolian
regions they are in different times (Humphrey 1983: 381). With the Daur
Mongolians there might also at other occasions held a festival of
“manly games”, for instance after a large oboo ritual was performed
(Humphrey & Onon 1996: 148).
Humphrey refers also to the study of Kabzinska-Stawarz on `manly games´
among Khalkha Mongolians. This study supports the idea that the `manly
games´ and with that the oboo rituals where to support the tie
between man and there land. In some behaviour of the wrestlers this
is shown. The earth is touched before and after a fight, and even rubbed
to gain strength from it. The winner throws milk foods towards the spectators,
the oboo, the mountains and the sky after he first has touched
it with his forehead. In this with way he share the victory with them,
and it is said it would give the whole population strength (Humphrey
& Onon 1996: 151). According Kabzinska-Stawarz games always
had a purpose and where never just leisure. Even a kid’s game with the
ankle-bones of an animal, was symbolizing the milking of different animals
and thus increasing the amount of dairy products and wealth.
In this paper I have shown Mongolia’s rich religious history. It has
become clear that shamanism and Buddhism are the main religious traditions.
The occurrence of communism changed the ritual practise heavily. Especially
Buddhism suffered from the governmental policies. Shamanism was also
suppressed but because of it less institutionalised nature it was less
traceable and therefore in some regions it might even have been gaining
In this religious context the focus was put on the public celebrations
which were very much related to the religious practise. Like the `manly
games´ are still very much tied the ovoo ritual and even the games themselves
are an expression, or reaffirmiation, of the bond between men and their
land. Also the impact of communism is evident here. Although the celebration
of the two mayor events seems to be universal for all of Mongolia, the
actual form and practise differs a lot throughout the country. We have
seen that especially the way religious meaning is involved in these
festivities varies a lot. The variation however within the celebration
of course cannot be simply attributed to communism and religion only.
Also the variety derives from regional and ethnical differences. This
paper is mainly drawn upon literature from the period when communism
was still in power. There is no literature available (yet) on contemporary
ritual practise among Mongolian people. In my opinion this would be
a very interesting subject for an anthropological study. It would particularly
interesting to look at this religious influence and to see, in the context
of the religious revival described in the second paragraph, how this
influence manifest itself nowadays with the different Mongolian people.
One might look at what rituals are performed. Do the people tend to
involve more religious facets? Would that especially be the Lamaist
practise? Would maybe even the shamanist practise be drown back by the
reoccurring Lamaism? Is there a general tendency in all the Mongolian
territories or in the different parts? Or is there much local variety?
What communist influence has remained?