Religion in Mongolia

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 [1] . 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).

The region 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 religion



 see The history of religion in Mongolia




Mongolian celebrations


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 religious aspects.

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 them.


Mongolian Calander

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

Tsagaan Sar
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 (Enkhbold 2000).

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 [6] 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 [7] . 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 [8] . 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.

Concluding note

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 influence.

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?



CSEN (Center for the Study of Eurasian Nomads)
Nadaam Festival
Enkhbold, T.
Tsagaan sar, the lunar new year In: Mongolia Today
Fontein, Jan
De Dansende Demonen van Mongolië
1999 V+K Publishing, Blaricum
Halbertsma, Tjalling
De Verloren Lotuskruisen
2002 Altamira Becht, Netherlands
Heissig, Walther
The Religions of Mongolia
1980    University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles
Hind, Barbara
The Revival of Buddhism in Mongolia
Humphrey, Caroline
Karl Marx collective : economy, society, and religion in a Siberian collective farm
1983    Cambridge University Press, Cambridge
Humphrey, Caroline; with Urgunge Onon
Shamams and elders: Expierence knowledge and power among the Daur Mongols
1996    Clarendon Press, Oxford
Moses, Larry Wiliam
The politcal role of Mongol Buddhism
1977    Asian Studies Research Institute, Bloomington
Worden, Robert L. & Andrea Matles Savada (eds.)
Mongolia – A country study
1989    Library of Congress, Washington D.C. (
Also published in paper.

Other sources

Email contact Henk Blezer (IIAS),

Observations and conversations during my visit in the summer of 2001. Special thanks to Lkhagvadulam Tomorochir, Hishigdulam Tumurbaatar  and Mark Hintzke.


[1] After the liberation of religious life there has been a big number of Christian churches trying to gain influence, but I wouldn't (yet) consider this an influence on Mongolian ritual.

[2] Bön or Bönpo refers both to Tibets pre-buddhist form of religion as well as a contemporary sect which can be seen as one of the schools of Buddhism. Here I refer to the first.

[3] It was said he kept as a kind of hostage at the Mongolian court (Fonteijn 1999: 32-4)

[4] Dalai means ocean in Mongolian, within the title referring to an ocean of wisdom.

[5] Some estimates are as high as 800 monasteries. See The Revival of Buddhism in Mongolia by Barbara Hind

[6] Today also other and sometimes even all members of the family perform this ritual, which especially outside of apartment buildings would give an amusing sight.

[7] Nowadays it is more common to give other presents.

[8] Among the Daur Mongolians field-hockey was also widely practised (Humphrey & Onon 1996: 151, 179 n15)


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