Friday, June 24, 2011

The “Secrets” behind Naadam Festival

imageNaadam festival is one of Mongolia’s largest holidays, with its long history, held annually from 11th to 13th July every year throughout the country. This year, Mongolia will celebrate the national festival, Naadam, the 805th anniversary of the establishment of the Great Mongol Empire, and the 90th anniversary of People’s revolution all in one day.

The world Naadam means to have a fun in Mongolian. The history behind it is; Nomadic Mongolians after much suffering in cold winter would all come together on summer days to have fun and would celebrate achievements of the passing year.

The festival is also locally termed “Eriin gurvan naadam” which means the three games of men. It runs for three days in all parts of the country and highlights the greatest athletes in horse racing, archery and wrestling: Monoglia’ most popular sports. Women participate in all but the wrestling category. If you wish to explore and understand the unique culture of Mongolia, it can be only during Naadam.

It continues to bring together Mongolia’s sport’s men and women from the remotest regions to compete at national level in Ulaanbaatar. The combination of people and events presents an unforgettable spectacle for all visitors: the colorful silken tunics, fresh-faced nomads, thundering hooves, flying arrows, wrestling bouts, which annually thrill and entertain thousands of spectators.

Outside the capital, smaller games or mini Naadam festivals are celebrated throughout the summer months. Mongolian festivals bring herders into the towns and their environs from isolated encampments to gatherings where they have the opportunity to participate in the events, to barter, flirt, mix, sing and enjoy life to the full.

History of Naadam Festival

As recorded, the history of Naadam can be traced back to Chinggis Khan era. Mongolians respect martialism, and Chinggis Khan was determined to cultivate people’s courage, wit, as well as tenacity; and the “three games of men” are a perfect combination of providing these trainings. Chinggis Khan himself had earlier established wrestling as the unofficial sport of his empire, believing that it kept his warriors both mentally and physically fit for fighting.

imageSince the time of Chinggis Khan, all the nomad tribes have gathered at mid-summer for the Naadam to show the best of their physical strength also their riding and shooting skills, qualities vital for the survival of nomad herders, hunters and fighters.

This tradition of an annual festival has survived throughout centuries of turbulent history of Central Asian nomads. In the past, whenever Naadam was held, young and old would be moving their gers to the grassland where it’s held.

After 1921, the Naadam Festival became an official celebration of the National Revolution’s victory. On 11th June the revolutionaries mounted a successful attack on Urgoo, the capital city, and expelled Chinese military garrison. Nowadays, it is simply the Naadam Festival.

Opening ceremony of Naadam Festival

imageThe opening ceremony raising 9 white banners in the presence of the president begins at 11am at the Central Stadium where a huge procession is held including hundreds of adults and children dressed in costumes of Mongolia’s numerous ethnic groups. The opening ceremony is unique with a colorful show, religious dance, contortionists, traditional costume and a parachute show and great parade with the festival participants.

The festival begins with a ceremonious ride by medieval warriors bearing the Nine Banners of Chinggis Khan. It has replaced the seven decade long tradition of military parades and demonstrations praising the Communist party. After the opening ceremony, the first round of the wrestling competition starts at the Central Stadium.

Mongolian National Wrestling

Wrestling is the most popular of all of the Mongolian sports and the focal point of the Festival. This event is the highlight of the “Three games of men”. Altogether, 1024 or sometimes 512 wrestlers from different cities and provinces of the country step out onto the arena at the start the wrestling tournament. Wrestlers slowly come up waving their hands imitating the flight of a mythical Phoenix bird. There is no time limit, no weight category and the arena is not fixed. Each wrestler has his own attendant herald. The aim of the sport is to knock one’s opponent off balance and throw him down, making him touch the ground with his elbow and knee.

imageThe winners are honored with ancient titles: the one who wins his competitor in round get an honorary title of nachin (falcon), seventh and eighth rounds zaan (elephant), and tenth and eleventh rounds arslan (lion).

The wrestler who twice becomes the absolute champion is awarded the title of avarga (Titan). Every subsequent victory at the national Naadam-festival will add an epithet to his avarga title, like “Invincible Titan”, “Invincible Titan to be remembered by all” and so on.

From 2003 the Mongolian parliament adopted a new law on Naadam, making amendments to some of the wrestling titles. The titles of Garudi (Garuda, bird of Indian mythology) and Hartsaga (Hawk) were added to the existing above-mentioned titles.

Wrestlers wear wrestling costumes Zodog (open chest), Shuudag (snug short) and Mongol Gutal (boots). The outfit of the wrestler has been developed over the ages to reflect simplicity and mobility.

Zodog is the upper part exposing the wrestler’s chest tied in front with silk bands. It is usually red or blue in color. Traditionally made of wool, modern wrestlers have changed to looser materials such as cotton and silk. The front of the zodog is open. According to legend, on one occasion a wrestler defeated all other combatants and ripped open the zodog to reveal her breasts, showing to all she was a woman. From that day, the zodog had to reveal the wrestler’s chest to verify sex.

Shuudag is small, tight-fitting briefs made of red or blue colored cotton cloth. They prevent one’s rival from easily taking advantage of long pants or to avoid material to trip upon.

Mongol Gutal are the leather boots, either in traditional style (with slightly upturned toes), or commercial, Western style. The traditional style gutal is often reinforced around the sides with leather strings for the purpose of wrestling.

Horse Racing

Horse-racing is an important part of Mongolian National Naadam and very unique because it is a cross-country event. This sport is also centuries old, dating back to the Bronze Age.

imageLittle boys and girls, aged between 5 and 12, ride the horses and trainers prepare their horses for 3-4 months in advance. Then, there is lot of singing before each race and jockeys sing a Mongolian traditional song called “Giingoo”.

Competitions are not held on special racetracks, but instead have freely right across the steppe, where riders are confronted with various obstacles like rivers, ravines and hills. The distance varies according to the ages of horses, between 15 and 3 km and for example, two year old horse competes for 16.1 kilometers and seven year old horses for 27.36 kilometers. Between 200 and 300 horses run in age group.

Racing horses are divided into five groups, 2 year-old (Daaga), 4 year-old (Khyazaalan) and 5 year-old (Soyolon), 6 year-old (Ikh Nas) and stallions (Azarga).

The winners do a full circuit of the stadium, each accompanied by a herald. The winning horse receives the honorary title “Forehead of Ten Thousand Race Horse”.. Gold, silver and bronze medals are awarded to three best horses. The winning jockey gets a title “tumny ekh” or leader of many.

Also, the loser is rewarded and honored; wish that he will have better luck in next year.


Archery is another event in the Naadam festival. It is a sport that originated around the 11th century, during the Khanate warfare. It was initially intended to sharpen the military skills of the young men, and it is still used to improve eyesight, measurement, patience, and strength.

imageMongols are almost born with the archery skills, an integral part of a nomad life-style. From early childhood qualities such as perfect eyesight, measurement, patience and strength are nourished to develop a good archer. Mongolian bows are very tight, so that it requires much strength to stretch it out. As a rule, several teams of archers compete. Each team consists of 5-7 archers who should hit 33 leather cylinders from a distance of 75 meters. The team hitting all the cylinders first qualifies for the next round with the number of targets reduced. The last round involves only three cylinders.

During the tournament judges stand on both side of the target. Each time, an archer prepares for a shot; they would start slowly the Uukhai song. As soon as the arrow hits the target, the song’s melody changes and and experienced archer immediately learns about how many cylinders were hit. This song is very old one. Until recently the shooting range was three times as long or about 200 meters. Therefore it was easier to convey information through a song rather than dispatching a messenger to inform about the result.

Another popular Naadam activity is the ankle bone shooting competition which played games using shagai, sheep knuckles that serve as game pieces and tokens of both divination and friendship. In the larger Naadam festivals, tournaments may take place in a separate venue. This festival has been held for centuries as a form of memorial celebration, as an annual sacrificial ritual honoring various mountain gods or to celebrate a community endeavor.

by Oyundari and Nasaa

Source: THE UB POST (Friday, June 24 2011) Edition 049 (894) Page 10