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THREE GAMES OF MONGOLIA "NAADAM FESTIVAL"

Naadam is the most widely watched festival among the Mongols and It has its origin in the activities, such as military parades and sporting competitions such as archery, horse riding, and wrestling. The festival is a test of courage, strength, daring, horsemanship, and marksmanship, all necessary for nomadic people and warriors. It later served as a way to train soldiers for battle and was also connected to the Mongols' nomadic lifestyle.

Mongols started celebrating it around 3rd to 2nd centuries B.C.  The origins of the Naadam Festival go long way back into times primordial when the horse was domesticated and the first hunters learned how to ride them. The holiday becomes a regular national event when all the nomad tribes would come together to show the best of their physical strength, riding, and shooting skills, qualities vital for the survival of nomad herders and hunters. This tradition of annual festival survived throughout the centuries of the turbulent history of Central Asian nomads. 

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

The biggest festival (National Naadam) is held in the Mongolian capital, Ulaanbaatar, during the National Holiday from July 11 to 13, in the National Sports Stadium. It begins with an elaborate introduction ceremony featuring dancers, athletes, horse riders, and musicians. After the ceremony, the competitions begin. The competitions are mainly horseback riding. Naadam is also celebrated in different regions of Mongolia and Inner Mongolia in July and August. In the Tuva Republic, Naadam is on 15 August. In 2010, Naadam was inscribed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity of UNESCO. 

Naadam is celebrated across the country and every province and sum (village) will hold its own wrestling, horse racing, and archery contests.  Usually, the sum’s Naadam is celebrated before the Province’s Naadam and the State Naadam. 

Mongolians spent Naadam days watching wrestling, horseracing, and archery, going to the countryside, making khorkhog or boodog. During Naadam festival the most favorite dish is khuushuur and the beverage is airag (fermented mare's milk) for Mongols. 

The festival consists of three main parts which are horse racing, wrestling, and archery. Horseracing is organized in Khui Doloon Hudag, about 70 km from Ulaanbaatar. Wrestling takes place in the main National Sports Stadium in Ulaanbaatar. Archery competitions are outside the stadium.

Another popular Naadam activity is the playing of games using shagai, sheep anklebones that serve as game pieces and tokens of both divination and friendship.

GLORIOUS OPENING WITH THE ANCIENT NINE WHITE BANNERS

On the morning of July 11, the Naadam festival begins with a ceremonious ride by medieval warriors bearing the Nine White Banners of Chingis Khaan from Sukhbaatar Square, Government Palace to the Stadium. At the opening and closing ceremonies, there are impressive parades of mounted cavalry, athletes, and monks.

The opening ceremony starts at 11 A.M after “Nine White Banners” are to be settled in the middle of the Stadium and then the speech of the President of Mongolia. Naadam Festival is a very colorful event where people revive their Nomadic spirit, history, and heritage. The opening ceremony has a great chance to enjoy and photograph Mongolian culture, art performances, song and dance, colorful parade, traditional costumes, and miracles of Mongolian military force. Everybody wears the most colorful and attractive traditional costumes with many different styles. 

In the 13th Century, Chingis Khaan established the Great Mongol State and initiated the Nine White Banners as a symbol of great power, independence, and unity for the Mongol State. The Nine White Banners was composed of nine flag poles decorated with a three-pronged gold-coated fork on top, symbolizing the flame. From the circular plate below it, batches of white horse tail hair are hanged by tying it with thinly cut goatskin to the plate’s 81 holes. While the main body of the white banner symbolizes Peace, the top part symbolizes Eternity.

The Nine White Banners was a peacetime emblem used exclusively by the Khaans in front of their ger (yurt). The Mongolian people have been honoring the banners ever since.
The central banner was larger in size than the rest and was placed in the center of the other eight; The NINE WHITE BANNERS are made up of the tail hair of a thousand stallions from each of the provinces in the country. The white and tawny colors, as well as the horsehair, are symbolic of the power and strength of the state. 

Eight 2.62 meter high white banners are placed around a larger white banner, measuring 3.62 meters.
The tops of the banners are called ‘GILBERS’ symbolize the Past, Present, and Future, while the spire crowning the bigger banner represents the growth and pride of the state. 
Interestingly, the banners are cleaned only with rainwater because ancient Mongolians used to pray to the sky and believed that water produced from the heavens was clean and pure. 
Under the rule of a sole leader, when Mongolians enthroned Chingis Khaan as the King of the Great Mongol Empire, they raised their Nine White Banners and had the great king pay respects. And ever since that time, the Nine White banners have been placed in the state palace to symbolize the Mongolian state in a perpetual state of prosperity and its people living peacefully.

The Nine White Banners came into renewed significance in Mongolia after democracy was adopted in the early 1990s as a state symbol of the Mongolian, and are kept at the Statehouse, to only be brought out for National Holidays.

WRESTLING

Cave paintings in the Bayankhongor Province of Mongolia dating back to Neolithic age of 7000BC show grappling of two naked men and surrounded by crowds. The art of Mongolian wrestling (Bukh) appears on bronze plates discovered in the ruins of the Hunnu (Xiongnu) empire (206 BC–220 AD). Originally, wrestling was a military sport intended to provide mainly strength, stamina and skills training to troops. Chingis Khaan (1206–1227) and the all later Emperors of the Great Mongol Empire (1206–1368) and also the Emperors of later Khanates were keen to support the sport for this reason so wrestling events were included in local festivals or Naadam. Wrestling became a key factor when deciding the candidate rankings in imperial martial exams plus outstanding wrestlers were entitled to high distinctions.

The National Naadam wrestling tournament is the focal point of the festival. Altogether 1024 or 512 wrestlers step out onto the arena at the start of the wrestling tournament. Wrestlers slowly come up waving their hands imitating the flight of a mythical Phoenix bird. Wrestlers then divide into two groups on two sides of the arena. One by one, secondments sing long praise for the wrestler's qualities, the rank, and past victories. Then they call out the name of the wrestler contender.

Once wrestlers know who will face whom, after a signal, they converge in a fierce battle. After half an hour the weakest ones are knocked out and the winners of the first round emerge, proudly waving their hands imitating an eagle's flight.

Winners, then they again split into two groups and start to call out their next contenders. The tournament lasts for two days and after eight matches only the strongest ones remain to wrestle for the title of a Titan, the highest rank.

The rules of wrestling are rather simple-anybody who touches the ground first is defeated. The rules also are demanding ones as neither wrestlers' weight nor height are accounted for.

The match time is not limited either and sometimes wrestlers become stalled like a pair of bulls, waiting for one another to make a fatal mistake. Only the angry shouts by funs may force them to try their last and favorite trick. Therefore, such qualities as the ability to withstand feet, masterful command of every possible reception, dodges are vital for winning.

Each Mongolian wrestler has a title of his own: Lion, Elephant, Falcon, - a sophisticated hierarchy of ranks bestowed depending on the wrestler's past performance. Such definitions as Steady, Mighty, and Strong are usually added to wrestler rank, to reflect their specific wrestling style or quality.

The first-time wrestling winner earns the right to call himself "Arslan" (lion), the runner-up to an "arslan" is a "Zaan" (elephant), and if the Arslan win the tournament twice in a row, he will have earned the title Titan (Avraga).

Mongolian wrestling costumes are a hat, zodog, shuudag, and Mongolian boots. A hat is made of silk and cotton, embroidered. Zodog is a chest-open, long-sleeved vest of silk. Shuudag is tight short trunks. Mongolia boots are made from upper leather, richly decorated, handmade.
 

ARCHERY 

Archery in Mongolia has had a long and famous history. Our folk legends tell of Erkhii Mergen, the great archer who saved the people from a drought by shooting down six suns. And when the legendary mother of the Mongolian nation wanted to instill the idea of unity into her feuding sons, she sat them down before her and gave each an arrow telling them to snap it. Of course, they could do that easily. Then she gave six arrows to each of them and told to snap them all together. None of them could. This is how the Mongolian people first learned about strength through unity.

Archery contest continues a tradition dating from the time of Chingis Khaan when they were intended to sharpen military skills. The bow is an ancient invention going back to the Mesolithic Period. Ancient Mongols made them contributed to the design of the bow as a combat weapon. Mongols are almost born with archery skills, an integral part of the nomadic lifestyle. From very childhood, such qualities as perfect eyesight, measurement, patience, and strength are nourished to develop a good archer. Today Mongolians use a less complicated form of archery.

From the time of Chingis Khaan and the Mongolian nation proper, there are many accounts of great feats of archery. The ancient stele inscription named Chingis Khaan stone that dated back to the 13th century was first discovered in 1818.  

One interpretation of this inscription could be as follows: ‘While Chinggis Khan was holding an assembly of Mongolian dignitaries, after his conquest of Sartaul (East Turkestan), Esungge Esunge Mergen ( Master Archer), the son of Chingis Khaan’s brother Khasar shot a target at 335 alds’ (536m).

 

During the National Naadam Festival, all-male, female, and child archers wear traditional costumes and compete in three categories: Khalh, Buriad, and Uriankhai, which have differences in the bows and arrows used, as well as the distance of the target. Khalh is the name of the majority group of Mongolia and Buriad and Uriankhai are the names of two out of over 20 minority groups of Mongolia.

Archery field is called ‘zurkhai’ in Khalh archery and ‘zuraakhai’ in the Buriad one.
Only men are allowed to compete in the Uriankhai archery, while the other two categories allow the participation of men, women, and children – in separate competitions.

Bow: Mongolian bows are very tight ones so that it requires pure strength to stretch it out. In the past Mongolians used three types of bows: “big hand” -165 – 170 cm long; “average hand” -160 cm and “small hand” -150 cm long. Today Mongolians mostly use the average hand bow which requires a force of 22 to 38 kg to draw it. Contestants use compound bows fashioned from sinew, wood, horn, and bamboo.

Arrow: Arrows are usually made from pine, birchwood, or willow branches and had feather fins that help the arrow to reach a distance of 900 meters. The normal length of an arrow is between 80 and 100 cm, and the shaft's diameter is around 10 mm. Dimensions of the arrow are 90-100cm in length, 10mm in diameter, and weigh 40-45g for women 40-75g for men.

Target: The target is a ‘wall’ made of cork cylinders braided together with leather sharps. It is four meters long and 50 cm high. The target is placed on the ground consisting of 360 small leather rings to a wall.

  • Men fire 40 arrows from a distance of 75 meters.
  • Women shoot 20 arrows from 60 meters.

In accordance with the ancient custom, several men stand on either side of the target singing a folk song (uukhai) to cheer the contestants and then use hand signals to indicate the results. This song is a 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.  

The title ‘national sharpshooter’ is bestowed on a winner in individual scoring at the National Naadam Festival Archery competition. Depending on the number of wins and other achievements, other titles are as ‘young and improving sharpshooter’, ‘diligent sharpshooter’, ‘amazing sharpshooter’ and so on.

MAKING OF MONGOLIAN BOW

Bows have been used as weapons in many areas around the world, including Mongolia. Mongolian bows are designed to be fired from the back of a horse. Though ancient construction techniques are still using among Mongols to make a bow. 

Bow: As we understand, a composite bow by definition has several layers. We have mentioned the birch frame and the layer of horn/bone. In addition to this, there is a layer of specially prepared birch bark whose purpose is to protect against penetration of moisture. In addition to this again is a layer of sinew, which is taken from deer, moose or other game animals. The tendons of domestic animals may also be used, but Mongols feel that tendons from wild animals like deer, moose and mountain sheep are the strongest and best. Naturally, the bow has to be glued together. The preferred and traditional substance used for the impregnation of both leather as well as their bows is fish glue. As a matter of fact, fish glue has been proven through millennia to be highly capable of resisting moisture. Moreover, it is durable and lasts longer than modern epoxy resins, which are prone to molecular fatigue. 

Arrow: Birch is a typical material for arrows. The normal length of an arrow is between 80 and 100 cm, and the shaft's diameter is around 1 cm.

As for fletchings, tail feathers of a crane are favored, but tail feathers of all birds are usable. Eagle feathers make a particularly exclusive arrow, but since eagles are rare most arrows obviously cannot have fletchings from eagle's tail feathers. Feathers taken from the wings are said to flow less smoothly through the air, so if given the choice tail feathers are picked. The Mongols characteristically pay close attention to the minutest of detail; the placement of the fletchings in relation to their size, and what part of the bird they were taken from, is of great importance for correct rotation and good balance in the air. Consequently, these factors are painstakingly considered when making arrows after the Old Mongol standard.

The arrowheads, or points, could be everything from wide metal blades used for a big game (or in war) to the bone and wooden points, which are used for hunting birds and small animals.  

Silk and cotton, and mixes of these, can also be used. Modern archers generally use dacron and other man-made materials that require high technology to produce and therefore cannot possibly be made by the archer himself. Here we see another example that the use of primitive materials, although demanding in terms of individual skills and work, is the more reliable and sustainable strategy when viewed from a broader perspective.

HORSE RACING

Mongolian people have loved horseracing since time immemorial. Horse races in Mongolia are a test of speed, stamina, and strength. Tradition dictates that race routes be long and straight to best test the character and stamina of the horses. Each year, around 120,000 horses race in the National Naadam Festival throughout the country. In Mongolian horse racing, the jockeys are children – both boys and girls. At the National Naadam, the children have to be over seven years of age. Protective clothing is now law. Horse racing is completed in horse age groups and only male horses’ race. 

There are normally six categories of horse racing, depending on the age of the horses:

  • A two-year-old horse is called a Daaga and they race 10-12km 
  • A 3-year-old horse is called a Shudlen and they race 14-16km
  • A 4-year-old horse is called a Khyazaalan – racing 18km
  • A 5-year-old horse is called a Soyolon – racing 22-24km
  • An over-6-year-old horse is called an Ikh nas - racing 22-24km 
  • A stallion more than 5 years old is an Azarga and they race up to 30km

Mongolians bring their best horses from great distances for the National Naadam. There are no tracks or courses; it is just open countryside. The horses in each category are taken from the starting line to some designated landmark a suitable distance away and then race back. Jockeys boys and girls aged up to 13 years prepare for months for special races, particularly at Naadam, and horses are fed a special diet for weeks beforehand.

TRAINING OF THE RACEHORSES

Horse trainers are experts at detecting future racehorses by observing external and internal signs that characterize the promising horse.

According to old chronicles: A good horse must have a narrow forehead, thin mane and tail, a wide chest, a horizontal back, and steady back legs. The pelvic bone must be near the floating rib. Being constantly at the herd is a sign of valor. Small and straight white teeth show a saddle animal but one who would be ill-suited to long distances. The training of the racehorses is meticulously carried out in stages, taking into account the age and characteristics of each animal. The aim of each three stages is first to ensure weight loss, then the acquisition of a minimal speed, and finally progression to the maximum speed. The determining factors that indicate whether a horse is ready for a race or instead needs to continue training are the consistency and color of the sweat and droppings as well as the regularity of the breathing. The training begins two or three months before Naadam. The horse is left out to graze on the best pastureland but must not put on any weight. For two days it remains tethered. For the third day, it is covered with a felt blanket and, at the hottest time of day, led up a slope. Proper training regularly alternates with periods of scraping off the sweat with a ‘khusuur’, a long wooden pallet often carved with the twelve animals of the zodiac. This is the main method used to eliminate the excess food and increase blood circulation and muscular activity. There is a race run as fast as possible over a distance of about one kilometer, used to train the horse to develop regular breathing and the fastest rhythm when running. The distance run is gradually increased. When the horse’s breathing becomes stable again after these races, the time has come for the next stage, called ‘sungaa’ – training over a medium distance. Ten days before the competition the horse must run a distance of 10-13 km. Four or five days before the race it runs 15km. This race is meant to develop the horse’s breathing pattern and to determine the results of the training.  Before a race, the audience, all decked out in traditional finery, often sings traditional songs. The young riders sing a traditional anthem called a Giingoo before the race, and scream Goog at the horses during the race. The winner is declared "Tumnii ekh", as a leader of ten thousand. The top five horses in each Mongolian horse racing class are awarded the title of "Airgiin Tav" (the top five). Each horse of every category and jockey riding those horses receives presidential awards and gifts and traditional poems are read out extolling the virtues of riders and trainers. The five winning riders must drink some special airag (fermented mare's milk), which is then often sprinkled on the riders' heads and on the horses' backsides.  The horse trainers will receive monetary awards and state titles. In order to qualify for state titles, the horse trainers must go through a rating process conducted by the Horse Trainers’ Association. During Naadam, a song is also sung to the two-year-old horse which comes last and declared as this year's loser will be next year's winner. 

All the wrestlers, archers, and both horse trainers and jockey kids train for the entire year to give their all and deliver the performance of the year –within only 3 days. Mongolian people enjoying the national pride festival, Naadam with full of joy.