Mongolia : the land of the sky blue

Mongolia's flag

Mongolian Culture : Arts, language, Food, Tsagaan Sar & Nadaam


Mongolian traditionals arts : paintings, folklorics musics & dances and literatures


Ascendancy of Tibetan Buddhism and nomadism is visible in Mongolia's paintings, music and literature. Tsam dances, influenced by nomadism and shamanism, are performed to expel evil spirits. Outlawed during communism, they are coming back on stage and to ritual ceremonies again. 


Traditional music involves a wide range of instruments and singing styles. In Mongolian khoomi singing, carefully trained male voices produce harmonic overtones from the depth of the throat, releasing several notes at once. 


Traditional music and dance performances are not complete without a touch of contortionism, an ancient Mongolian body art.



Khalkha : the Mongolian's language




Khalkha Mongolian, the official language, is a member of the Ural-Altaic family of languages, which includes Finnish, Turkish, Kazak, Uzbek and Korean. 


Since 1944, the Russian Cyrillic alphabet has been used in written Mongolian. The country produced a huge literature, almost none of which is known to European language speakers. 


Only recently have scholars translated the most important text of all - Mongolyn Nuuts Tovchoo (The Secret History of the Mongols) - which celebrates Mongolia's days of prominence and glory.



Mongolian's traditional foods and drinks

Most famous Mongolian recipes


An old Mongolian saying advices: “Keep breakfast for yourself, share lunch with your friend and give dinner to your enemy”. 


The biggest and most important meals for Mongolians are breakfast and lunch, which usually consist of boiled mutton with lots of fat and flour and maybe some dairy products or rice.

Kazakhs in western Mongolia add variety to their diets with horsemeat. 


Mongolians are big tea drinkers and the classic drink is süütei tsai (tea with milk). Men who refuse to drink arkhi (vodka) are usually considered wimps. Herders make their own unique home brewed airag, which is fermented mare's milk with an alcoholic content of about 3%. 


Many Mongolians distil it further to produce shimiin arkhi, where the alcohol content is boosted to around 12%.



Tsagaan Sar : the Mongolian celebration of the year









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History …


            Tsagaan Sar (the white month), the first month of spring, has been one of the most important celebrations of Mongols for centuries. This is a time of the year when winter passes away and spring comes in.


            The Great Chingis Khaan played an important role to make Tsagaan Sar a State ceremony. In 1207, at the Mouse hour of the first day of the Year of the Red Rabbit, the Great Khaan, wearing all his new clothes, prayed to Blue Sky and Vast Land, paid respect to the elderly and visited his Oulen mother. In 1216, the year of the Red Mouse, the Khaan issued a decree to award people on the day of Tsagaan Sar with gold and clothing materials taken from the State reserve. The Khaan also decreed to award a special title to anyone who is over 120 years old and to release prisoners on the day of Tsagaan Sar except those convicted of the 5-cruelty case.


            In 1723, the "Mongol Tsaaz" (Mongol Law) stated that all governors and noblemen were obliged to wear a "Jinst Malgai" (special ceremony hat of the high society) and a "Zaht deel" (deel with a collar) on the day of Tsagaan Sar and to pray in front of the Ministry 9 times with 3 praying words each time. Tsagaan Sar is considered the beginning of the lunar calendar year.


            In 1911, the political and religious leader of Mongolia Bogd Khaan approved a new State flag featuring Soyombo (the national symbol) on yellow background. He ordered that all government houses, ministries, the army and monasteries keep this flag raised outside their compounds from the 30th day of the last month of winter to the 15th day of Tsagaan Sar. In other times, the flag was to be kept inside the compounds.


            Despite restrictions of Tsagaan Sar during the communist time, thousand years old traditions were never given up and informal celebrations continued among family and relatives especially in the countryside. Since 1990, with democratic changes in the country, Tsagaan Sar has become a nationwide celebration of people.  


How Mongolians celebrate Tsagaan Sar …


            Tsagaan Sar is a celebration of New Year, addition of age and safe ending of winter for animals. Tsagaan Sar is a festival of white food (food with white color  – milk and diary products, rice, etc.) Tsagaan Sar represents a heartfelt spirit of people. On this day, people clean their body and mind from all bad things and start a new fresh clean life. Tsagaan Sar is the day when people express respect to elder people and relatives, renew friendship and sympathy to each other and reconfirm family ties. Family and relatives gather together.


            The Tsagaan Sar eve or the last day of winter is called "Bituun", which means "full darkness". It is a single night when no moon is visible in the sky. On this day people eat to be really full. It is believed that if you stay hungry, you will be hungry all the coming year around. All the Bituun ceremony is supposed to start when it gets dark outside.


            On the first day of the new year, people get up early before sunrise, wear new clothes, open the "Orkh" (ger’s top window cover) and make a fire. Tsagaan Sar signifies the beginning of spring. Although steppes are still covered with snow, the scent of spring is already in the air. The coming year’s weather is analyzed based on animals' mood and behavior as well as other signs of nature. All men go to the top of a nearby hill or mountain carrying food and make a pray to the Nature and the State. Then, men go to certain directions prescribed by the Buddhist horoscope. This ceremony is called “muruu gargakh”, which means “starting your footprints”. It is believed important to start your way in the right direction on the first day of the new year as prescribed by your lunar horoscope in order to be lucky all year round.          


            With the sunrise, the greeting ceremony starts inside the family. The oldest person stays in "Hoimor" (ger’s northern side) and younger family members greet him or her first and then greet each other. The younger greets the older by extending arms with palms up and holding  the older’s arms from underneath. Everybody greets each other except husband and wife. Usually, people hold "Khadag" (long and narrow piece of yellow, white or blue silk with a spiritual meaning) in their arms.


            When the greeting ceremony is over, everyone sits behind the table and starts exchanging "Khoorog" (a snuff bottle made usually of semi-precious stones and filled with finely pulverized tobacco). The typical greeting words are "Daaga dalantai, byaruu bulchintai, sureg mal targan orov uu?", which can be translated as “Does your 2-year old horse have enough fat on the withers (means good health), does your 2-year old yak have enough muscles (means good power), did all your animals pass winter safely?" and "Sar shinedee saihan orov uu? Nas suuder hed hurev?", which is used to ask an old person about his/her good health and age as people are proud of old age. Exchanging Khoorog means expressing friendly intentions to each other and is usually the starting point of introducing a stranger. Exchanging Khoorog creates a warm atmosphere between people and makes the start of a friendly talk that helps to learn the true heart of the stranger. People eat lot of "Booz" (steamed Mongolian dumplings) and drink "Airag" (fermented mare’s milk). When the ceremony finishes in the family, the hosts give presents to each person. The present symbolizes a wish for wellbeing, health, wealth and power. Everyone moves to the next family starting with the next oldest person's ger first. The Tsagaan Sar celebration can continue for a month, but the first, second and third days are the most important. 


Food and drinks…


            Following the traditions of centuries, every family prepares the Tsagaan Sar Plate, which is the main food decoration of the table. It consists of "Ih Idee" (big plate) and "Baga idée" (small plate). "Ul boov" (Mongolian traditional biscuit) are put in layers on the big plate. The number of layers should be odd. Traditionally, grandparents have 7 layers of Ul boov, parents – 5 layers, and young couples – 3 layers. "Uuts", sheep’s back and tail, is a must on the table. Bigger and fatter tail is considered more delicious. Airag is the important drink during Tsagaan Sar, however, "Shimiin arkhi" (milk vodka) and regular vodka accompany food as well.

 DO NOT during Tsagaan Sar…

 - Do not wear a black color deel

- Do not drink too much alcohol

- Do not spend overnight in another ger (not at home)

- Do not leave animals at the pasture overnight (animals should be close to ger)

- Do not greet your husband or wife

- Do not do a haircut

- Do not embroil or fix old clothes

- Do not get anything from another ger

- Do not kiss during greetings (old people may kiss their children and grandchildren)


 Tsagaan Sar in Ulaanbaatar…

            Tsagaan Sar is a thriving holiday season in Ulaanbaatar. It has been an official nationwide celebration since 1990. Today, it is one of the most favorite holidays for UB people.

The Tsagaan Sar national wrestling championship is held in the wrestling palace. It is one of the most important wrestling events where the winner earns the next title (the other one is the Naadam, July 11-12, wrestling). UB is full of heavy traffic during the Tsagaan Sar days. Everybody wears new national costumes and goes out to visit relatives, friends and family. Early in the morning, UB streets are full of people who “start their footprints”. The main Buddhist monastery Gandan holds the Tsagaan Sar prayer, which is visited by President and Prime Minister.  



Mongolian traditional summer festival : Naadam





Nadam is the Mongolian traditional summer festival. The full name of the festival is Eriin Gurvan Naadam translated as the Three Men's Games. The word "Naadam" comes from the word "naadah" which means "to play".


The main Naadam festival is held every year on the 11th and 12th of July. Local mini naadams can be held in different parts of the country on different occasions throughout the summer.


Naadam has been celebrated for many hundreds of years. Initially, it was a celebration of some major events such as childbirth, wedding or victory in a war. Since 1922, Naadam has become the celebration of  the Anniversary of Mongolia's Independence.


National wrestling is the pride of Naadam. Mongolians prefer it to all other sports. There are 9 wrestling rounds. Higher-ranking wrestlers enjoy the right to choose their opponents during the final rounds. Singing preludes the wrestling tournament.  Winners of the first 5 rounds are awarded the title of Nachin (the Falcon), of 7 rounds the title of Zaan (the Elephant) and of all 9 rounds the title of Arslan (the Lion).  The highest title Avarga (the Giant) is awarded to a wrestler who wins Naadam wrestling for 2 or more consecutive times.  


Archery is the second most important event in Naadam. It is a very old sport and is 

distinguished from other countries by the fact that the archers must aim at a multitude 

of surs or small felt balls of the size of a fist tied up with leather straps that form a target wall. The one who hits the most is the winner. Women and children as well as men take part in this competition.


Naadam horse races are a long-standing tradition mentioned in the Secret History of the Mongols, a 13th century literary classic, and in the writings of the famous Marko Polo. Time has not changed the rules and conditions of the horse races. The horses race across the wide smooth steppe. The races are classified by the horse age. 1 year old horses are called Daaga, 2 years old - Shudlen, 3 years old - Khyazaalan, 4 years old - Soyolon, 5 years old and above - Ikh nas or adult horses. The distance increases with the age of the horse.  For Ikh nas, the distance is one urtuu or 30 kilometers. 5-10 years old boys and girls, sometimes as young as 3 years old, ride the horses. Tribute is paid to the horse’s performance rather than to horse riders. 


A song is sung in honor of the winning horse as well as for the 1 year old horse that comes last. The young horse that came last earns the “title” of Bayan Khodood (Full Stomach) meaning that it was too heavy during the race. It is not the horse that is blamed for the failure but its master who did not train it properly. The song does not sound offensive to the young rider either. The singer sings that the rider was too young while the race track was strewn with stumbling stones and pits and that at the next Naadam the horse's fame will rise like the sun to glitter like the gold.     



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