Celebrating Mongolia’s Naadam Festival

The Naadam Festival, traditionally known as simply “Naadam”, is the most anticipated and action-filled national holiday in Mongolia. Naadam is “inseparably connected to the nomadic civilization of the Mongols, who have long practiced pastoralism on Central Asia’s vast steppe.” From July 11th – 13th, the people of Mongolia come together to compete in traditional sports and games “using distinctive tools and sporting items”, while overall enjoying the pleasures of their rich culture. You’ll be able to spot men, women, and children dressed from head to toe in colorful-bold patterns, special costumes, and traditional Mongolian clothing. Main attractions at this festival include their traditional cuisine, singing (including long song & Khöömei overtone singing), the Bie biyelgee dance, Morin khuur fiddle, craftsmanship…just to name a few! Tourists also come from near and far to learn about Mongolian traditions and lifestyle, as well as to partake in the wide range of activities that Naadam presents.

Naadam Games

Naadam translates to the ‘festival’ or ‘feasts of sports’. This festival has been celebrated over a millenia and is still going strong today. Many Naadam’s are held across the capital, Ulaanbaatar, allowing for Mongols to participate in the neighboring games. Amongst the locals, Naadam is known as “Eriin Gurvan Naadam” which translates to “three manly sports”. 

The three sports include wrestling, horse racing, and archery. Years later, the traditional game of ankle-bone-shooting joined the line up resulting in 4 main sports that are played during the festival. Women and children also partake in sports (excluding wrestling) despite the name translation.

Naadam Wrestling 

Following the opening ceremony, the wrestling games occur over 2 days. These matches are a sight to see as the wrestlers wear special clothing highlighting their strength. Just like any sport there are rounds, rules, onlookers, and a winner! With over 500 wrestlers and 1 winner, it can get very competitive. All wrestlers are welcomed and treated equally, regardless of experience, so an onlooker may witness “veterans wrestle with young amateurs.”  Eminent wrestlers are awarded national titles by the Mongolian government and are highlighted in Ulaanbaatar. Wrestling in Mongolia is an annual crowd favorite during Naadam.

Naadam Horse Race 

Mongols have a plethora of horse racing games throughout the year as it is a popular event in Mongolia. Races such as the Naadam Festival race, Tsagaan Sar Lunar New Year race, the spring horse race and the Ikh Hurd race take place and draw large crowds. One month preceding the Naadam Horse Race, horses are taken care of and trained for the games. Then, hours before the horse race begins, horses are left grazing in open fields.

Horse racing is mostly for Mongolian children aged 7-13 and “the racing distance differs depending on the ages of the horse. There are six racing categories in the Naadam festival according to the age of the horses.” Based on ancient tradition, children rode horses without saddles but due to new safety regulations, saddles are a must.

Naadam Archery

Three kinds of archery are practiced in Mongolia, “Khalkha Kharvaa/Khalka archery, Buriat Kharvaa/Buriat archery and Uriankhai Kharvaa/Uriankhai archery.” The bow is made from natural wood, horn, sinew, leather and animal glue” and is well prepared before the games as it takes about 6 months to 1 year for it to be fashioned and formed. The arrow is crafted with natural “bone or wood and its shaft is made of feathers from birds of prey.”

Children and adults will alternate their days between participating in the archery games and spectating. Spectators must also help with co-judging the rounds. “The co-judging archers use gestures to indicate scores. If the co-judges raise their hand high, turning the palms up and singing “uukhai”, it means the target was hit and the archer has scored.”

Naadam Ankle Bone Shooting

The traditional Ankle-Bone-Shooting game was added to the main Naadam games in 1998. It is now listed as a “UNESCO World Heritage game” and is known amongst Mongols as “Shagain Harvaa”. Before it took the Nadaam stage, it was enjoyed and loved by Mongolian Nomads.

 So, what is an Ankle-Bone-Shooting and how is it played during the Naadam games? The ankle bone is likened to dice in the western world and is the knuckle bone or ankle bone of animals. Several games can be in progress at the same time in the shooting tents or fields at the Naadam arena. Each team has 6 main players, plus two stand-by players. A player shoots target bones put in rows on a small wooden structure called “Zurkhai”. Behind the Zurkhai is an Aravch board, which helps the target bones and bullet bone not to scatter. The shooting target distance is 4.7m.

We hope that  Baata and his family, Tuya and her team and all our other Mongolian brothers and sisters have had a Happy Naadam! The Naadam Festival is truly an unforgettable event that Mongols near the countryside celebrate it for up to 2 weeks!  So with that being said…we are still wishing you all a Happy Naadam and hope you are enjoying or enjoyed it to the fullest!

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