The ULUS assets have been chosen very deliberately as a way of giving a glimpse of what is important to traditional nomad culture. This is our chance to explain why they are important.
The traditional national beverage of Mongolia, airag is an alcoholic beverage made of fermented mares’ milk. Airag is made by first filtering the milk and then fermenting it over the course of several days. To nomadic people, airag provides many benefits. Firstly, it is a major source of vitamins and minerals. Additionally, since raw mare’s milk often has a laxative effect, consuming it raw is not recommended in most cases; fermentation removes this effect. Lastly, many adult Mongolian people are lactose intolerant; since fermentation destroys the lactose in milk, it allows those who are lactose intolerant to consume it without ill effects.
The Bankhar, also known as the Tibetan Mastiff, was a vital member of the nomadic family. The traditional greeting when approaching a Mongolian ger is to say “Hold your dog!” In Mongolia, humans and Bankhar dogs are thought to be kindred spirits. Dogs are traditionally the only animals that are given names, and when a Bankhar dies, its remains are typically placed on top of a mountain so people do not walk over its bones, and so it may be closer to the gods and spirit world. This spiritual kinship is so close that a traditional belief is that humans can be reincarnated as dogs and dogs as humans—and as a result, when a dog dies its tail is cut off so that if its spirit is reborn as a human, the human does not have an embarrassing tail.
Boortsog is a food made of fried dough, commonly eaten in Mongolia, as well as across the Middle East, Central Asia, and Idel-Ural. Boortsog is typically sweet, and often eaten as a dessert. In Mongolia, it is also sometimes dipped in tea. Preparation methods can vary, but Mongolians often tie pieces of dough into knots before frying and use mutton fat to add extra flavor.
The Mongolian people have practiced archery for thousands of years. Along with the mobility offered by the horse, mastery of the bow was a factor which allowed Chinggis Khan’s armies to consolidate the Empire. By the 13th century, the technology of the Mongolian bow had already been in development for millennia; the bow itself was a composite bow (unlike the English longbow of the same era), typically made of leather, horn, and wood, and was designed to be used from horseback. Today, archery competitions remain a major part of Mongolian culture, and archery (both for hunting and for sport) remains a major aspect of day-to-day life for many Mongolian people. Archery, along with horse racing and wrestling, is one of the “three games of men” that take place at the Naadam festival in Mongolia, and it should be noted that despite the name women now also participate in the archery games, as well as horse racing.
Camels were domesticated in the Eurasian steppes some 5,000-6,000 years ago. As they did not require roads to travel on, could carry up to 500 pounds of goods and supplies, and did not require much water for long journeys, they became one of the most important animals for land-based trade in Asia. In addition, camel-hair was one of the most important fibers in Mongol textiles. UNESCO lists the Mongolian Camel Coaxing Ritual, performed “to encourage a female camel to accept a new-born calf or to adopt an orphan,” on the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding.
More than 1,000 deer stones have been found in the territory of modern Mongolia, dating back to about 1000 BCE. Their purpose is unknown. The stones exhibit a variety of images, but reindeer feature prominently in nearly all of them. Early stones have very simple images of reindeer, and as time progresses, the designs increase in detail. The reindeer are depicted with neck outstretched and legs extended as if they are flying rather than running on the ground. Over time, the designs of the antlers became increasingly vast, ornate spiral designs that sometimes held a sun disc and may have been bigger than the deer itself. This suggests a connection with Siberian shamanic practices: tattoos on buried warriors contain deer, featuring antlers embellished with small birds’ heads. One theory is that the reindeer-sun-bird imagery symbolizes the shaman’s spiritual transformation from the earth to the sky, the passage from earthly life to heavenly life.
The earliest eagle hunters were probably the Khitans in the 10th century, roughly three centuries before the rise of the Mongol Empire. During the time of Genghis Khan’s conquests, the practice was used by the Kyrfyz tribe, who preserved the tradition under Mongol rule. The Kyrfyz language differentiates between a person who hunts using birds of prey (in general) and a person who hunts using eagles; the latter has its own word in the language. (This is true of the Kazakh language as well.) Nowadays eagle hunting is practices throughout the former Mongol lands—not just in Mongolia but widely across the Eurasian steppes.
During the communist period in Kazakhstan, many Kazakhs fled for Mongolia to avoid being forced to abandon their nomadic lifestyle and sent to collective farms, settling in Bayan-Ölgii Province in the Altai Mountains of western Mongolia, and bringing with them their tradition of hunting with eagles. There are an estimated 250 eagle hunters in Bayan-Ölgii, primarily hunting foxes. Each October, they take part in the annual Golden Eagle Festival. Although the Kazakh government has made efforts to lure the eagle hunters back to Kazakhstan, most have stayed in Mongolia.
Mongolian culture traditionally honors fire. Fire is considered to be the purest element; it is considered uncouth to throw waste, etc. into the fire in a ger, for example. Od iyesi is the Mongolian spirit or deity of fire. Likewise, Od Ana is the goddess of fire, the female form of Od iyesi, and also the goddess of marriage.
In 2015, a team of Mongolian and Japanese researchers unearthed a fortress in Mongolia that is believed to have been one of Genghis Khan’s garrisons, dating to the 13th century. The fortress measured 557 by 655 feet (170 by 200 meters), and was situated both near farmland and along trade routes. This would have allowed the fortress to remain well stocked with both provisions and horsemen. During the era of Pax Mongolica, fortresses also protected the trade that the Mongols encouraged throughout Asia.
The ger is a key feature of Mongolian life dating to the time of the Mongol Empire. Like the yurt, a ger is a felt tent, easily collapsible and transportable, and therefore is well suited to a nomadic lifestyle. To this day, a sizable portion of Mongolia’s population lives in gers. Linguistically, the word “ger” has a broad meaning of “home,” and other words use “ger” as a stem: gerlekh, meaning “to marry,” literally means “to make a home.”
The goat was such an important animal in Mongol culture, both for its meat and wool, that it was adopted as one of the four faces of the shagai used for divination. It may also have been the unwitting and unfortunate origin of team sports. What is often called the oldest sport in the world — buzkashi or kökbörü, literally “goat-dragging,” in which two teams on horseback try to drag a goat carcass to their goal — may have originated in Mongolia.
It is impossible to overstate the importance of the horse in Mongol culture. A traditional saying holds that “A Mongol without a horse is like a bird without wings.” Not only was the horse vital to the conquests of Chinggis Khan, but the resulting vast Mongol empire was unified by a circuit of communications like Pony Express of the American West, with way-stations for post riders set up in strategic locations across the empire. The horse also made it possible for the Mongols to evade intruders and retain their independence. It is a sign of the close relationship between the role of the horse in nomadic life and the expansion of Mongol influence that when the Mongol forces finally conquered the Chinese empire and Chingghis Khan’s grandson Khublai Khan ascended China’s dragon throne, he lost control of strategic horse-breeding areas of the steppes. According to American Museum of Natural History, “His decline began when he could no longer mobilize and unify the mounted nomadic warriors as his grandfather, uncle, and brother had.”
In the words of J. Tserendeleg, president of the Mongolian Association for Conservation of Nature and the Environment, “I think it is not possible to view the future of Mongolia without horses as well. Mongolia is not Mongolia without horses.”
Ink and Brush
Since the 18th century, the ink brush has been the traditional method of writing the Mongolian script. (Before the 18th century, the reed pen was the preferred writing instrument; the ink brush was popularized in the 18th century on account of Chinese influence.) The ink used to write the Mongolian script is traditionally either black or cinnabar (red).
Maps of the Mongol territories are something of a mystery. Maps were articles of enormous importance and value, both practical and spiritual. It seems impossible to believe that such a vast empire could have been administered without maps. Some maps of the time charted the earthly plane; others, especially in Tibet, were cosmograms that combined the physical and spiritual realms, sometimes in mandala form, showing places that were important in the lives of the Buddha and various bodhisattvas. Yet no Mongolian map older than the seventeenth century has ever been recorded.
The name morin khuur literally means “horse fiddle.” The horsehead fiddle, a national symbol of Mongolia, is a stringed instrument played with a bow, listed by UNESCO as one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. Multiple legends exist about the origin of the morin khuur. A common feature of these narratives is a bond between a human and a horse, and a tragedy that causes the horse to die, inspiring the human to create an instrument from the horse’s remains. The morin khuur plays a central role in traditional storytelling and also in the Camel Coaxing Ritual (see: Camel), in which the instrument is played alongside a special kind of low-harmonic music called khoosloh.
Ovoo are cairns (that is, man-made piles or stacks of rocks) which are used as shrines by various Mongolian folk religions. Every ovoo is thought as the representation of a god, which may be a heavenly god, a mountain god, some other god of nature, or the private shrine of an extended family.
When traveling, it is customary to stop and circle an ovoo three times clockwise as one passes it. In Mongolian culture, clockwise is often considered the “correct” direction of motion around an object or point. Likewise, for example, it is considered uncouth to move counterclockwise around the inside of a ger.
Paper was first manufactured in China some 1200 years before the Mongol Empire, but even in Chinggis Khan’s day it was a rare and expensive item. A manuscript from 13th-century Persia, explaining the papermaking process, reveals that it took 12 days to produce 100 sheets of high-quality paper. By then paper had enabled rapid growth in book production and transportation, and had become central to the three arts of China—poetry, painting, and calligraphy—and subsequently the “Four Treasures of the Scholar’s Studio” would be paper, the brush, ink, and the inkstone. Yet despite its cost and value, paper was also used for wrapping items of value, for tea bags, and (especially in China) as toilet paper.
Prayer flags are usually most associated with Tibet, but they are commonly used in Mongolia as well. It is not uncommon to see an ovoo, or shrine, decorated with prayer flags. Prayer flags are often associated with Buddhism, but their use is believed to predate Buddhism in Tibet. In Mongolia, prayer flags are often blue in color; this is distinct from the practice in other nations.
In Mongolia, reindeer are raised primarily for milk. Reindeer milk, cheese, and yoghurt are staples of the local diet. Because the local area is hilly, the reindeer also provide transportation; they serve as pack animals, and they are also ridden. Training of reindeer for riding begins when the reindeer are around two years old, but on account of the weight of an adult human, adults don’t ride reindeer until the reindeer are at least three years old and strong enough to support an adult’s weight. This means that it’s typically children who train the reindeer. Reindeer that are ridden are often castrated males. Reindeer antlers are used in folk medicines in China; ergo, the Tsaatan can sell the antlers as well, so the antlers are usually cut off during the summer. However, reindeer cannot regulate their body temperature well without their antlers, and become easily exhausted, so antlers are not harvested from pregnant female reindeer.
The reindeer herders, the Tsaatan of north central Mongolia, are one of the world’s smallest ethnic minorities. Many of the Tsaatan fled to northern Mongolia from their ancestral lands in Siberia in the early 1900s, after Stalin came to power in Russia, out of fear that they would be forcibly settled. Until 1960, those Tsaatan were stateless, as the Mongolian government did not recognize them. Today, many Tsaatan still retain their nomadic, reindeer-herding lifestyle. However, their lifestyle faces threats from climate change, overzealous mining, and the Mongolian government’s own conservation policies.
Mongolian shamans, like all other shamans of Inner Asia, make use of the drum. Sometimes the design of the drum will incorporate the shaman’s ongon, or ancestral spirit. Drums are often made of horse hide, the drum itself standing for “the saddle animal on which the shaman rides or the mount that carries the invoked spirit to the shaman.”
Boiled mutton was a staple of the traditional Mongol diet. Sheep wool was pressed into felt and then, along with sheepskins, either made into clothing, rugs, and blankets or used for the outer covering of the gers. Though the Mongols used wood as a fuel source, animal dung was often the most readily available source, women and children being responsible for gathering the dung. An important skill and responsibility for Mongol women was to coax the ewes to nurse their young.
The snow leopard has traditionally been viewed as a sacred animal by Mongolian peoples, as well as other cultures of the region. The ethnographer Yuri Loginov wrote, “According to the views of the Mongols, Khakas, Tuvinians and Altaians, the leopard is the representative of the higher heavenly forces on earth. It became a totem, an ancestor and the protector of the family.” To some even in present day Mongolian culture, it is considered disrespectful to call the animal by its real name; according to Mongol shaman Buyanbad-rakh, it is preferred to use descriptions such as “spotted fur coat.” However, this idea is more complicated than religion would make it seem. Snow leopards are carnivorous, and many herders dislike the leopards because they prey on their livestock. Present-day conservation efforts have made a large difference, and for now snow leopards are safe in the mountains of Mongolia.
Similar to the snuff boxes used by Europeans, snuff bottles were used to carry powdered tobacco. Tobacco was introduced to the East by the Portuguese at some point in the 16th century and was originally smoked, but the Qing dynasty banned the practice of smoking tobacco. Snuff was still allowed, however, on the grounds that it was believed to have medicinal properties. A traditional Mongol greeting included an invitation to share one’s snuff bottle.
Like airag, suutei tsai (literally “tea with milk”) is a traditional beverage of Mongolia. It is traditionally made with water, tea leaves, milk, and salt. It is a tradition of Mongolian peoples to not drink straight water, so milk (of a variety of types) is a staple of the Mongolian diet.
The tovshuur is a type of lute, culturally significant to the peoples of Western Mongolia, that is typically played to accompany storytelling, dancing, and singing. The writings of the European explorer Marco Polo suggest it might have also been played before battle. Tovshuurs are not mass produced or made to any sort of predetermined specifications; each is individually made, and thus each is unique.
Wolves are important symbols of masculinity, courage, and honor, especially in Mongol heroic and mythic poetry. They also have a strong spiritual identity: in the Mongol folktale Boldag ugei boru ebugen, the god Qormuz Tengri is depicted as a powerful, active god “attended by the wolf and crow,” illustrating the wolf’s place in pre-modern Mongolic consciousness.
Yaks are used by the Mongolian people as beasts of burden, and also provide meat and milk. Unlike camels, yaks require prime grazing land and cannot perform well in the desert. However, yaks still hold very high value to the Mongolian people of the steppes, and in fact one of the most important festivals of the year in Mongolia is the Yak Festival. It is held on the 23rd of July every year in Orkhon Valley, in the province of Ovorkhangai.