Mongolians are known to be self-reliant, hardworking, hospitable and fun-loving. They are independent minded people with a good sense of humour. To display their strength, horsemanship and marksmanship, Mongolians celebrate the Naadam Festival which symbolises their national integrity. A year after the Mongolian People Revolution in 1921, Naadam has been celebrated as an annual national holiday throughout the country since 1922. Naadam Festival is the most popular national holiday Mongolians celebrate. It also allows a unique or even a once in a lifetime experience for many tourists and travellers as they are given the opportunity to mingle with the locals and observe their authentic traditional culture and way of life.
The centuries-old tradition originated from the era of the Khunnu Empire and was originally organised as a competition to test the skill, strength and speed through wrestling, archery and riding horses of Mongolian warriors of different tribes. The Naadam games is also said to date back to the Hünnü empire, precursor of the Genghis Khan empire. The Naadam celebration was then handed down in 1206 when Temuujin enthroned Genghis Khan after building the Great Mongol Empire. Mongolians annually celebrated Naadam at the beginning of the 20th century, honouring their state religious leader Bogd Khan secretly. A year after the Mongolian People Revolution in 1921, Naadam has been celebrated as an annual national holiday throughout the country. Today, Naadam is the country’s biggest celebration that is compared to the Olympic game for Mongolians.
The Naadam, locally termed as “Eriin Gurvan Naadam” means “Three Manly Games.” The three sports are wrestling, horse racing and archery. The three types of sports reflect the living conditions and lifestyles of the Mongols. The knucklebone shooting game was later added making Naadam Festival comprise four national spots. Although it is called Three Manly Sports, women can participate in horse racing, archery, and ankle-bone shooting, but not in wrestling.
Mongolian Naadam is inseparably connected to the nomadic civilization of the Mongols who have long practised pastoralism on Central Asia’s vast steppe and it is celebrated every year from July 11 to 13 across Mongolia nurturing community involvement and emphasising the respect for the environment and nature through Nadaam’s customs and rituals.
During the festival, the Mongolians would follow certain practices and rituals like wearing distinctive sport items, tools and unique costumes. Winners get rewarded for their achievements and ritual poems and praise songs are being dedicated to all the contestants in the events. The Naadam Festival allows everyone to participate encouraging harmony and togetherness.
Three Games of Man
Naadam Festival Wrestling
Wrestling is the most famous traditional sport of all Mongolian sports and is the highlight of the Eriin Gurvan Naadam. It is believed that wrestling originated about 7000 years ago. The competition begins after the opening ceremony and continues for two days until one champion remains out of over 500 wrestlers. Tournament winners’ main accomplishment is the national popularity and fame they gain aside from the actual titles and souvenirs they receive.
The aim of the sport is to force the opponent off-balance and make him touch the ground with knee or elbow. A wrestler who beats five opponents in succession is awarded the title of Republican Falcon; the winner of seven rounds is called Elephant. Winning and becoming a champion by nine rounds is given the title Lion, and if a wrestler wins two years in row, he is called Giant. If a wrestler wins for a third time at Naadam, he adds National to his title, and if he wins again, he is styled Invincible.
The wrestler that didn’t win walks under one raised arm of the winner as a sign of respect and unties his vest after which the winner takes a turn round the flag in the centre of the field. The winner is awarded symbolic prizes of aaruul (dried curds) and biscuits at which when done tasting is offered to his seconds and spectators.
Naadam Festival Horse Race
The best of the best horses in Mongolia compete in the race for high standing. Horse races are organised in open horse raising fields outside the Mongolians’ towns and cities. 7 to 13-year old boys and girls ride the race horses and the racing distance depends on the horse’s age. As the saying goes, “The nomad is born in the saddle”, Mongolian children this age are good horse riders. The child jockeys wear vivid coloured dresses with patterns of wheels, five stars, wish-fulfilling signs or signs of luck such as butterflies or bird figures stitched onto the part of the clothes or in front of their cap. Bird design symbolises swiftness of horses, butterfly as a symbol of lightness while other marks may represent fame, promptness and prowess as symbols.
Winning horses receive the title “Forehead of 10.000 Racehorses” and winning riders, accompanied by a herald will do a full circuit of the stadium. The five runner-ups are given medals; called the Airagiin Five. Traditionally, winning riders do three laps of honour, then ride up to the grandstand to be offered a large bowl of airag (fermented mare’s milk) from which they drink and pour some on the rump of the horse. The herald chants an ode about the horse, its rider and its owner.
Mongolians also practise honour traditions to those who didn’t win by rewarding and honouring the last horse. After the victory ceremony, the horse that came in last is led up to the main stand with his young rider. Spectators never make fun of those who were defeated but instead shout encouragement to win back their confidence. The herald recites a special ode to them with words of encouragement expressing faith to their future success.
Naadam Festival Archery
A compound bow built in layers of horn, sinew, wood and bark is what is traditionally used by Mongolians. Archery starts ahead of the other sports, starting on July 7. The archers co-judge each other during rounds when they are not shooting. The higher-ranked archers shoot first, followed by the next ranks. The co-judging archers use gestures to indicate scores. If the co-judges raise their hand high, turning palms up and singing “Uukhai” it means the target was hit and the archer has scored. The archer who scores the most hits is awarded the title of Mergen (Super Marksman). Women did not participate in archery contests back then, but in the last few decades they have begun to do so. The men shoot 40 arrows at a distance of about 75 metres and must score at least 15 hits to be in the next round. Women use the same bow as the men, shooting 20 arrows at about 60 metres and must score at least 13 hits to progress.
Naadam Festival Knucklebone Shooting
The knucklebone shooting was added to the Naadam games in 1998 and is a UNESCO World Heritage game. The Naadam Festival knucklebone shooting is played in teams consisting of 6 key players plus two stand-by players. The target is called “Zurkhai,” where target bones are put in rows on a small wooden structure. The teams collect their struck target bones. The first team to finish the target bones wins.
As everyone looks forward annually to Naadam, travelling to Mongolia to witness the festival’s sports events, music, parades, local delicacies and traditional dresses is an experience that is only one of its kind in the world.