Naadam is the most widely watched festival among Mongols, and is believed to have existed for centuries in one form or another. The origins of Naadam goes back to primordial times when the horse was first domesticated and the first hunters learned how to ride them.
Though the historical evidence is not available, the festival’s roots can be traced to the cultures of Central Asian nomadic tribes such as the Huns, Scyphians and Turks. As early as 3000 B.C., the holiday has been a regular national event, where all nomadic tribes come together to show the best of their physical strength, riding and shooting skills; qualities vital to the survival of nomadic herders and hunters.
This annual festival tradition survived throughout centuries of the turbulent history of Central Asian nomads. After the 1921 National Revolution’s victory. On June 11, the revolutionaries mounted a successful attack on Urgoo, the capital city, and defeated the Chinese military garrison.
Nowadays, it is simply the Naadam celebration of Mongolian sport. The games held throughout the country during midsummer are Mongolian wrestling, horse racing and archery.
The biggest festival, the Naadam of the Country, is held in the Mongolian capital, at Ulaanbaatar’s National Sports Stadium. Naadam begins with an elaborate opening ceremony featuring dancers, athletes, horseback riders, and musicians. After the ceremony, the competition begins.
Chinggis Khan’s Nine Base White Banners, representing the nine tribes of the Mongols, are still ceremonially transported from the Government Palace to the Central Stadium to open the Naadam festivities. At these opening and closing ceremonies there are impressive parades of mounted cavalry, athletes and monks.
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. In the larger Naadam festivals, these tournaments can take place in a separate venue.
In 2010, Naadam was inscribed on the Representative List of UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
It is impossible to imagine Mongols without a horse. Thousands of years ago, horses were the most reliable means of transportation. Therefore any festivity is not complete without horse racing. Reflecting this reverence for horses, awards and prestige go not to the horse’s rider or owner, but to the horse. A peculiarity of Naadam horse racing that most often surprises foreigners, is that jockeys are usually children aged four to 13. It is believed that lightweight jockeys allow horses to perform most effectively.
Unlike Western horse racing, which consists of short sprints generally not much longer than two kilometers, Mongolian horse racing featured in Naadam is an endurance event, with races 15 to 30 kilometers long. The length of each race is determined by age class. There are six races for horses of different ages.
Before the races begin, the audience sings traditional songs and the jockeys sing a song called “Gingo”. The start of the race is a spectacular event, as hundreds of horses shoot out through clouds of dust, accompanied by the wild shouts of jockeys and cheering spectators.
Mongolian horses are well known for their stamina and strength. They stay outside year round, on open pastures, grazing on whatever grass is available. Despite their size, they can run for hours without tiring. One stallion from Uvs province, named EldenZeerd, once covered 250 kilometers in 14 hours. To prepare a horse for racing requires patience and knowledge of horses. Uyach (horse trainers) are natural veterinarians, individuals who command deep respect from all connoisseurs of horses.
Prizes are awarded to horses and jockeys at the completion of the race. The top five horses in each class earn the title of Airgiin Tav, and the top three are given gold, silver, and bronze medals. Also, the winning jockey is praised with the title of Tumniikh, or leader of ten thousand. The horse that finishes last in the Daaga race (two year-old horse race) is called “bayan khodood” (full stomach). A song is sung to the bayan khodood, wishing him luck to be next year’s winner.
Mongolians are said to be born with a bow in their hands, and they are trained and nourished to be good archers in childhood. They invented one of the most effective bows in military history, the Mongolian recurved composite bow, made with horn, bark, and wood. Now the bow is proudly used in festivities.
Like Naadam’s races, Mongolian archery competitions are quite different from those held in the western world: the archers have not only one target, but take aim for hundreds of beads or surs (leather cylinders) mounted on a huge wall. Teams of five to ten men and women (women began participating some decades ago) have to hit 33 surs from a distance of 75 meters for men, and 65 meters for women. Today’s targets are four meters across and 50 cm high. The winner is the first team to hit all targets.
Uukhai is a song sung when the archer is aiming, with singers changing intonation if the target is hit. This practice comes from times when the targets were 200 meters away. The song was a good way for spectators and participants to know if the target was hit. Winners of the game are granted the title of mergen (national marksman or markswoman).
Five lines engraved on an ancient Mongolian target immortalize the phenomenal record of Yesuhei-baatar, saying that his arrow hit its target from a distance of 536 meters. In the past, Mongolians used three types of bows; big hand (165-170 cm), average hand (160 cm), and small hand (150 cm). Today, Mongolians mostly use the average hand bow, which requires a force of 22 to 38 kg to draw. Arrows are made of pine wood with feather fins, allowing it to reach distances of 900 meters.
Naadam archery attracts individual archers as well as teams. Male archers shoot forty arrows at each target. Judges in traditional dress stand by the targets, raising their hands in the air to indicate the quality of the shot, along with Uukhai, but they surprisingly never get injured.
The meals served during the festival are also a good reason to head there. You’ll be able to taste khuushuur (a delicious fried meat dumpling) Mongolian-style meat, bread and dried curds, among other traditional food, all accompanied by tea and bowls of airag, a Mongolian alcoholic drink made from fermented mare’s milk.
For many, the wrestling tournament is the focal point of Naadam. Either 512 or 1,024 wrestlers meet in a single-elimination tournament that lasts nine or ten rounds. Bokh (Mongolian traditional wrestling) is an untimed competition in which wrestlers lose if they touch the ground with any part of their body other than their feet or hand. When picking pairs, the wrestler with the greatest fame has the privilege of choosing his own opponent. Each wrestler has an “encourager” called a zasuul. The zasuul sings a song of praise for the winning wrestler after rounds three, five, and seven.
Originally, bokh was a military sport intended to provide mainly strength, stamina and skills training to troops. Chinggis Khan (1206–1227), all the later emperors of the Mongol Empire (1206–1368) and the emperors of later Khanates were keen to support the sport, so wrestling events were included in local festivals, or Naadam. Wrestling became a key factor when deciding candidate rankings in imperial martial exams. Plus, outstanding wrestlers were entitled to high distinctions.
The rules of wrestling are rather simple: anybody who touches the ground first is defeated. The skills are demanding ones, as neither wrestler’s weight nor height is accounted for. Each Mongolian wrestler has a title of his own: Lion, Elephant, Falcon, – a sophisticated hierarchy of ranks bestowed based on the wrestler’s past performances. Categories such as Steady, Mighty and Strong are usually added to wrestler rank, to reflect their specific wrestling style or quality. The champion of the tournament is awarded the title of “The Titan”. Winners of the 7th or 8th stage (depending on whether the competition features 512 or 1,024 wrestlers) earn the title of zaan (elephant). The winner of the 9th or 10th stage, is called arslan (lion). In the final competition, all the zasuuls drop in the wake of each wrestler as they take steps toward each other. Two-time arslans are called titans or giants (avraga).
On September 17, 2011 the Mongolian National Wrestling Match was held with the participation of 6,002 wrestlers. It became the largest wrestling competition in the world and was recorded in the Guinness Book of World Records.
The wrestler’s zasuul is an on-field guide and coach. In early round competitions, when there are many wrestlers, most wrestlers don’t have their own zasuul. Successful wrestlers and those who get to the higher rounds, get their own zasuuls. A zasuul’s role is to hold the hat of his wrestler while he wrestles, and give him encouragement and motivation on the field. For instance, if the match is going slowly, a zasuul might slap the buttocks of his wrestler to encourage him to engage his opponent more quickly. Zasuuls are not technically coaches in the literal sense. They are usually an elder and friend of the wrestler, who is there on the field to serve as a guide and help set up a fair competition. Also, unlike other grappling sports, a zasuul does not have to be a former wrestler. When the match starts, the wrestlers are divided somewhat evenly into left and right sides, and sometimes in the higher rounds, a zasuul will sing the praise of his wrestler as an open challenge to competitors across the aisle. The other side’s zasuul will respond with praise of his own wrestler. The poetic praise of a wrestler by his zasuul comes from the wrestler with the highest rank on that side.
The traditional outfit wrestlers developed over the ages reflects simplicity and mobility. The standard gear of a wrestler includes:
A tight, collarless, heavy-duty, short-sleeved, red or blue jacket. Traditionally made of wool, modern wrestlers have changed to looser materials such as cotton and silk. The front is open, but tied at the back with a simple string knot, thus exposing the wrestler’s chest. According to legend, on one occasion a wrestler defeated all other combatants and ripped open the zodog of the final challengers to reveal her breasts, showing everyone she was a woman. From that day on, the zodog had to reveal the wrestler’s chest.
Small, tight-fitting briefs made of red or blue cotton cloth. These make the wrestler more mobile. Also, they prevent one’s rival from easily taking advantage of long pants and material to trip on.
Leather boots, either in the traditional style (with slightly upturned toes), or commercial, Western style. Traditional gutal are often reinforced with leather strings around the sides for the purpose of wrestling.
Inner Mongolian wrestlers may also wear a jangga, a necklace decorated with strands of colorful silk ribbons. It is awarded to those who have gained considerable renown through contests.
Enjoy the Naadam Festival!