Why there are so many Naadam Festivals in Mongolia? Which one should you attend as a visitor?
Well, Naadam literally means playing game. As it gets “festival” in the end, it can be various sizes and significance. Each administrative region in Mongolia celebrates Naadam Festival after or before the State Naadam Festival (11-13 July). This year, for example, provincial Naadams will take place after 15 July. The scale of Naadam signifies the importance of the occasion. If a district and a province celebrates Naadam Festival for the occasion of its anniversary, it often attracts a large audience and participants.
You may get confused why there are so many Naadams and what the differences are. Initially, Naadam had roots in Shamanic rituals, while Mongol army’s training added certain elements lately. As Buddhism gets its popularity in Mongolia in the 16th century, some religious aspects are interwoven with Naadam. Let me explain first what Shamanism contributed to form Mongolia’s Naadam festival. Mongolian nomads worship nature and pay tribute to their sacred mountains and rivers via making offerings. It often involves in piling stones and woods near the site as a sacrificial tool. As a result Ovoo worshiping tradition became annual or seasonal rituals to wish abundant precipitation and good pasture for their animals among nomads. A part of Ovoo worshipping includes wrestling and horse racing. Nowadays, especially late spring or early summer, Ovoo worshipping is widely practiced throughout Mongolia. Due to strong influence of Buddhism, Ovoo worshipping ceremony is interwoven with Shamanic and Buddhist rituals.
As Mongol Empire flourished in the 13th century, well trained army became crucial part of the expansion of the empire. Sturdy Mongol horses and strong men became pillars of Mongolia’s endurance horse racing and wrestling which both were training of the Mongol army. However, during the 17th and 18th centuries, once world dominated Mongol empire shrunk and Khalkh Mongols (present territory of Mongolia) were administered seven sons of Batmunkh Dayan Khaan, a descendant of Chinggis Khaan. Since this period, 7 hoshuus or provinces celebrated Danshig Naadam together. Danshig Naadam had hidden agenda of making Mongols stronger through their wrestling, horse racing and archery.
Upon Mongolia’s revival of independence in 1921, Naadam Festival became the state’s official festival to celebrate its independence. Thus, each administrative region celebrates Naadam festival at different scales. Small scale Naadam festivals are good opportunity for emerging wrestlers, horse trainers and archery competitors to develop their skills and technique to raise up from district to province and ultimately to the State Naadam Festival. The best wrestlers, horses, archery and knuckle bone shooting athletes compete for the title of champion and grand champion at the State Naadam Festival.
So Naadam Festivals have several ranks starting from the lowest:
- Ovoonii Naadam for worshiping sacred places. It is small in scale in which 16-32 wrestlers compete while 1 or 2 different age categories of horse race take place;
- Sumiin Naadam Festival: District or village level Naadam Festival where often 64-128 wrestlers compete and 6 different age categories of horse races take place+ archery tournament in some places;
- Aimgiin Naadam Festival or Provincial Naadam Festival. There are often 128-256 wrestlers for the wrestling tournament. Six different age categories of horse races take place along with archery tournament;
- Danshig Naadam or Naadam festival among several provinces or regions. It can often be similar size of the State Naadam Festival. Recent years, Danshig Naadam is celebrated on 6 August along with Buddhist Tsam Mask Dance near Ulaanbaatar;
- Ulsiin Naadam Festival or the State Naadam Festival. There are 512-1024 wrestlers in the wrestling tournament while 6 different age categories of horse races take place. Archery tournaments consist of three styles including Buryad, Uriankhai and Halh named after by three ethnic groups respectively. Each archery tournament has differing styles of shooting, distances and accessories. Also there is knuckle bone shooting tournament takes place in which competitors shoot animal knuckle bone to hit a target as seated.
Naadam Festival of each level commences with a colourful opening ceremony with staged performances and parade. The opening ceremony of the State Naadam Festival is the grandeur in its shear size and could be most attractive for international visitors. If you are unwilling to join a large crowds, district and provincial Naadams offer very personal and intimate experiences of meeting local wrestlers, jokey children and archery athletes. However, Naadam is never complete without trying Huushuur, a round shaped fried pastry with minced beef or mutton seasoned by local herbs. So enjoy your Naadam in Mongolia.