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Naadam festival and other festivals in Mongolia

Updated: Nov 19, 2023

Naadam festival is Mongolia 's biggest festival and is held on 11 and 12 July. It is made up of the three manly sports — wrestling, horse racing, and archery. Naadam literally means "game" and thus the Naadam is often referred to as the National Holiday Naadam in order to distinguish it from local Naadams, which can have from one hundred to one thousand participants. The term Naadam will always refer to the National Holiday Naadam unless otherwise specified in this discussion.

Naadam festival
Naadam festival

What is Naadam festival?

Naadam 's origins date back to the seventeenth century, when at the completion of summer religious ceremonies the eriin gurwan naadam, or "three manly games," was held. In 1697 the first was held in honor of Jebtsundamba Khutukhtu. It has since developed into a major event in Mongolia.

The games originally had no fixed date, but in 1912, after Mongolia gained independence from the Qing Empire, the games were moved to the last summer lunar month (July – August).

The games also came to symbolize an honour not only for the Khutukhtu Jebtsundamba, but also for the state. The theme of the games changed once more after the Revolution of 1921. The Communists filtered out much of the religious content and ended up abandoning it all in 1923. However, Naadams related to religious celebration continued until the purge of religion in the 1930s by the government.


Origin of Naadam Festival

In 1922, Sukhebaatar began a Newnham, the army games played on July 11 to celebrate the anniversary of the victory of the revolt. This date also marked the separation of secular and religious calendars, as the revolution 's military games and anniversary were now linked to a Western calendar rather than the religious lunar calendar. By 1924, the 11th of July became an official national holiday, and the army games became the Naadam national holiday.

Sukhbaatar square
Sukhbaatar square

Before World War II, most of the games were held outside of Ulaanbaatar and other cities in the countryside. After the war the construction boom pushed the football, for the most part, into stadiums. At the ceremonies, and often during the games themselves, athletes still wore the traditional dress. The games were also used during the Communist period not only to commemorate the revolution but also to honor great leaders.

So, as the participants marched through Sukhbaatar Square, instead of the original honor given to the Jebtsundamba Khutukhtu, now Marx, Lenin, and Sukhebaatar received veneration. It also had a similar feeling to Soviet parades during which, in addition to the performers, military vehicles paraded past leaders.

While the athletes still continue through Sukhbaatar Square past the tombs of Sukhbaatar and Choibalsin, the image of the Communists has vanished. Instead, along with a white horsehair banner, an honor guard in costumes from the past parade of Chinggis Khan. The banner in white symbolizes unity. Actors perform skits from the history of Mongolia, too. While the stands are still packed for the match, it is now viewed by those on tv, a sharp contrast with the Communist era during which attendance was mandatory.

While the athletes continue past the graves of Sukhbaatar and Choibalsin through Sukhebaatar Square, the image of the Communists has disappeared. Instead, an honour guard in uniforms from Chinggis Khan 's history march behind a white horsehair flag. In white the flag symbolizes peace. Actors, too, do skits from Mongolia 's history. While the stands are still packed for the match, those on tv are now watching it, a sharp contrast with the Communist era, during which attendance was compulsory.

Buuz
Buuz

A core aspect of the festival is food and buuz, which are devoured in huge amounts, supplemented by generous vodka doses. The buuz serves another purpose: families often put a silver coin in one buuz and whoever finds it will have prosperity in the coming year according to tradition. The largest sheep in the flock, or in the city, that a family can buy, are cooked and eaten at family gatherings in the countryside. Like the Thanksgiving turkey, it is a symbol of honour. The importance of food is highlighted in the holiday preparations which often start a month before the holiday.


What is Tsagaan sar?

Tsagaan Sar got under attack during the Communist era. The celebration of Tsagaan Sar was criticized during the religious purges, although the criticism diminished during some years. Herders received government approval to celebrate the holiday during World War II — maybe because Josef Stalin was too busy to notice or care about, occupied with the Nazis. The holiday was declared a workday in 1954 and a crackdown against it again started by the government. And their attempts were inadequate. The government, though not willing to admit defeat, found a solution by making Tsagaan Sar "Collective Herders' Day" in 1960. Tsagaan Sar didn't gain official recognition as a national holiday until 1988.

Overall, Mongolia doesn't have an abundance of festivals or holidays, but there are some that deserve recognition. Maidar Ergekh is one of the most important festivals, usually held in August. Because of the lunar festival the exact date varies. Maidar Ergekh is a festival in Buddhism that attracted thousands of lamas and spectators before the Revolution of 1921. The festival had been outlawed since the rise of the Communist regime. The festival has made a modest comeback since 1990, though, and each year the celebration takes place at a different monastery.

During the celebration, monks perform tsam dances and parade a statue of the Maitreya Buddha (future or Messiah Buddha) through the monastery grounds. Another Buddhist holiday is Ikh Duichin, the Buddha's birthday, which will take place on May 18. Although it is celebrated in all the monasteries, the main celebration takes place at Gandantegchinlen Khiid in Ulaanbaatar.

Eagle hunters festival

There are also several new festivals, primarily for national and foreign visitors as tourist attractions. While several appear close to the anniversary of the Mongolian Empire, some more permanent regional festivals have taken place. The Yak Festival, held early August in Arkhangi Aimag; the Bayan Olgii Aimag Eagle Festival in early October; and the Omnogov Aimag Camel Festival, held a week after Tsagaan Sar (February – March).

Eagle hunter festival
Eagle hunter festival

The Eagle Festival is a Kazakh Mongol Festival in which shows are done with adults. Modern horse races and archery competitions are also held. The Airag Festival , held at Dundov Aimag in late August, is also interesting.


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