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Mongolian culture

Religion of Mongolia

The main religion in Mongolia is Buddhism, with 90% of the population. The rest consist of Muslims, Shamanism, and few Christians. Mongolia’s oldest religion is Shamanism, as it arose within the clan structure. Archeological findings may suggest that shamanism has been around here for over 40,000 years. Every clan believed it was descended from some animal or plant. Their origin was called their tutelary genius. Some common animals adored by Mongolians are the deer and wolf. 

Buddhism in Mongolia

People say that Buddhism first came to Mongolia 3rd century BC, but the historical evidence date Modun Shanyu's reign around 209-171 For nearly 2000 years Buddhism has been growing in Mongolia. By 1937, there were over 700 active monasteries in the country. After the communist control, may monasteries were destroyed leaving just 5 remaining. After the democratic revolution of 1990, people have started reconstruction efforts on many monasteries.

Shamanism in Mongolia

From clan structure, people believed that there was an external force of nature and they understood that they were poor and weak compared to it. So they worshipped to that force, and it became the root of Shamanism. According to beliefs, there are 99 heavens, 55 of which are the heavens of the west and influence good towards human beings, and the other 44 are the heavens of the east and considered bad. Shamanistic Mongols worship the good 55 heavens once a year by worshipping a sacred mountain or an Ovoo. During the ceremony of Ovoo worship, shamans offer fire and food to the spirits of the mountains and of the waters. Once a year shamans perform a special ritual to abuse the bad heavens. According to Shamanism, after death, the spirit goes to the heavens while the body remains under the ground. Today there are number of Shamanistic ethnic groups mostly living in the north western part of the country.

Handmade Crafts

Embroidery artist in action during World Fair Trade Day

Photo credit: Marry and Martha - the first Fair & Ethical souviners shop in Mongolia. Every products made by hand.

Mongolian nomads' homes, clothes, weapons and living conditions are impossible to imagine without crafts and embroidery. Unique arts have developed from common things used in the everyday life of nomads over thousands of years. The beginning of decorative arts was cave painting. Fortune telling sets of animal figures and animal body parts characterized the art of the Hun and Bronze Age people. They also had the ability to make embroidery, applique and stitched felt art. As Hun goldsmith technology developed frapidly, they also developed ceramic art; especially creating vases. During Chinggis' time, traditional crafts and embroidery arts were enriched with foreign arts.
The 19th - 20th centuries saw a rapid period of development of craft and decoration. After gained the independence from China and the Manchurians in 1911, Mongolians decided to renew old monasteries and stations. Painting, sculpture, embroidery, felt art, books and Buddha printing from plates, bone, wood, and fossilized-amber craftwork flourished. In the 20th century, craft art nearly became separated from herding life style and became an independent section of Mongolian art. There are 7000 different kinds of Mongolian patterns. The most ancient of them include "Sulden (emblem) khee", the next one is "Galan (fire) khee", and it is a very important pattern because all Mongolians honour Fire. The patterns symbolize the views of the masses and their wishes and aims. The Mongolian Government has developed a policy of purchasing the best artistic works to enrich the Mongolian National Modern Art Gallery's fund.




Mongolian Ger 

A ger or “house, home” is referred as the White Pearl of the Steppe. It is not only practical in daily use but holds many meanings for Mongolians. The ger has been perfected to meet the demands of a nomad’s life, is a circular felt covered dwelling with lattice walls that can be erected and dismantled within an hour.
The materials of the ger are lightweight that makes it easy for herders to transport the gers either on the back of a camel or on a horse-pulled cart. The gers are decorated with beautiful carved doors and pillars as well as handmade (woven and knitted) fabrics. The two pillars that hold the toono (roof in a shape of a round opening) symbolize the man and the woman of the household, and walking between them is not approved of. A herder can easily tell you what time of the day it is according to how the light comes through roof. Due to winds mostly from North and Northwest, the doors of the gers always face South, a useful fact to know when one is travelling in the countryside. Another useful tip for a traveler is not to step on the threshold as you enter the ger, for you would be seen as stepping on the neck of the household! The furniture inside a ger is arranged according to the years of the Lunar calendar in a clockwise direction.

For example, the most honored place for the guest is khoimor opposite the door where the family keeps its treasures and khoimor location is in the year of the Rat, a symbol of abundance and richness. The door is located in the year of the Monkey because strangers and guests come through the door (monkey is an uncommon animal to Mongolia). From the religious standpoint, a ger resembles a white seashell, a symbol of intelligence in Buddhism. Accommodation in a ger provides a perfect blend of comfort and authenticity.
The frame consists of one or more lattice wall-sections, a door-frame, roof poles and a crown. Some styles of yurt have one or more columns to support the crown. The (self-supporting) wood frame is covered with pieces of felt. Depending on availability, the felt is additionally covered with canvas and/or sun-covers. The frame is held together with one or more ropes or ribbons. The structure is kept under compression by the weight of the covers, sometimes supplemented by a heavy weight hung from the center of the roof. They vary regionally, with straight or bent roof-poles, different sizes, and relative weight.

Mongolian Calligraphy

The Mongols are one of the first authors of calligraphy traditions. The arrangement of different scripts and letters worked out and used by the Mongol race has a history dating back almost 2000 years. It’s quite rare to find a place in the wide steppe of Central Asia without any rock-drawings and petro glyphs with different carved paintings/figures, marks, seals, stamps, letters and scripts. The fact that the scripts system used by Mongols included transcriptions for transcribing foreign words like Tibetan, Sanskrit, Chinese, Manchurian, Russian, and Turkish etc. is a real witness of the respect of Mongols towards culture and education. The Classic Mongolian script is an ancient tradition used since it’s creation until today. It's been spread widely, firmly and regularly among the Mongol race and is one of the wonders of the spiritual, cultural, and precious heritage of Mongolia having been created to take into consideration the sound specialties of the Mongolian language.
The Classic Mongolian script written from the top downwards and in clockwise turns and has a classic vertical direction which expresses the almost optimal movement of handwriting. The Chinggis Khaan’s stele (inscribed Monument) which was writing around 1224 is an ancient memento and a very rare subject of research and studies regarding the Mongolian Calligraphy. On the Stone Sutra Chinggis Khaan’s stele one can observe the relations of the sky and the Earth and the subject of respect and admiration. The artistry peculiarity, different writing styles and forms like print style, hand written, folded etc. and the tools used were studied continuously and developed further. 

Traditional and Modern Mongolian Music

Photo credit: Tumen Ekh 

Music is an integral part of Mongolian culture and the Mongolians are renowned for their love for music and singing. Any Mongolian celebration always turns into a celebration of singing. Mongolian music conveys the deep appreciation that Mongolians have for their country, its natural beauty and the inspiring deep blue sky above the vast Mongolian landscape. Mongolian songs are often about beloved horses and the beauty of the Mongolian countryside. Herders sing while riding their horses and most Mongolians are expected to know at least one song to be shared with others on special occasions or just to lighten the heart. 
Western classical music and ballet flourished during the communist era in the 20th century. Unsurprisingly, modern music is very popular in Mongolia. New bands are popping up all over the steppe, and just like America, the favorite music of choice for 16-20 year olds is hip-hop. Among the most popular forms of modern music in Mongolia are Western Pop and Rock and the mass songs, which are written by modern authors in a form of folk songs.
Morin khuur, a two-stringed fiddle figures prominently in the nomadic culture of Mongolia. String instruments adorned with horse heads are referred to by written sources dating back from the Mongol empire of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The fiddle’s significance extends beyond its function as a musical instrument, for it was traditionally an integral part of the rituals and everyday activities of the Mongolian nomads.
The instrument’s hollow trapezoid-shaped body is attached to a long fretless neck bearing a carved horse head at its extremity. Just below the head, two tuning pegs jut out like ears from either side of the neck. The soundboard is covered with animal skin, and the strings and bow are made of horsehair. The instrument’s characteristic sound is produced by sliding or stroking the bow against the two strings. Common techniques include multiple stroking by the right hand and a variety of left-hand fingering. It is mainly played in solo fashion but sometimes accompanies dances, long songs (urtiin duu), mythical tales, ceremonies and everyday tasks related to horses. To this day, the Morin khuur repertoire has retained some tunes (tatlaga) specifically intended to tame animals. Owing to the simultaneous presence of a main tone and overtones, Morin khuur music has always been difficult to transcribe using standard notation. It has been transmitted orally from master to apprentice for many generations.
The Urtiin duu or “long song” is one of the two major forms of Mongolian singing. The other one is called Bogino duu or “short song”. Urtiin duu as a ritual form of expression associated with important celebrations and festivities. It holds a special place in the Mongolian society. It is performed at weddings, house warming, celebration of a child’s birth, branding of foals and other social events common to the life of a herder. Urtiin duu can also be heard at the Naadam, annual celebration of the independence of Mongolia where the “Three manly sports” featuring wrestling, archery and horseracing take place.
Mongolian khuumii or throat singing has 4 ranges. During singing two simultaneous tones, a high and a low one are produced with the vocal cords. It is a rare skill that requires special ways of breathing. Khumii is considered as an art form and not exactly a singing but using one’s throat as an instrument.

Tsam Dance in Mongolia 

Tsam Dance Mongolia - Mongolian traditional dance
The Eastern Mongols are living, from a political point of view, on Chinese territory, on the frontier from North-Eastern Tibet, in part in East Sinkiang and on the territory of the Blue Lake (Köke Nuur) The Northern Mongols live in the South of Central Siberia, and the Buryates live mainly in the area around the Lake Baikal. The people from Western Baikal are still prone to Shamanism. The people from Southern Baikal and the Buryates in the Trans-Baikal area have adopted the Lamaistic faith with reformed influences. Here, the people also know Tsam performances.

In Mongolia a Tsam play was, for the very first time, performed in the monastery that served Chutuktu of Urga (today Ulaanbaatar), an incarnation of the Tibetan saint Taranatha, in the 16th year of the reign of the Manchurian Emperor Djia-tjing (1811) as residence. Mongolian masters, following the description of the work written by the V. Dalai Lama on the Tsam, fabricated the costumes and masks. There were added to the Tsam four lion figures similar to the lion masks in Chinese parades celebrating New Year; these were a present of the then governor. 

Such as the Burmanese, the Chinese, the Japanese, the people from Cambodia, Corea, Siam, the Sinhalese, the Tibetan and other peoples in Asia, the Mongols belong to the religious group of Indian-Buddhism. China's culture and art have created commonly adopted traditions in the course of various centuries, traditions that still establish a relationship between these peoples.

The Mongols are Lamaists and hence also know the Tsam. The "Yellow Church" here determines the area of influence. In Mongolian monasteries Buddhist art, before its destruction in the 1930ies, had been highly developed, and there were real masters of their art including painters, sculptors, architects, and especially skilled craftsmen. 

Mongolian Culture has had many influences 

  • Nomadism accepted influence on the entire life of the shepherds and hunters, on their traditions, their virtues and vice, which the Mongols have in common with the neighboring Turk peoples.
  • The exotic and in a way adapted: This is the Indo-Tibetan, by means of which there was introduced also a new religion, Buddhism with its sublime teaching and its scientific encyclopedia (especially medicine)
  • The Chinese: which enriched the Mongolian language with a rather important terminology and is associated with the system of administration introduced during the Manchu dynasty and the Chinese works on philosophical and ethical matters.
  • European: Recently has been a large influence on culture. .


Bielgee - Folk Dance

Mongolian Folk dance - folk dance of Mongolia

Photo credit: Tumen Ekh 

Dance has been inseparably linked to the human development and evolved with it. Every gesture of human life has certain meaning to it. Dance has evolved based on human everyday motions, movements, and gestures that are used for hunting and living purposes. Mongolian folk dance, notably the forms known as bii and bielgee, expresses the distinct psychology and movement pattern, expressing their way of life, their thinking, perception of the environment, language, traditions, and philosophy. All of these are connected to form a unique and integrated type of culture of the Mongolian people.
Folk dance in the central Khalkh region is characterized by a graceful and ceremonial style, with gentle, swinging movements; the dances of the western Mongolia, on the other hand, as performed by the Zahchin, Torguud, Urianhai, Durbet, Hoton, Bayad and Uuld Mongols, are generally dominated by fast, abrupt movements of the arms and upper body, throwing of the shoulders, and shaking and crossing of the arms. The Buriads are famous for their communal round dances and songs, known as Yoohor, Yeher, Eeremshih and Nirgelgee. Eastern Mongolian Dances feature elegant movements and a serious air.

Fine arts in Mongolia

Statue of Sukhbaatar at Sukhbaatar square in ulaanbaatar

Before the 20th century, most works of the fine arts in Mongolia had a religious function, and therefore Mongolian fine arts were heavily influenced by religious texts. Thangkas were usually painted or made in applique technique. Bronze sculptures usually showed Buddhist deities. A number of great works are attributed to the first Jebtsundamba Khutuktu, Zanabazar. In the late 19th century, painters like "Marzan" Sharav turned to more realistic painting styles. During the socialist period, socialist realism was the dominant painting style. Among the first attempts to introduce modernism into the fine arts of Mongolia was the painting "Ehiin setgel" (Mother's love) created by Tsegmid in 1960s. The artist was purged as his work was censored. All forms of fine arts flourished only after "Perestroika" in the late 1980s.

Mongolian Painting

Historical and cultural monuments on and under the ground of central Asia are mirrors of the wisdom and rich cultural heritage of our ancestors. Rock and cave pictures found in Dundgobi, Uvurkhangai and Khovd aimags indicated that this art was flourishing in Mongolia at the late Bronze Age and the early Iron Age. The paintings of the 13th and 14th centuries reflect mainly the nomadic lifestyle, wars and nature, though portraiture did begin to flourish. Evidence of this is Chinggis Khaan's portrait, made in 1278 as ordered by Khubilai Khaan, and today kept in Taipei. From the 15th century, religion (especially yellow Lamaism) began to dominate painting. Mongolian paintings began developing in the two major directions of iconography and genre painting, depicting simple life and ordinary people.  

In the 1950s, many genres of fine art, carpeting, and porcelain were introduced, when a number of artists and architects became noted for their thematic work. They included painter O. Tsevegjav for his animals; U. Yadamsuren for workers; N. Chultem and G. Odon for history and everyday life; L. Gavaa for nature; and architect S. Choimbol for monuments. In the 1960s there was a great artistic change, as artists began to reject linear perspective and colour harmony and began to work with more modern styles, themes and content. Such notable art works include U. Yadamsuren's The Old Horse-fiddler; A. Sengetsokhio's The Mongol Lady; B. Avarzed's Uurgach; and Ts. Minjuur's Caravan Guide.

Mongolian Sculpture

Rock deer carvings and stele are monuments of ancient times. Thousands of these are evidence of the wealth of art in ancient Mongolia. In the Tureg Era (6th to 8th centuries), the richest hoard of stone sculptures were created, over 500 of which can be found in the Altai and Khangai mountains. Undur Gegeen Zanabazar of Khalkh, the 17th century religious and political leader, made 21 versions of tara (consort of Buddha), which show the beauty of Mongolian women. Zanabazar laid a foundation for the depiction and praise of human beauty by Mongolian sculpture. Important achievements of modern sculpture include S. Choimbol's (1907-1970) monument to Sukhbaatar, leader of the 1921 People's Revolution, in the centre of Sukhbaatar Square. Since 1931, when this statue was erected, over 80 such monuments have been built.
In the socialist era, before 1990, many statues were erected to state leaders, workers and herders.  Portraits statures were very popular, and there are still such renderings of Lenin, Stalin, Choibalsan, Jukov, Natsagdorj and Sukhbaatar. In the last 10 years, a more free style of monuments has emerged, with urban images.

Mongolian Customs and Superstitions

Mongolians traditionally were afraid of misfortunes and believe in a variety of good and bad omens. Misfortune might be attracted by talking about negative things, or by persons that are often talked about. They might also be sent by some malicious shaman or enraged by breaking some taboo, like stepping on a yurt's threshold, desecrating waters or mountains, etc. The most vulnerable family members are children. That's why they would sometimes be given non-names like Nergui (Mongolian: without name) or Enebish (Mongolian: not this one), or boys would be dressed up as girls. Before going out at night, young children's foreheads are sometimes painted with charcoal or soot in order to deceive evil spirits that this is not a child but a rabbit with black hair on the forehead.
When passing ovoos on a journey, they are often circled, and some sweets or the like are sacrificed, in order to have a further safe trip. Certain ovoos, especially those on high mountains, are also sacrificed to in order to obtain good weather, ward off misfortune and the like. For a child, the first big celebration is the first haircut, usually at an age between three and five. Birthdays were not celebrated in the old times, but these days, birthday parties are popular. Wedding ceremonies traditionally include the hand-over of a new ger to the marrying couple. Deceased relatives were usually put to rest in the open, where the corpses would be eaten by animals and birds. Nowadays, corpses are usually buried.

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