Insight into National Naadam Festival of Mongolia
Mongolia, the national sports festival is called Naadam, and is a traditional display of strength, horsemanship and marksmanship. The Three Games of Men are wrestling, archery and horseracing, rooted in the mists of antiquity yet continuing to be very popular among the Mongolians today. In the 12th-13th centuries, military festivals were common, when men tried their strength and their steed’s agility. From the 17th century, Naadam contests were held regularly on religious holidays. Since 1922, they have been held on the anniversary of the People’s Revolution of Mongolia. The opening ceremony of Naadam is very bright and many locals as well as visitors attend the event.
Ample information about archery can be found in literary and historical documents of the 13th century and before. There are archers depicted on rock carvings that are said to be Neolithic. This is an ancient Mongolian sport which can be traced back in literature to as early as 300-200 BC. Mongolians traditionally use a compound bow, built up in layers of horn, sinew, bark and wood. When unstrung it is curved.
Archers behave the same as how it is done throughout the world with similar stance, aiming and release. However, the Mongolian target is very different. It comprises a line of several met long on the ground, made openings face upwards, providing a challenging exercise in trajectory for the archers. Traditionally, women did not participate in archery contests, but in the last few decades they have begun to do so. The men shoot over a distance of about 75 meters, while the women have less distance – about 60 meters. In a competition, the men shoot 40 arrows and must score at least 15 hits to be in the next round. Women use the same bow as the men, shooting 20 arrows and must score at least 13 hits to progress. When an arrow hits the target, a group of judges standing just beyond or at the side of the row of targets say “Uukhai” and signal with their hands to indicate success or failure. The archer who scores the most hits is awarded the title of Mergen (super marksman).
Wrestling is the most popular of all Mongolian sports. It is the highlight of the Three Games of Men. Historians claim that Mongolian wrestling originated some 7000 years ago. The technique and associated rituals are distinctly national. There are no weight categories or age limits. Wrestlers wear heavy national boots, a very small tight-fitting loincloth, a pair of sleeves that meet across the back of the shoulder blades like a small bolero jacket, and a pointed cap of velvet. Contestants take the field leaping and dancing, flapping their arms in imitation of an eagle, each with an attendant herald. The aim of the sport is to force your opponent off-balance and make him touch the ground with his elbow or his knee. The loser walks under one raised arm of the winner as a sign of respect, and unties his vest, after which the victor, once more leaping and dancing, takes a turn round the Nine White Banners in the center of the field. The victor is awarded symbolic prizes of biscuits and aaruul (dried curds). Once he has tasted them, he offers them to his seconds and to spectators. Traditionally, either 1,024 or 512 wrestlers enter the contest—nowadays it is usually 512, when there are nine rounds of one-by-one wrestling, one being eliminated from each bout.
A wrestler who beats five opponents in succession is awarded the title of Falcon, the winner of six rounds – title of Hawk, seven rounds – title of Elephant and eight rounds – title of Garuda. He who becomes champion by winning nine rounds is granted a title of Lion and if he 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.
Horseracing is an integral part of Naadam, in competitions dating back to the Bronze Age. The horses are selected a month before the big day and taken to a separate pasture for training. The racehorses are divided into age groups: two, four, and five years old; over five years and stallions.
The jockeys are traditionally aged from 5 to 12 years. Mongolian children of these ages are good riders as both boys and girls have been riding since little. As the saying goes, “A nomad is born on a saddle.” Small saddles are specially made for them, but they often prefer to ride bareback. They are not only superb riders, but also skilful tacticians, knowing how to hold the horse back so it has enough strength to conserve its strength for the course. Races are not held on race tracks. Instead, they ride across the steppe, confronted with various obstacles such as rivers, ravines and hills. The distances vary, according to the age division, between 15 and 35 km. Jockeys wear bright and comfortable clothing, with various symbolic pictures on their backs. Symbolic ornaments and designs also embellish the horsecloth. The most exciting moments are the start and the finish. Before the race, the jockeys ride round the starting point three times yelling the ancient call “Giingoo!”--a type of war cry. When all horses are behind the line, the start is given and they surge forward. Winners do a full lap of the stadium accompanied by heralds. The winning horse receives the title “Foremost of 10,000 racehorses” and the four runners-up are given medals, and called Airagiin Tav altogether. Traditionally, winning riders do three laps of honor, 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. There is also an interesting tradition for the one who came in very last in the youngest age category. Honour and praise to winner is to be expected; but the last horse is also rewarded and honored. After the victory ceremony, the horse that came in last is led up to the main stand with his young rider. Even if the rider’s face shows vexation and shame, spectators do not make fun of him, instead shout encouragement and try to give him back confidence. The herald recites a special ode to the rider, encouraging him with words expressing faith in his future success.