Where: Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia, Northeast Asia
What Happens: Wrestling, archery & horse racing in a mass gathering of nomadic tribes
Remember to Bring: Bow & arrow
The Nadaam Festival is Mongolia’s one and only big event, occurring every year, usually between the 11th and 13th of July. It is a national festival, with celebrations in almost all major towns, though the most impressive celebrations are in Ulaan Baatar each year.
The festival has been celebrated for the last 200 years; it was previously associated with religious ceremonies, related to the worshipping of spirits of the mountains, rivers and other natural beauties. In more recent years it has also become a celebration of the 1921 Revolution, the declaration of which give the festival its July dates.
Nadaam attracts people from hundreds of miles away, all across country, and although it can be easy to get tickets as many are sold by touts outside, transport and accommodation should be booked in advance, unless you’re planning to arrive on horseback and set up your own ger, as the Mongolians do!
What Happens at the Great Festival?
All the major events of the festival occur on the first two days, starting with the opening ceremony early on the morning of the first day, which is preceded by the flags of Genghis Khan being brought into the main square of Ulaan Baatar by men on horse back. The ceremony itself involves music, and a variety of performances and speeches.
The main elements of the festival are the tests of courage, strength and daring through the three traditional ‘manly’ sports of wrestling, archery and horse racing. These activities are supplemented by the presentation of traditional foods and folk dancing, accompanied by cymbals, horns and drums.
The wrestling contest can involve up to five hundred men (women are forbidden to enter), and is arranged into a knock out competition. Performers wear a traditional costume of knee-boots with upturned toes, tight pants and a silk vest that covers the shoulder and arms, but not the chest. The reasoning behind this bizarre upper body attire is to ensure all contestants are male, after in one contest many years ago, a woman competed in disguise and became champion, much to the embarrassment of the men competing! Before beginning, contestants perform a specialeagle dance, which is repeated by the winner at the end, while the loser passes under their ‘wing’ as a sign of submission. The basic action of the contest is similar to that of Sumo wrestling, where the competitors just grab at one another, and attempt to topple their opponent. The loser is the first to touch the ground with anything more than soles of their feet. Winners are honoured with ancient titles, including ‘falcon’ and ‘lion’, up to the highest honour of ‘Titan’, and the champion becomes a national celebrity until knocked off the top spot at the next year’s competition.
Archery, unlike wrestling, is a contest in which both men and women can compete. The contest was traditionally required the participants to spear a live marmot (a creature similar to the American groundhog) from a distance of 110 yards, but modern competitions can be either stationary, or performed on horseback, where the challenge is to shoot small leather targets 75 – 110 yards away. Again, contestants generally wear traditional costume, in this case, pointed hats and long robes tied with a brightly coloured silk sash, they also often use traditional bows made from reindeer bone. Entertainingly, competitors often do a small song and dance of praise when they hit their target.
The horseracing is both the grand finale and the highlight of the festival, about 200 horses race over rugged terrain, for about 20 miles, a distance set during the rule of Genghis Khan. It was originally a race of adults on wild, untamed horses, but it is now children aged 4-12 years riding in saddles or bareback. In rural areas, children learn to ride horses at a very early age, to such an extent that they often joke that ‘Mongols are born on horseback’, and these small children are much lighter, allowing their horse to travel at even greater speeds. As the race becomes more and more popular, accidents are on the increase, which has led to some protest, and suggestion that the youngest of these children should be prevented from competing for their own safety.
There is as much ceremony associated with the horse race as with all other aspects of the festival; the race only begins after a parade of all the participants, and the singing of the traditional hymn,Tumnii Ekh, and the chanting of the Buddhist mantra, Giingoo, to aid the concentration of participants. Both the winner and the rider who come last are rewarded with prizes, on the basis of a Mongolian proverb ‘better to break one’s spine than one’s spirit’, emphasising the importance of encouraging youngsters to compete the next year, rather than give up. Celebrity, nationalism and prizes add to the competitive spirit of the festival, though winners are more likely to receive practical rewards such as blankets, food or possibly cash than the shiny trophies we receive in Western competitions – of much more use to the generally poor, nomadic contestants.
Interesting articles on the Nadaam Festival, as well as many other aspects of Mongolian life.
By Guilia Vincenzi