The Mongolian Naadam Festival
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The Naadam Games (Наадам)
Naadam is a traditional type of festival in Mongolia. The festival is also called "eriin gurvan Naadam" (эрийн гурван наадам) meaning "three manly games." The games are Mongolian wrestling, horse racing and archery, and are the only ones that are held throughout the country. These three sports are the fields where a true man can show his ability - at least in theory since in reality women participate in the archery and girls in the horse-racing games, but not in Mongolian wrestling.
Naadam is the most widely watched festival in the country, and is believed to have existed for centuries in one fashion or another. Naadam has its roots in the warrior tradition of Mongolia. Wrestling, archery and riding are arts more than skills, a point emphasized by the time-honored simplicity of all mechanical necessities involved.
The biggest festival is held in the Mongolian capital Ulaanbaatar (Ulan Bator) during the National Holiday from July 11th - 13th, although other cities and towns across Mongolia have their own, smaller scale Naadam celebrations. It begins with an elaborately produced ceremony featuring dancers, athletes, horseriders, and musicians. After the ceremony, the competitions begin.
Another popular Naadam activity is the playing of games using shagai, sheep anklebones that serve as game pieces and tokens of both divination and friendship.
The festival is also celebrated in the Inner Mongolia region of China.
Wrestlers must fight their way through a crowd of 512 competitors to win a title, but As the system changed frequently in history, so did the number of participants.
512 wrestlers meet in a single-elimination tournament. Since every wrestler only fights one meet with his opponent in order to fight the next one immediately after he wins this enormous number is reduced to 9 rounds.
Mongolian traditional wrestling is an untimed competition in which wrestlers lose if they touch the ground. Wrestlers wear two-piece costumes consisting of a tight shoulder vest (zodog) and shorts (shuudag). Wrestlers are exclusively male.
Only the wrestlers winning in district and aimag (Mongolia's largest administrative unit) contests qualify for participation in the finals, the Naadam on the National Holiday on 10th and 11th of July.
Also there are many rites around the competitions which are held in solemn formality. Wrestlers are accompanied by special assistants or seconds whose task it is to take minute care of every detail during a tournament. During the actual fight, they will stand next to the ring and hold their master's hat. The second sings a song of praise for the winning wrestler after rounds 3, 5, and 7. Winners of the 7th, 8th and 9th stage earn the title of Falcons, Elephants and Lion.
360 targets are put up for the archery competition.
The winners of the contest are granted the titles of "National marksman" and "National markswoman".
The sport of archery originated around the 11th century, during the time of Khanate warfare. Contestants dress in traditional costumes and use a bent bow constructed of horn, bark, and wood. The arrows, made from willow branches and vulture feathers are shot at round, leather targets with grey, yellow or red rings. Bows and arrows have remained much the same over centuries, are made of natural materials and do not have any of the technical features now popular among marksmen in western countries.
In this competition both men and women participate; men fire 40 arrows from 75 meters away while women fire 20 arrows from 60 meters away. Judges, standing near the targets, assess each shot with a cry, called a uukhai, and a raised hand.
Before the contestant shoots, the audience shouts "Hit the target!", and if he does, the audience says "Hit!".
The winning archer, or mergen, is the one who hits the targets the most times.
Age counts positively since it is not force but experience and eyesight that make winners. It is no wonder, then, that many participants are men in their 40s and 50s.
For more information about Mongolian Archery or to buy a Mongolian arch, please click on this link.
Mongolian Horse Racing
Mongolians have a high regard for horses since, for centuries, they have relied on them for transport, sustenance, and companionship.
The horse races are broken down into six categories based on the age of the horses. We have for example categories of horses being two, three, four and six years old. Distances vary according to age, the shortest is 15 km, the longest goes over 30 km, the ancient distance between two postal relay stations.
The riders are children, with the oldest being 12 years old and the youngest only five. Children from the ages of 5 to 13 are chosen as jockeys since this guarantees that the race tests the horses skill and not the riders. The small size of the jockeys also increases the horses' endurance. Even still, jockeys train for months before Nadaam and the horses are given a special diet.
After the races, the top five horses in each class earn the title of airgiyn tav and the top three are given gold, silver, and bronze medals. In addition, the losing two-year-old horse is is given a top-five award, in the belief that that horse will do better in the next race and is allotted special attention by being serenaded with a song. Music is very important before the race too, as the audience sings traditional songs and the the jockeys sing a pre-race song called a gingo.
The training of horses takes several months. A key to endurance are an empty stomach and the capacity to dissipate heat. For the first, horses are kept on a sophisticated diet while for the latter they have to gallop miles up-hill covered with woolen blankets etc.
A day at the races is very much a feast. If it is a Naadam in the countryside, people will usually enjoy quantities of fresh white cheese, tea with milk and salt, sometimes accompanied by various kinds of doughnuts. The winning horses get their share, too. They are decorated and sprinkled with koumyss, a kind of fermented mare's milk, while the very last horse gets to hear a song wishing more luck in the following year.
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