Spiritual & National Roots of Mongolia’s Naadam Festival

Spiritual & National Roots of Mongolia’s Naadam Festival

MIR’s Tour Manager Michel Behar can’t remember how many times he’s been to Mongolia’s ancient Naadam Festival. But what he does know is that this is no ordinary celebration of colorful costumes and fanfare. Naadam’s complex history reflects its many facets, spiritually and nationally. 

Even in the outback of Mongolia, MIR's Michel Behar wears his trademark tie <br>Photo credit: Michel Behar

Even in the outback of Mongolia, MIR’s Michel Behar wears his trademark tie
Photo credit: Michel Behar

Mongolia’s colorful Naadam Festival  in July is an annual celebration of athletic prowess, strength, and stamina dating to the times of warrior Genghis Khan. These 850-year-old traditions, however, are more than just the fun and games of archery, wrestling, and horse-racing. From its earliest beginnings, Naadam was steeped in spiritual and later national significance, an instrument for tribal cohesion. This annual celebration is so important to Mongolia and to the world that the Naadam Festival is designated a part of UNESCO’s “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.” 

Dressing up for opening ceremonies at Mongolia's Naadam Festival <br>Photo credit: Helge Pedersen

Dressing up for opening ceremonies at Mongolia’s Naadam Festival
Photo credit: Helge Pedersen

Naadam’s BeginningsNaadam was originally rooted in shamanism and Buddhism. In the year 1111 Mongolia was a deeply religious nation – shamanist (and, since the 15th century, Buddhist). That’s when the great clan meeting, or quriltai, paid tribute to the reigning holy ruler they had just elected: Genghis Khan. They gathered at Mount Khentii where Genghis Khan was born – a holy place off-limits to ordinary people. This is where athletes trained for a month, then competed in festive archery and wrestling contests. Naadam celebrations spread to the Mongolian provinces, where regional competitions took place – and still do today.

Stainless steel Genghis Khan near UlaanBaatar, Mongolia <br>Photo credit: Alan Levin

Stainless steel Genghis Khan near Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
Photo credit: Alan Levin

Spiritual RootsLater, in the early 17th century, Naadam was associated with another ruler, Zanabazar. As the first spiritual head of Tibetan Buddhism in Mongolia, Zanabazar was something of a renaissance man. (You can trace his achievements and place in Mongolian history at the Zanabazar Museum of Fine Arts in Ulaanbaatar.)

Lords from all over Mongolia’s provinces traveled to Ulaanbaatar to celebrate Naadam outside Zanabazar’s palace, presenting the ruler with livestock, food, and precious metals. For seven days 1,000 wrestlers competed in athletic competitions – the top two winners walking off with a boatload of gifts, from silk and silver to camels and horses.

This recently constructed Buddha statue towers over Buddha Park in UlaanBaatar, Mongolia <br>Photo credit: Helge Pedersen

This recently constructed Buddha statue towers over Buddha Park in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
Photo credit: Helge Pedersen

Royal RootsThe Naadam Festival continued to evolve from a celebration of spiritual roots to one of royalty, where high-ranking officials would kneel before the Manchu king, burning candles as a symbol of respect to him. I remember how fascinated I was, learning about the historical background of Naadam: a shamanist ceremony at the Royal Palace where tribal leaders worship the king, whom they considered the reincarnation of a Buddhist deity.

Bogh Khan Palace in UlaanBaatar, Mongolia <br>Photo credit: Ana Filonov

Bogd Khan Palace in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
Photo credit: Ana Filonov

Communist NaadamAfter the Communists took power in 1921, the meaning of Naadam was relegated to the realm of folklore. The Communist leaders preserved the festival as a way of showing the outside world that Mongolia was an independent nation. In the process, Naadam lost its religious meaning and connotations: the religious monarchy disappeared, and although Mongolia became an atheist republic, many still practiced underground.

Mongolia's Gandan Monastery in UlaanBaatar was one of the few to survive under Communism <br>Photo credit: Martin Klimenta

Mongolia’s Gandan Monastery in Ulaanbaatar was one of the few to survive under Communism
Photo credit: Andrew Barron

Naadam Festival, TodayThese days, the Naadam Festival commemorates the 1921 revolution, when Mongolia declared itself a free country from the Republic of China. Simply put: Independence Day. Wrestling is still by far the most popular competition – for men only – while archery has separate contests for men and women. The horse-racing contests are jockeyed by children, and were added in the 20th century.

Horse racing with Mongolian <i>gers</i> the backdrop at UlaanBaatar's Naadam Festival <br>Photo credit: Helge Pedersen

Horse racing with Mongolian gers as backdrop at UlaanBaatar’s Naadam Festival
Photo credit: Helge Pedersen

A Treasured TraditionThe Naadam Festival reflects Mongolia’s identity, deeply entrenched in daily life and the spirit of place. The festival is marked not only in Ulaanbaatar; other “danshig Naadams” are smaller regional celebrations, making Naadam ubiquitous. There’s even academic research on the Naadam Festival, including a on how the Naadam Festival has shaped national identity over the centuries. If you’re headed to Mongolia, it’s a useful primer on everything Naadam.

Banner ceremony for UlaanbBaatar's Naadam Festival <br>Photo credit: Ana Filonov

Banner ceremony for Ulaanbaatar’s Naadam Festival
Photo credit: Ana Filonov

For me, Naadam goes far beyond a colorful folk festival. Just think how complex it is: beginning with its spiritual roots (both shamanist and Buddhist), and then the Communists who stripped it of its original significance. Now, since independence, Naadam has a different dynamic – it’s part of a national revival of cultural identity that I reflect on and appreciate every time I’m at Naadam.

Travel To Mongolia’s Naadam Festival with MIRLearn more about MIR tours that travel to the Naadam Festival in Mongolia, or book your own custom private journey.

 (Top photo credit: Douglas Grimes)

PUBLISHED: July 10, 2014

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