Naadam 101 for foreigners in Mongolia

Naadam 101 for foreigners in Mongolia

Being a tourist in Mongolia might be difficult and confusing sometimes, but for sure July is the best month to buckle up, pull up your socks and give it a shot! July is the sunny month of parties and celebrations: Mongolia’s Coachella – Playtime music festival and of course, Naadam, “the three games of men”.

In case things might be a bit confusing to the ones not very familiar with Mongolian history or tradition, here you have a basic guide of tips and tricks and short information about what is going to happen (and why).

What is Naadam?

Naadam is the most widely watched and awaited festival among Mongols and is believed to have existed for centuries in one fashion or another. It was supposed to serve as a way to train soldiers for battle and has strong connections to Mongols’ nomadic lifestyle.

Naadam is held once a year, between July 10-13 and now it formally commemorates the 1921 revolution when Mongolia declared itself a free country. Prior to the communist revolution, an amazing annual spectacle was held in Urga (Ulaanbaatar) to which Mongolian elite flocked in their finest silks. It would last over a fortnight and it was attended by the Bogd Khan who was both secular and religious leader. In such festivals, competitions were ofter fierce, sometimes resulting in death. Wrestling tournaments were often held between church and state, lama and layman, with onlookers supporting their favourite.

The local name of the festival is eriin gurvan naadam (эрийн гурван наадам) or “the three games of men“. The games are Mongolian wrestling, horse racing, and archery, and are held throughout the country within each province or soum (small administrative district). In recent years, women have started participating in the archery and girls in the horse-racing games, but Mongolian wrestling is still reserved only for men.

The first Great Festival of the State (Ulsyn Ih Naadam) of “new Mongolia” was held on the anniversary of the state foundation, 11 July 1922. This marked the change of date because in Old Mongolia Naadam coincided with sacrificial offerings made in autumn to initiate the next stage of the annual cycle. During the socialist era, many changes were made including to the festivals which were stripped of any references to religion or ethnicity.

In 2010, Naadam was inscribed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity of UNESCO. Thanks to MNB World we were able to represent Romania at AIM, RACE, WRESTLE, the 1st international Naadam and to catch a glimpse of the Naadam traditions. The competition will be broadcast on July 11th, at 5:00 p.m CET +8., on the Mongolian channel 68 and on their Facebook page.

The Three Games of Naadam

The festival highlights Mongolia’s “three manly sports”- horse racing, wrestling and archery. In Old Mongolia, the Festival of the Three Manly Sports was organized to celebrate the prowess of the male and it was liked to folk-religious rites in order to attract wealth, health and prosperity from the gods of nature and ancestors. Each of the three sports played at Naadam has performance aspects that go beyond the actions of a game, including poetical recitations, songs and ritual use of the body.

Horse racing, unlike Western horse racing, which consists of short sprints generally not much longer than 2 km, Mongolian horse racing as featured in Naadam is a cross-country event, with races 15–30 km long. The length of each race is determined by age class. In Old Mongolia, horse-racing was linked to libation and aspersion rituals known as julag. Julag ceremonies were held once every season and they are enshrined in ancient religious beliefs liked to the cult of Chinggis Khan.

Mongolian wrestling is a unique combination of traditional sports manner and cultural elements of eagle dance, long song etc. Compared to other wrestling competitions it has certain particularities such as no time, space and weight limit, 512 wrestlers typically compete against each other by tournament and this number could increase to 1024 on the occasion of important anniversaries. Mongolian wrestlers do a special dance called The Khan Garuda Flapping Its Wings (Han Gar’d Develt or Devhee), before and after the wrestling, resembling mighty birds like eagles, hawks, and vultures both as an expression of elegance/ strength and warm-up for the games. The dance also incorporates lion-like poses. Mongols considered the best wrestler to be incarnations of their epic heroes, personifying strength, skill, and courage of the ideal man. 

In archery competition, both men and women may participate. It is played by teams of ten. Each archer is given four arrows; the team must hit 33 “surs”. Traditionally the archers wear their national clothing (Deel) during the competition. From Chinggis Khan’s time until the 20th century, the skills of archery were used by Mongolians for both war and hunting and bows and arrows were used to symbolize fertility and lifeforce during weddings and funerals.

Archery Competition during the First Edition of Naadam for Foreigners
Archery Competition during AIM, RACE, WRESTLE, the 1st international Naadam

Did you know?

  • Mongolians practice their unwritten holiday rules that include a long song to start the holiday, then a Biyelgee dance. 
  • Traditional cuisine, or Khuushuur, is served around the Sports Stadium along with a special drink made of horse milk (airag)
  • Khuushuur is a crispy, deep-fried flat dumpling. Khuushuur is for Mongolia what sushi is for Japan. 
  • Airag is a staple drink for any festive occasion. Mongols even drink airag as punishment for losing in khuruu, a Mongolian rock-stone-scissors game, or dembee, a Mongolian finger guessing and singing game.
  • You might want to have a look at the anklebone game. Anklebones of sheep and other livestock have been a source of recreation for nomad children, and this is one of them. UNESCO officially announced that it has inscribed the Mongolian ankle bone shooting on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2014. 


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