From prehistoric oral epics to the latest movie from MongolKino, the many arts of Mongolia convey the flavour of nomadic life. Watching dancers in a ger or a professional ensemble on the stage of a theatre in Ulaanbaatar is a reminder that Mongolia has evolved traditional and unique songs, music, dances, costumes, paintings styles, sculptures, plays, films, crafts, carpets and textiles.
One surprise about Ulaanbaatar is the number, and quality, of cultural shows in the various theatres. The buildings themselves – from the salmon-pink walls with Greek columns of the opera and dance theatres to the bold copper Mongolian roof of the Palace of Culture – express the hybrid culture Mongolia has forged from all sides.
Most Mongolians may be unable to afford to see their own circus and dance and opera troupes, but a major cultural renaissance is under way, as Mongolians rediscover what the Soviets had repressed.
Modern. Young Mongolians in Ulaanbaatar can now watch videos of western music on satellite TV, but they also enjoy listening to local groups, which sing in the Mongolian language but have definite western influences. These include the soul vocal group Camerton; the heavy metal rockers, Niciton; and the sweet sounds of the popular female vocalist, Saraa. In summer, especially around Naadam, they often perform at the Palace of Culture. Most souvenir stores sell cassettes and compact discs of these, and other, Mongolian musicians.
Traditional. Get an urbanised Mongolian into the countryside, and he or she will probably sing and tell you it is the beauty of the countryside which created the song on their lips. Mongolians sing to their animals: lullabies to coax sheep to suckle their lambs and songs to order a horse forward, make it stop or come close, control a goat, milk a cow or imitate a camel’s cry. Often the beauty or isolation of the land, yearning for the beloved nomadic lifestyles and pride in the nation are all exquisitely expressed in one image.
Traditional music involves a wide range of instruments and uses for the human voice found almost nowhere else. The khoomi singing of Mongolia, in which carefullytrained male voices produce a whole harmonic from deep in the throat, gives the impression of several notes coming at once from one mouth. It is often sung solo, but when combined with fiddles, lutes, zithers, drums and other python-skin, bamboo, metal, stone and clay instruments, one begins to understand the centrality of music in Mongolian life.
Another unique traditional singing style is called urtyn-duu. Sometimes referred to as ‘long songs’ because, well, they are long (some famous singers have memorised epics with up to 20,000 verses), they are also called ‘drawling songs’. With possible ancient Chinese influences, urtyn-duu involves extraordinarily complicated, drawn-out vocal sounds which relate traditional stories about love and the countryside. As the legend goes, urtyn-duu sounds best while galloping on a horse along the steppe.
In some traditional Mongolian music, the small drum (zo) and large drum (damar) are used; percussion and brass instruments are rarely used. The main instruments, played alone or accompanying singers, are the horse-head violin or fiddle (morin khuur, which has two strings, made from horse hair, with the distinctive and decorative carving of a horse’s head on top) and the lute (tobshuur). Click here and here for in-depth articles on Mongolian singing.
Like other Buddhist countries, religion dominates a lot of Mongolia’s traditional dances. Except during the communist reign, the most common dance was the tsam mask dance. Performed to exorcise evil spirits, tsam dances in Mongolia are theatrical and influenced by Mongolian nomadic folklore and Shamanism.
Tsam was introduced into Mongolia in the 8th century from India, via Tibet. It was first performed at the Erdene Zuu monastery (where many tsam masks are on display). A few hundred years ago, an estimated 500 of the 700 monasteries in the country had their own versions of masks and dances. The biggest tsam dances – mainly the Mil Bogdo and Geser - were usually held on the ninth day of the last month of summer.
The masks are usually made from papier-mache and often implanted with precious stones. Some of the more common masks represent the terrifying Begdze-Darmapala, a defender of Buddhism; Lash-Khan, the patron of art (they’re round and jolly); and the White Old Man.
Make every effort to see a performance of traditional music and dance while in Ulaanbaatar. During this show, as well as at the State Circus and at tourist-oriented ger restaurants, you will see some pretty, young Mongolian girls bend their bodies in ways that will defy nature.
Contortionism has been a tradition in Mongolia for several hundred years. It was first performed in Mongolia during the Buddhist tsam mask dances, and then included in several famous Mongolian plays. Since 1941, it has been part of the programme at the State Circus, and by the 1960s, it had become accepted as an art rather than acrobatics.
The girls are trained between the ages of seven and 14, and reach their peak between 14 and 25. The best contortionists tour internationally and can earn money they could only dream of as teenagers living in Mongolia.
The heroic epics of the Mongols – historic texts of war and feuding, myths or origin, administrative manuals of empire, diplomatic histories of hordes and dynasties and biographies of great khans – were all first committed to writing over 750 years ago. Later, Mongolia developed an enormous Buddhist literature, with thousands of subtle treatises on meditation, philosophy and the meaning of life, including the 108-volume Kanjur, and Sandui Djud, a 10-volume collection of sutras (Buddhist sayings) decorated with an estimated 50kg of gold and 400kg of silver. These are now on display at the State Central Library in Ulaanbaatar.
Despite a variety of scripts, Mongolia has produced a huge literature, almost none of which is known to speakers of European languages. Only recently have scholars translated into English the most important text of all - Mongol-un Nigucha Tobchiyan, or ‘The Secret History of the Mongols’ – which celebrates Mongolia’s days of greatness on the world stage. The date of the work is known (1240), but so far, the author remains a mystery.
Painting & Sculpture
In Ulaanbaatar, and the very occasional aimag museum, you can see some excellent displays of modern and traditional art, though, tragically, many earlier examples were destroyed during the communist regime. The Mongolian Arg Gallery mostly contains 20th century paintings, with a strong leaning towards social realism and heroic poses. The Museum of Fine Arts features the deities who first subdued the warrior khans, and the sublime bronzes of Mongolia’s most famous Buddhist and sculptor, Zanabazar.
Traditional. Mongolia’s most renowned painter was Balduugiyn Sharav (1869-1920s). He spent his childhood in a monastery and later travelled all around the country. His most famous painting is One Day in Mongolia, which you can see in the Museum of Fine Arts. It is classic zurag (landscape storytelling), crowded with intricate sketches depicting just about every aspect of the Mongolian life. Mongolians can stand in front of it and spin yarns for hours.
Zanabazar was a revered sculptor, politician, teacher of meditation and diplomat. Many Mongolians refer to the time of Zanabazar’s life as Mongolia’s Renaissance period. His most enduring legacy is the sensuous statues of the incarnation of compassion, the deity Tara. Some of his bronze sculptures and paintings can be seen today in Ulaanbaatar’s Gandan monastery, the Museum of Fine Arts and the Winter Palace.
Scroll Painting. Religious scroll paintings (thangka), many by Zanabazar, can be viewed in museums. These once graced the inner sanctuaries and chanting halls of monasteries all over the country, and some survived communist persecution and have been recovered from the sands of the Gobi and other hiding places. They are tools of meditation, used by practitioners to visualize themselves developing the enlightened qualities of the deities depicted.
Thangkas can be found once again in many homes, now that there are no more bans on family altars. The most popular deity is White Tara, the incarnation of compassion; paintings of her are readily available in art shops and on the streets.
The official national language is Mongolian, a member of the Ural-Altaic family of languages, which includes Finnish, Turkish, Kazak, Uzbek and Korean.
* From 1204 to 1944, the Mongols used a variation of the vertical Uighur script to write their language. It was replaced first by a modified Latin, then Cyrillic script by the communists. The original alphabet, called uigardjin, has been brought back into schools, with the hope that within one or two generations, it will again become the official Mongolian script.
Here is how Mongolian author Natsagdorj describes the adoption of the Uighur script by Genghis Khan:
“Besides the state, military and administrative reforms done by Genghis, he skilfully exploited the cultural achievements of the masses of China and Central Asia, adjusting them to the conditions of his country, and made wide use in state affairs of famous scholars from foreign countries.
“The most important reform made by Genghis, in fact, was the creation of a state script on the basis of the Uighur script.
“In 1204, Genghis was putting down the Naiman nation, and Tayang Khan’s secretary of state, the scholar Tatatunga, tied the nation’s gold seal round his neck to protect it. Admist the tumult of battle, he went about worriedly, trying to find the Khan his master, when he was taken prisoner by Mongol troops.
“Genghis always valued people loyal to their masters, and saying that Tatatunga was a firmly loyal person, greatly praised him. Realising that this man was a scholar, he commanded that the Khan’s sons be shown and taught to write Mongol words in the Uighur script. Thus was the use of the Uighur script begun by the Mongols.”
The Uighur script itself was derived from the Sogdian and Aramaic scripts. It was modified, particularly in the 17th-18th centuries, the period of classical Mongol, when a great number of Buddhist treatises were translated from Tibetan. Today, both the Uighur script and the classical Mongol language are taught in Mongol schools. A modified script called ‘clear letters’, devised in 1648 by the Oirat Zayapandita Luvsanperenlei, was adopted by western Mongols (Oirats and Kalmyks) and is still used in China.
The oldest known inscription in Mongol is on the so-called ‘Genghis’ Stone’, which is now in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. The inscription says that in 1225, an archer called Yesunge Mergen shot an arrow into a target over a distance of 335 fathoms (equal to 536 metres). ‘Genghis’ Stone’, which has no direct connection with Genghis Khan, was found by a Russian explorer on the river Kharkhiraa in western Mongolia in 1918.
In 1930, the MPRP congress decided to develop a 26-letter Latin alphabet for Mongolian. The decision was adopted for all Mongol-speaking people at a Moscow conference in 1931. The preparatory work done in Mongolia was approved by the MPRP and Council of Ministers in a joint resolution in February 1941. However, just over a month later, they abandoned the Latin alphabet as ‘deficient’, and, ‘because of the need for the country’s culture and education to develop in unison with the fraternal USSR’, resolved to base a new Mongol script on all 35 letters of the Russian Cyrillic alphabet. This reflected events in the USSR, where Cyrillic scripts had been devised to supplant the Arabic and Latin scripts used by the minority nationalities. A new joint resolution published in May 1945 ordered the introduction of Mongolian Cyrillic in all Mongolian newspapers and official documents from 1 January 1946.
Square and Horizontal Square. A 44-letter vertical script called ‘square script’ was devised in 1269 on the basis of the Tibetan script by a Tibetan lama, the Revd (hPags-pa) Lodoi Jaltsan at Kubilai Khan’s court. Sometimes also known as ‘hPags-pa’ script, it became the official script of the Yuan dynasty in China founded by Kubilai Khan, and other languages besides Mongol could be written in it. It is found in documents, seals, coins and banknotes of the period. A 90-letter horizontal called ‘soyombo’, named after the symbol in that script which became the national emblem of Mongolia, was devised in 1686 by the Ondor Gegeen Zanabazar, on the basis of the Devanagari script used for Sanskrit.
Zanabazar also devised a 66-letter script called ‘horizontal square script’ based on the Devanagari and Tibetan scripts.
Today, these scripts are used only for decorative purposes.
Runic. The runic inscriptions to be found in the Orkhon valley and elsewhere in Mongolia are in Old Turkic. They are relics of the Turkic state which occupied much of the territory of present-day Mongolia in the 6th-8th centuries. Turkic runes are unrelated to Scandinavian runes.
Based on Indian, Tibetan and Chinese teachings, and heavily influenced by Buddhism, traditional medicine was first introduced into Mongolia by the revered Lubsandanzanjantsan in the late 17th century – but was suppressed during communist domination from 1921 to 1990.
Diagnosis and treatment are based on the five vital elements of earth, water, fire, wind and wood. Medicines are often made from herbs, plants, mineral water and organs from animals, and administered according to weather, season and individual’s metabolism. Acupuncture, massage and blood-letting, as well as prayers, are also important factors.
Forty-five hospitals and monasteries contain trained, registered doctors of traditional medicine.
Zolgokh is a traditional greeting, rather like shaking hands in the west, usually reserved for Tsagaan Sar (lunar new year). The younger person places his or her forearms under those of the elder to gently support the arms of the elder person. It is always important to show respect to anyone who is elderly, and, if you’re under 20 years old, to anyone older.
Traditionally, every Mongolian family kept a book – a record of births, deaths and important events. For early historians, these family books must have been a gold mine of information. Sadly, after the 1921 revolution, the communists denounced this practice as a link with the feudal past and most of the family books were destroyed or hidden.
One of the reasons for these books was to prevent inbreeding – relatives had to be separated by at least seven generations before it was possible to marry within the family.
The Soyombo, the national symbol of Mongolia which dates back at least to the 14th century, signifies freedom and independence. It is found on the covers of Mongolian passports and on the flag.
Explanations of the complicated symbolism have changed and become lost over time. From top to bottom, the shapes are most likely to represent the following: the flame symbolises the past, present and future of the country; the sun and moon are obvious; the upside-down triangles are spears indicating victory; the two horizontal, small rectangles symbolise honesty and integrity; the interlocking symbols in the middle represent fire, water, earth and sky; and the two large, vertical rectangles stand for friendship.
White Nine-Tailed Banners
Literally, the ‘banner with nine legs’ or ‘nine stalks’, this banner is the traditional symbol of Chinggis Khaan’s rule. They consist of nine poles (eight smaller ones mounted around one large one) each with white horse tails hanging down around the top and surmounted by a metal trident. These banners are nowadays the state symbol of Mongolia. They are kept in the State Palace and taken out for display at least once a year at the Naadam Festival attended by the President.
Old Postal System
Mongolia can pride itself on developing one of the world’s first long-distance internal postal systems. During the time of Chinggis Khaan, a ‘pony express’ postal service, known as urton, would cover 100km per day. Bells were attached to the saddle to warn locals of an approaching rider. The rider was quickly fed, and the horses changed before he went on his way. All male herdsmen were required to work for several weeks a year to ensure the continuing success of urton. The postal system was steadily improved over the centuries, and continued until 1949.
The Colour Blue
The Mongols are attached to khokh, or dark blue. Since the beginning of their history, they have called themselves the ‘Blue Mongols’, and their sky god was Monkh Khokh Tenger, ‘Eternal Blue Heaven’. The Inner Mongolian capital, founded by Altan Khaan, is Khokh Khot, or ‘Blue Town’.
Other colours have important traditional associations. Lamaism (sharyn shashin) is ‘the yellow faith’, and a Mongolian lama is still sometimes called shar malgaytang, ‘person with a yellow hat’, to distinguish him perhaps from an ulaan malgaytang, ‘person with a red hat’, or unreformed Buddhist. During the communist years, there were also nogoon malgaytangs, people with green hats – the security police. Black means ‘lay’ or ‘secular’, and kharyn shashin is the ‘black faith’, or shamanism.
The red of the communist revolution is reflected in Ulaanbaatar, ‘Town of the Red Hero’ (or possibly ‘heroes’). The Altai mountains are the ‘golden’ mountains (alt, ‘gold’). The word for ‘silver’, mong, gave its name to ‘money’, and to what used to be Mongolia’s smallest coins: 100 mong = 1 tugrik. The word ‘tugrik’ means ‘round’.
Returning to traditional themes, ulaan ideh, ‘red food’, is meat, in contrast to tsagaan ideh, ‘white food’, which is what the Mongols call butter, cheese, cream and other milk products, including airag (fermented mare’s milk); these are mostly consumed in the summer months. There are secondary meanings for the colour white, too: ‘pure’, for example, as well as ‘flat’, ‘smooth’, ‘bare’, ‘open’.
Please read the In The News section of the Mongolian page for a wealth of interesting articles on Mongolian cultural life!
Greenway, Paul, Storey, Robert & Lafitte, Gabriel, Lonely Planet – Mongolia, Second Edition, Lonely Planet Publications, Hawthorn, Australia, 1997, pp. 32-35.
The sections on writing, the white nine-tailed banner and colours were taken from Sanders & Bat-Ireedui’s Colloquial Mongolian – The Complete Course for Beginners, First Edition, Routledge, London, 1999, pp. 205-210, p. 204 and pp. 119 and 126-127, respectively.
* Paragraph by Daniel Andre Roy