The Sacred Hadag of the Mongols
Mongols have a centuries-old heritage of the hadag (pronounced with the stress on the first syllable). A hadag is a scarf-like piece of fine, loosely woven silk. In Mongolian culture, the hadag expresses the highest form of respect and is frequently used when offering a “toast” to a respected guest or friend – symbolising peace and well-being. The term “hadag” originated in the Himalayas of Tibet. The hadag came to Mongolia from Tibet via nomadic tribes residing nearby – north of the Great Wall of China – and from Buddhist culture during the Middle Ages. In the 13th century, Khubilai Khaan welcomed Buddhist culture as a state religion and covered the books of sutras with hadags.
The hadag is widely used by Tibetans and Mongols, as well as other Altaic peoples. (Daniel & Sun-duk’s note: the Korean bride carries a hadag-type cloth during the traditional wedding ceremony, and the couple use it during the “pae-baek” ceremony to catch figs, symbolising offspring, cast by the bride’s mother) Hadags are made in several different colours – mainly white, blue, gold, and orange – and in different names and sizes. They are named as follows.
Dash is a hadag patterned with Eight Glorious Emblems of Buddhism: the protective umbrella, the fish, the vase, the flower, the conch shell, the lucky pattern, the victorious banner, and the wheel. Ayush, a hadag named after the Buddhist supernatural entity Ayush, one of three such entities; the other two being Judgernamjil and the White Tara. They are Buddhist personifications of immortality, representing in the form of the hadag a long life for those presented with it. The Ayush hadag is patterned in the Tumenjargalan pattern, an unending linear pattern of linked swastikas. These unending links represent that the hadag will continue unlimited and strong. Another hadag is the Namzhuvandan. It is named after an image found on the silk. The image is the “perfective ten layers”, consisting of seven lines of inscriptions with moon (white), sun (red), and nanda, or void (dark) at the top of the image. The layers have a deep meaning: the human spirit sees white and red lights followed by a darkness in the death of the human body. The Namzhuvandan is used in funeral ceremonies. Other hadags include Nanzad, Sonom, Baranzad, and Sambai (a loosely woven hadag).
Mongols have many traditional customs involving the hadag. Greeting with a hadag expresses great respect. The length of the scarf-like symbol is folded in half with the opening of the fold pointed towards the person of honour. It means, “I am presenting from the bottom of my heart good fortune to you.” The Mongols do not give hadags to each other meaninglessly – only for respectful purposes of asking someone for help, presenting a gift of donation, and in asking one to sing a song or say a blessing at celebrations and ceremonies. They are also presented at private affairs and for engagement at the bride’s family. Receiving a hadag signifies acceptance.
A hadag is kept in a kind of strongbox placed in the khoimor, the most respected side at the north end of a ger. Traditions forbids placing them on beds and floors, and people must never step over the hadag.
Used as money from the 17th century to the early 20th century, the hadag, depending on its type, colour, and quality, denominated different monetary values. It was also an important factor expressing the degree of wealth of a family.
Hadags are often used in lama temples draped over icons, seals, and stamps. In homes, they are draped over pictures of beloved ones who have passed away or over an image of Chinggis Khaan. Mongols tie hadags to the neck of race horses and first-born sheep and foals considered to be holy, never to be used or killed. Hadags are also frequently found draped over sacred trees and cairns (ovoos) in the wild. Ritual traditions of the hadag for peace, immortality and sacredness are passed down from generation to generation in Mongolia.
The Tradition of Tsagaan Sar
History shows that Mongolians have celebrated Tsagaan Sar since Xiongnu times, over 2000 years ago. It is literally translated as ‘White Month’. In those times, it was celebrated in autumn. Having united the Mongolian people in 1206, Chinggis Khaan announced that Tsagaan Sar would mark the end of winter and commencement of spring, as in other Asian nations. Since then, it has been a time of national celebration. The term ‘White Month’ may have originated from milk and the various dairy products which are plentiful during autumn. Since ancient times, Mongolians have also identified the colour white with all that is good and pure. Today, Tsagaan Sar is a threefold celebration: for the safe completion of another year, for the arrival of spring, and for the arrival of the New Year. As it depends on the lunar calendar, the actual date varies from year to year. Each year in the twelve-year cycle is named after an animal: a rat, bull, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, ram, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig. On February 24, 2001, Mongolians will usher in the Year of the Snake. Families will prepare a lot of food: buuz (boiled meat dumplings) and airag. As usual, the celebration will continue over three days throughout the country.
Bituun takes place on the last day of the lunar calendar. Literally meaning ‘to close down’, this is a time to complete the year’s business, to pay outstanding debts, and to restore peaceful relationships. On this evening, one must sample all the dishes offered. Thus, dinner usually continues long into the night. Milk vodka, milk tea, and airag (a beverage made from fermented mare’s milk, often called ‘white beer’) are served with the food. Tradition dictates that, prior to starting the meal, the oldest male family member conducts a symbolic ceremony. Placing a leg of lamb on his plate, this host slices a piece for everyone in attendance. He then breaks the bone and draws out the marrow, thus representing the start of the New Year. Dinner is a lively affair; adults sing, tell funny tales, and play with the children. Everyone is encouraged to feel cheerful and sated, so that their contentment may continue into the next year. Even dogs are given extra bones to fill them up.
The New Year is welcomed early the next morning. Although the February sun rarely rises before 8 a.m., everyone is up by six. Dressed in their new del (traditional Mongolian dress), they step outside the ger and walk in a clockwise circle, carrying a Buddhist sutra. On this morning, guests greet the host with best wishes for the New Year. All are presented, youngest to oldest, to the host. They place their hands out, palms up, while he places his down. One by one, they bow and say, “May you be healthy and happy.” This greeting is known as zolgokh. Until the end of February, Mongolians greet each other in this fashion. Often, they will then exchange gifts. Its monetary value is not important, for the gifts are meant to symbolise sympathy, respect, and friendship. Generally speaking, guests never arrive without a gift, especially if there are children or older people present. The former usually receive candy, while the latter receive milk or dairy products. If visitors arrive unprepared, it is sufficient to give the children a little money for candy.
What do Mongols give each other on solemn occasions? The Hadag, a most valuable, but common gift that is deeply symbolic. It is carefully stored and used to show respect on a special occasion. Hadags are essentially long pieces of silk, blue, white, or yellow in colour. The colour blue expresses eternity; white, purity of thought; and yellow, longevity and prosperity. During Tsagaan Sar, a hadag is usually presented to the parents and old men.
When the ritual is over, the hosts and their guests go into the ger where a special table is set. In the very centre is placed a huge plate of boiled meat and a back of lamb on top. Before beginning the meal, the eldest son presents his mother with a blue hadag symbolising respect and a wish for happiness.
Then the host cuts off pieces of lamb, serving the eldest first. It is customary for the diners to try a spoonful of rice with raisins first. The women pour airag and milk vodka. During the course of the meal, each person should drink at least three small cups.
The first day of the New Year is spent visiting and congratulating neighbours, relatives, and friends. The oldest man in the area is respected, and everyone feels obliged to visit him. Each guest brings the host a present and wishes him a happy New Year. Visitors visit all day long. When guests leave the ger, each is given a small present. The hostess and her daughters take turns at the stove, steaming buuz and serving guests.
Some rules to follow: Do not call a man by his nickname, argue, hunt, or kill cattle; do not eat before the host allows it; do not get drunk; do not wear a knife or weapon; do not stay the night.
On the first day of the year, it is best to refrain from:
Taking water from rivers, springs and wells. The buckets should be full, as this is a symbol of wealth.
Repairing old dresses. It is better to make new clothes, which symbolise happiness and longevity.
Lending your belongings to others, since this closes the door for profit.
Weeping and quarrelling, otherwise trouble will follow you all year.
Offering new year greetings to your relatives on the seventh day of the new year, as this is a black day.
Offering new year greetings to your spouse, otherwise separation and hatred may occur.
Drinking too much alcohol.
Carrying any kind of weapon, as this may cause disturbance.
Leave the ashes in the stove. The hearth should be clean before the new year.
Warnings by Sh. Gantumur, Head Lama of Dasggunpanlin Temple:
On the eve of the new year, the following are recommended:
Not to spend the night away from home, otherwise the spirit will lose itself.
The presence of the head of the family at home on that day symbolises security and conservation of wealth.
Refrain from beating dogs, as it might bring trouble.
Do not leave the house without light, and do not call an infant by name, otherwise the devil will cause harm.
Do not go to sleep hungry, otherwise hunger will accompany you year round.
Refrain from quarrelling with family members, otherwise peace and tranquillity will not come to your family.
Do not leave empty vessels outside the house, otherwise they will remain empty all year.
Feed sheep and livestock well so that they rest well during the last night of the year. Quiet and rest for animals are a good sign of the coming year.
Symbols of Pride, Symbols of Wealth
Saddles and snuff boxes are as important signs of wealth and social standing to Mongolians as designer clothes and fast cars are to Westerners. [Daniel’s note: I think the reporter means the United States.]
Nomads pride themselves on their fast horses and ornamental saddles, as witnessed by the Russian scientists P. K. Kozlov late last century, while travelling through Bayankhongor aimag. Kozlov stated: “The rich people in this aimag compete with one another by their saddles.”
After the birth of a boy, Mongolians prepared a new saddle with decorations, and the same for when a daughter gets married.
Saddles are often decorated with silver ornaments and can be extremely valuable. B. Onshir, a blacksmith from Bunen soum, Tov aimag, reckons that his saddle is worth T3.5 million on account of the silver fittings.
At Tsagaan Sar and the summertime Naadam Festival, Mongolians dress in their best dels, carefully matching the colour of the del with their body shape, complexion, horse’s colour, and saddle ornamentation. In ancient times, kings, queens, and noblemen would common wear dels made of green or orange silk, with the collar of the del trimmed in blue brocade. Gold and silver ornaments would be sewn on to hats. Today, the style is for plain silk dels, with narrow trimming. Silver buttons on dels and on leather belts are more popular. Modern Mongolian men have a preference for leather dels and knives ensconced in fine pouches.
It is traditional for men to exchange snuff boxes during Tsagaan Sar. Whether made from humble wood, silver, metal, or covered in previous stones such as jade or coral, snuff boxes define the status of their owner. Chalcedony snuff boxes are very common in Mongolia, differing in size and make. Some snuff boxes are the size of a nail, others twin boxes that are so heavy that even two hands are not enough to pick them up.
Mongolians pass their snuff boxes and saddles from generation to generation, and they are regarded as family heirlooms.