Sain Saihan Nadaaraa
A CELEBRATION OF MONGOLIA’S NATIONAL SPORTS
Words: Zairah Khurshid
Every July, Mongolia unites to celebrate Naadam Festival, a three-day sports extravaganza in which the country’s top athletes in archery, horse racing and wrestling come together to compete and showcase their skills. Naadam is much more than just a competition – it is a celebration of culture, food and fun.
Purely a Mongolian tradition, this festival’s unique traditions have been derived from forefathers and passed down for generations. Festivities may begin up to three weeks before the actual opening ceremony, which takes place in the capital city, Ulaanbaatar. The three days of Naadam Festival, (referred to simply as ‘Naadam’ by the locals) consists of two days of competitions and one final day for merry-making. The Mongolian government permits closures of many commercial offices during this time, so that citizens can spend time enjoying the festivities held throughout the country. Many Mongolians choose to leave the city after the opening ceremony to watch the many horse races going on in the countryside. This leaves the city free for tourists to explore and watch the events being held at the stadium.
Horse racing is a highly regarded event, as Mongolians have a great respect for horses, because they rely on horses for milk, meat and transport. The races do not take place in a stadium, they are conducted in the grasslands, where the horses are trained and used to running freely. Before each race, a traditional song called ‘Gingo’ is sung by the spectators and jockeys.
The main horse race jockeys are children, ranging from the ages of 4–12, this helps to increase the endurance of the horse. Although the jockey plays an important role in the horse race, the aim of the race is to test the skill of the racehorse. The horses race between 15–30km, the length of each race is determined by the age of the horses.The winning horse is awarded the title of ‘Tumny Ekh’, meaning leader of ten thousand. The next five are talked about in poetry and music, while the losing horse is serenaded by a song to bring him luck in the next year.
Archers compete in traditional dress and use bows made from wood, bark and animal horns. The arrows are made from willow branches and vulture feathers. Mongolian Archery is played in teams, with many targets called beadrs and surs. Each team is required to hit 33 surs, and must avoid hitting the beadrs. Women archers shoot their arrows from 60m (metres), while the men shoot from 75m. Every team that hits 33 surs win the title of ‘mergen,’ meaning national marksman or women.
The most interesting fact about Mongolian wrestling is that there are no weight divisions and no time limits. More experienced wrestlers choose their own opponents and wrestle in a singleelimination ten-round match. The wrestler who falls first, meaning any part of his body except the hands or feet touches the ground, loses the match. A song is sung for the winning wrestler and the wrestlers honour the judges and their attendants with a dance called devekh, or eagle dance. The winner also performs the eagle dance after the loser of the bout takes off his jacket and walks under the winner’s arm. Titles are awarded according to the number of rounds they win. A wrestler who wins five rounds wins the title of ‘falcon’, if seven rounds are won they win the title of ‘elephant’ and if one wins all ten rounds they win the title of ‘lion’.
Another little-known sport played during Naadam is Shagai, or sheep’s anklebone-throwing. The bones are flicked with the middle finger off a wooden board held in the other hand. The objective is to hit a target anklebone about 10m away.
Food & drink
Khuushuur (pronounced Hoo-shoor) is the food of the festival. This deep-fried, dumpling-type pastry is a popular choice, which offers Mongolians their favourite minced meats (either lamb or beef) mixed with salt, onion and spices. If meats aren’t your thing, you can always opt for the vegetarian khuushuur, which is stuffed with potatoes, carrots, peas and spices. Delicious!
If you find yourself feeling thirsty, you can grab a cup of airag (pronounced ee-raath) which is fermented horse milk. Since alcohol sales are prohibited during Naadam, this is the alcoholic beverage of choice, containing 2% alcohol from fermentation. The taste is extremely sour and may take some getting used to.
Sain Saihan Nadaaraa!
‘Sain Saihan Nadaaraa’ is an expression used to wish someone a happy Naadam celebration. You will find many variations of its pronunciation throughout the country.
Mongolia is one of the most isolated countries in the world, but rich in its own culture. Naadam is a time to experience what Mongolian culture has to offer! From its unique sportsmanship to the interesting food, you will constantly find something to enjoy. Happy Naadam!
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