Mongolian culture has been heavily influenced by the Mongol nomadic way of life. Other important influences are Shamanism and Tibetan Buddhism. Since the 20th century, Russian and, via Russia, European culture have had a strong effect on Mongolia. Nomadic peoples have also had an influence on Mongolian fine arts.
The Mongolian language is the official language of Mongolia and the best-known member of the Mongolic language family. The number of speakers across all its dialects may be 5.2 million, including the vast majority of the residents of Mongolia and many of the ethnic Mongolian residents in Russia and China. In Mongolia, the Khalkha dialect, written in Cyrillic, is predominant.
The classical Mongolian script, also known as Uyghurjin, was the first writing system created specifically for the Mongolian language, and was the most successful until the introduction of Cyrillic in 1946.
Among the topics that are mentioned from the oldest works of Mongolian literature to modern soft pop songs are love for parents and homesickness, a longing for the place where one grew up. Horses have always played an important role in daily life as well as in the arts. Mongols have a lot of epic heroes from the ancient time. Hospitality is so important in the steppes that it is traditionally taken for granted. The Mongolian word for hero or warrior, baatar, appears frequently in personal names, and even in the name of Mongolia's capital, Ulaanbaatar (Red Hero or Red Warrior).
Ger – traditional dwelling of Nomads
The Ger is part of the Mongolian national identity. The Secret History of the Mongols mentions Genghis Khan as the leader of all peoples who live in felt tents, and even today a large share of Mongolia's population lives in yurts, even in Ulaanbaatar. The Mongolian word for yurt, ger, also means home, and a number of other words are derived from its word stem. For example, gerlekh ("making the ger") means to marry.
In the 17th century, Tibetan Buddhism, became the dominant religion in Mongolia. Traditional Shamanism was, except in some remote regions, suppressed and marginalized. On the other hand, a number of shamanic practices, like ovoo (pile of rocks) worshiping, were incorporated into Buddhist liturgy.
After the Stalinist purges in the 1930s, both Buddhism and shamanism were virtually outlawed in the Mongolian People's Republic. Since the 1990s, along with resurrection of Shamanism and Buddhism, a number of Christian sects are trying to gain a foothold in Mongolia. About 4% of the Mongolian population is Muslim.
Customs and Beliefs
Mongolians traditionally were afraid of misfortunes and believe in a variety of good and bad omens. Misfortune might be attracted by talking about negative things, or by persons that are often talked about. They might also be sent by some malicious shaman or enraged by breaking some taboo, like stepping on a yurt's threshold, desecrating waters or mountains, etc. To avoid misunderstanding with locals, we compiled a number of beliefs and customs for your reference here to make your journey more comfortable and help you to make many Mongolian friends!
The most important public festival is the Naadam (English: games). The biggest one is held each year on July 11–13 in Ulaanbaatar, but there are also smaller ones on aimag and sum levels. A naadam involves horse races, wrestling, and archery competitions.
For families, the most important festival is Tsagaan Sar or Lunar New Year and usually falls into January or February. Family members and friends visit each other, exchange presents - very popular presents for all opportunities are khadags - and eat huge quantities of mutton and buuz - steamed dumplings.
The oldest completely passed down work of Mongolian literature is probably also the most well-known abroad: The Secret History of the Mongols. It does, however, contain passages of older poetry. Otherwise, few examples of Mongolian literature from the time of the Mongol Empire have come down in written form: fragments of a song about the mother and the area where one grew up were found in a soldier's grave at the Volga river in 1930, 25 manuscript and block print fragments were found in Turpan in 1902/03, Pyotr Kozlov brought some fragments from Khara-Khoto in 1909.
Other pieces of literature have long been orally traded and typically consist of alliterative verses, and are known as Üligers, literally meaning tales. They include the proverbs attributed to Chinggis Khan, and the epics around the Khan's life, or the one about his two white horses. Other well-known epics deal with Geser Khan. Famous Oirad epics are Jangar, History of the four Oirad's Victory over the Mongols, Khan Kharangui, Bum Erdene, and more
Before the 20th century, most works of the fine arts in Mongolia had a religious function, and therefore Mongolian fine arts were heavily influenced by religious texts. Thangkas were usually painted or made in applique technique. Bronze sculptures usually showed Buddhist deities. A number of great works are attributed to the first Jebtsundamba Khutuktu, Zanabazar.
At GAS, we always try to include activities such as visiting museums containing Mongolian masterpieces of fine arts that are well known among world scholars and researchers.
Mongolia has a very old musical tradition. Key traditional elements are throat-singing, the Morin Khuur (horse head fiddle) and other string instruments, and several types of songs. Mongolian melodies are typically characterized by pentatonic harmonies and long end notes.
In the 20th century, western style classical music has been introduced, and mixed with traditional elements by some composers. Later on the full palette of Pop and Rock music has also been adopted by younger musicians.
The Mongolian Waltz is a dance unique to Mongolia. Typically, one mounted horseman and one mounted horsewoman circle each other in time to a traditional song, which speeds up as it progresses. The three step gait of the horses as they circle gives the dance its name.
You will surprised how many Mongols can sing because they always sing a song when they're traveling!
The Mongolian cuisine is primarily based on meat and dairy products, with some regional variations. The most common meat is mutton, supplemented in the desert south by camel meat, in the northern mountains by beef (including yak). Dairy products are made from fermented mare's milk (airag), from cattle, yaks, and camels (e.g. clotted cream). Popular dishes include buuz (steamed dumpling), khuushuur (a fried dumpling), khorkhog (a meat stew from goat and sheep, usually a special meal for guests), and boortsog (a sweet biscuit).
Starting in the second half of the 20 century, vegetables are increasingly becoming a part of the Mongol diet as well. In the capital city of Ulaanbaatar, there is a wide range of imported food available. Some tips on cuisine and food can be found in Help & Tips section!
Mongolian dress has changed little since the days of the empire, because it is supremely well-adapted to the conditions of life on the steppe and the daily activities of pastoral nomads. However, there have been some changes in styles which distinguish modern Mongolian dress from historic costume. The deel, or kaftan, is the Mongolian traditional garment worn on both workdays and special days. It is a long, loose gown cut in one piece with the sleeves; it has a high collar and widely overlaps at the front. The deel is girdled with a sash. Mongolian deels always close on the wearer's right, and traditionally have five fastenings. Modern deels often have decoratively cut overflaps, small round necklines, and sometimes contain a Mandarin collar.
Depictions of Mongols during the time of the empire, however, show deels with more open necklines, no collars, and very simply cut overflaps, similar to the deels still worn by lamas in modern Mongolia.
Each ethnic group living in Mongolia has its own deel design distinguished by cut, color and trimming.
Sheep anklebones, or Shagai, are used in a number of different games, as dice, or as token. "Rock, Paper, Scissors"- and Morra-like games are also played. Wood knots and disentanglement puzzles have traditionally been popular.
Popular board games are chess, and checkers. The chess figures are noyon (noble) = king, bers (cp. bars "tiger") = queen, temee (camel) = bishop, mori (horse) = knight, tereg (cart) = castle, khüü (boy) = pawn. The rules used today are the same as in European chess. Dominoes are also quite widespread. Indigenous card games existed in the 19th century, but are now lost. One of the popular card games that is played is Muushig.