From immemorial times, the Mongols have had a tradition to hold a festival in the summer called Naadam. According to Chinese chronicles dating back to the 2nd century BC, it was written that the Huns, the ancestors of the Mongols had being spent a great holiday with wrestling, horse racing and archery in the summers.
Obviously, even before the Huns period, nomads of Mongolia considered these three skills as the most necessary and important skills for any males. Of course, they had chosen the most convenient time of the year for such festivals.
In the “Secret History of the Mongols” of the 13th century, it is said that the festival or the Naadam were held during the summer month of rains, which is July.
In the year of the red tiger of 1206, when Temujin was proclaimed Genghis Khan of all Mongolia, national holiday of Naadam or Three manly games was begun as a traditional celebration. Since then, 37 Genghisids had celebrated traditional Naadam or Three manly games every summer until the death of Ligden Khan in 1634.
Naadam was conducted not only in the khan’s headquarters, but also in all provinces and military units as this festival was not only a holiday but also a great training for soldiers to expertise in the main three skills.
A. Heikel, of the Finnish expedition to Mongolia, wrote about a wrestling competition that the expedition witnessed during their ten-day stay in Urga (now Ulaanbaatar) from 27 July till 7 August 1891. As it is written in the text, the Urga Naadam (1778–1924) took place at the old central square, was located just to the north of present Sukhbaatar Square. This square also can be seen from pre-revolutionary paintings of Urga.
Nowadays, Naadam is a sophisticated and eloquent expression of nomadic culture; it is the honored celebration of national independence, and it is an outstanding combination of arts and sports.
During the festival, Mongolians dress in colorful and distinctive national costumes and ride their most beautiful horses. The official celebration takes place throughout the country on 11th and 12th of July, every year. Particularly, the Naadam festival in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, is the most marvelous that it involves wider range of outstanding competitors of all the games.
There are 21 aimags (provinces), and their 333 soums (small administrative units) in Mongolia that celebrates their own festivals. Even though, some of the administrative units celebrate their festivals on different dates depending on special celebrity occasions, other anniversaries that may be held during certain periods, pasture and animal conditions etc. As long as the festivals are celebrated on different dates than the big Naadam in Ulaanbaatar, it allows their local wrestlers, archers, and racehorses to take part in the biggest festival of the country.
Annually, thousands of tourists head to Mongolia to attend this breathtaking event and hundreds of journalists broadcast the celebration worldwide.
The Naadam festival in Ulaanbaatar allows its audience to admire colorful celebration and feel the prominent sports. Meanwhile, the countryside festivals allow their viewers to participate and deal with locals.
Naadam in Ulaanbaatar starts in the morning of July 11th with a parade of horse soldiers, transferring the symbolic “Nine Banners of the Great Mongol Empire” from the Government House to the Naadam stadium. On the next, Mongolian president gives a speech, followed by traditional performances, shows and much more.
During Naadam days, there are plenty of good options to sightsee including Mongolian national costume show, theatrical opening ceremony, wrestling, archery, anklebone shooting, horse races, concerts, exhibitions, folklore competitions, souvenirs, traditional food and drinks.
Cave paintings in the Bayankhongor aimag of Mongolia, dating back to Neolithic age of 7000BC show the grappling of two naked men, surrounded by some crowds. Also, the art of Mongolian wrestling appears on bronze plates, which was discovered in the ruins of the Huns empire (206 BC–220 AD). Originally, Bokh or Mongolian wrestling was a military sport intended to provide mainly strength, stamina and skill training for troops.
The basic rule of the Naadam’s wrestling competition is that the number of wrestlers must be equal to 512 or as many as 1024 during special anniversaries. The goal of a match is to get your opponent to touch down his upper body, knee or elbow to the ground. And there are no weight classes, age limits, or even time limits in Mongolian wrestling.
One of the defining features of bokh is a dance that the wrestlers perform as they enter into and exit from the contest field. The wrestle imitate the movements of an eagle to take off from ground (devee).
The higher-ranking wrestlers have the right to choose their opponents among lower ranking wrestlers. The winners remain for the next round, while losers leave the competition. The competition will continue in this manner until the very last round. Depending on the winning number of rounds of wrestlers and their previous title, they receive a new title.
The competition becomes more and more interesting round by round as the remaining wrestlers win titles after the fifth round and further. The wrestlers’ titles are named after strong birds and animals such as falcon, hawk, elephant, garuda, lion, and champion.
It is interesting that the Mongolian national wrestling competiton was held with the attendance of 6002 wrestlers on September 17, 2011. Thus, it has become the largest wrestling competition in the world and recorded in the Guinness Record Book.
Horse racing is the second-most popular sport event in Mongolia, after traditional wrestling. Unlike Western horse racing that consists of short sprints generally not much longer than 2 km, Mongolian horse racing in Naadam is a cross-country event, with races ranging from 15 to 30 km long. Native horses have excellent endurance. Generally, foreign breeds are faster than Mongolian horses, but they are exhausted by the end of the run, while Mongolian horses still have wind.
Competing horses in races are trained at least for a month before the start of the festival. There are six racing categories according to the age of horses, starting from two-years-olds to fully-grown horses and stallions. Horse racing is held outside of Ulaanbaatar in the open field of Khui Doloon Hudag.
The length of each race is determined by age class. Two-year-old horses race in a distance of 15 km’s, whereas fully-grown horses race up to 30 km. Up to 1000 horses from every part of Mongolia can be chosen to participate in the Naadam.
Children from 5 to 13 are chosen as jockeys and trained in the months preceding the race. Jockeys are important components of the race as the main purpose is to test skills of the horses at its full potential.
Before the races begin, the audience sing traditional songs and the little jockeys sing a song called “Giingoo”. The top five horses in each class earn the title of “Airgiyn tav” and the top three are awarded gold, silver, and bronze medals. The winning horse is praised with the title of “Tumnii ekh” or “Leader of Ten Thousands”.
It’s funny that the horse, which finishes its race in the last place of Daaga (two-year-old horses race) is called “Bayan Khodood” (means “full stomach”). A special song is dedicated to the “Bayan Khodood” wishing him luck to be next year’s winner.
Over the years, there are some changes in the rules of the Naadam festival. Nowadays, women can attend in most of the competitions and games except for wrestling. Archery contest is open to women that they, draw 20 arrows at a 60 meters target, while men shoot 40 arrows at a 75 meters target.
Mongolian archery is unique for its target that consists dozens of surs. Each sur is a small woven or wooden cylinder. They are placed on top of one another that forms a wall of three-high, which is approximately 8 inches in height by 5 feet width. Knocking a sur out of the wall with an arrow is counted as a hit, and knocking a sur out of the centre brings a competitor more points.
If the archer hits the target, judges shout “Uukhai”, which means hooray. After each hit, an official repairs the damaged wall and makes it ready for the next hit. Winners of the contest are awarded the titles of “National marksman” and “National markswoman”.
Ritual praisal songs and poems are dedicated to the contestants of each three competitions. Everyone is allowed and encouraged to participate in Naadam, thus it nurtures community involvement and togetherness. This year’s Naadam is dedicated for the 2227th anniversary of the creation of the first Mongolian state, the 812th anniversary of the Great Mongol Empire and the 97th anniversary of modern Mongolia.
It should be noted that Naadam was inscribed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity of UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) in 2010.