Back in the times of Genghis Khan, warriors were expected to be proficient in what was known as the ‘Mongolia three manly skills.’ It was believed that, to truly be a great warrior, you needed to be adept in archery, horseback racing, and wrestling. Over time, these skills have transferred over to the Mongolian culture of sports and martial arts, with many women becoming more involved.
While the most widely known festival amongst Mongols, National Naadam is held every July 11 to 13th, the traditions of Naadam go as far back as when Genghis Khan was alive. However, back then military parades and sporting competitions were carried out to train and select competent soldiers, it has now become a day for commemorating the 1921 Revolution – a time when Mongolians gained their independence from China.
This national festival is an excellent opportunity to understand and witness the heart of Mongolian culture. Besides the main three sports that many come to watch, the festival retains its color through various foods, crafts, and costumes. The festival’s opening ceremony tends to start off with athletic and musical live performances, as well as marches from soldiers and monks.
Since the time of Genghis Khan, archery has been an important skill in military power, with every warrior making sure they were well prepared for battle. The art of archery has been around for centuries. Ancient ancestors were believed to have used bows and arrows for hunting.
In Mongolia, both men and women can participate. Provided a total of four arrows to shoot, the teams of ten aim to hit a total of 33 ‘surs’ – small wooden cylinders. These serve as their targets and are typically stacked on top of one another. While it is encouraged for archers to try and knock out the surs out of the wall, hitting a sur in the center provides more points. Men would shoot 40 arrows from 75 meters, while women participants fired 20 from 60 meters.
The Mongol bow was built for high velocity and ease of use from horseback. It has come to be well known for its effectiveness in build for military purposes, and has been noted to have a range of 500 meters. Due to its smaller size, it allowed the archer to shoot from horseback or on his knees. It also provided greater accuracy and control. Overtime, these composite bows that were used in ancient times were replaced by the current Manchu Bow, which is more commonly used by Mongolians in modern day.
Due to Mongolia’s flat terrain, horseback riding is an integral part of the culture. It was one of the required skills one had to learn to be considered as a Mongolian warrior, and the art of horse racing remains to be heavily a part of the tradition. This is clear during the festival when herders from all over the country flock in the thousands to show off their best horses.
Quite different from the West, in Mongolian horse racing, riders are typically children and range anywhere from 6 to 12 years old. Without a difference to gender, these kids have been raised on the back of a horse since infancy, giving them a natural skill in horse racing. Furthermore, while most Western horse racing competitions involve short sprints, in the Mongolian traditions, participants are expected to race as far as 15 to 30 kilometers. The pride of each horse comes from its endurance, more than simply speed.
The Mongol horses themselves are native to the country. Playing a large factor to the conquests of the Mongol Empire, these animals are slightly smaller than foreign horses, yet maintain a strong, study build. Additionally, living outdoor all year, these horses possess great stamina and are capable of enduring extreme conditions.
The art of wrestling has been around since Genghis Khan’s days, where it was noted that he used this style of unarmed combat to prepare for battle. However, the earliest recordings of its origins are illustrated on the cave paintings found in the Bayankhongor Province of Mongolia, which go as far back as 7000 BC. This painting of two men grappling one another points to the fact that wrestling was still practiced during this period, maintaining the truth that it largely been a part of the Mongol culture for ages.
Out of all three of the primary sports and skills of the Mongol, wrestling is notably the most popular and prominent. During the Naadem Festival, anywhere from 500 wrestlers across the country will gather in this one spot to test their strength and prove themselves as the strongest.