Naadam – A Mongolian Festival
A Hero Comes Home
September 2012. The whole province of Bulgan was ecstatic and there was a big reason for jubilation. Tuvshinbayar Naidan, the Mongolian Olympic champion has come home to his native province of Bulgan. When Naidan won a gold medal for Mongolia in the men’s heavyweight judo competition at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the whole nation ruptured into a riotous celebration. It was Mongolia’s first Olympic gold medal and Naidan won it for the nation. At the recent London Olympics he valiantly fought his Russian challenger despite a serious injury and brought home a silver. He is considered a national hero, a great pride to Bulgan Province. And so there was no better way to celebrate his homecoming. He deserved nothing less than a naadam, a huge festival.
The naadam is a traditional type of festival in Mongolia. Also called “eriin gurvan naadam“, meaning “the three games of men”, the naadam’s main games are Mongolian wrestling, horse racing and archery. Mongolian traditional wrestling is an untimed competition featuring hundreds of competitors in which wrestlers lose if they touch the ground with any part of their body other than their feet or hand. Unlike Western horse racing, Mongolian horse racing is a cross-country event ranging from 15–30 km long with children 5 – 13 years old as jockeys. Mongolian archery is also unique, having not only one target, but hundreds of beadrs or surs. While the naadam games were traditionally for men, women have started participating in the archery and girls in the horse-racing games, but not in Mongolian wrestling. The other games featured in the naadam are those using shagai, sheep anklebones that serve as game pieces and tokens of both divination and friendship.
The biggest naadam, the “Naadam of the Country” is celebrated as a National Holiday from July 11 – 13 in Ulaanbaatar and local naadams are usually held prior to the national games. But the naadam we chanced upon in September was a festival especially organized for Tuvshinbayar Naidan. Naturally, my Mongolian colleagues were excited to meet Naidan personally and have a picture taken with him. Unfortunately, we arrived late at the naadam area and missed the horse race but we caught a good part of wrestling , archery and some parlor games.
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