Naadam – A Mongolian Festival

Jessie T. Ponce Photography

Like a soaring eagle, a young Mongolian wrestler pays respect to the jurors

Olympic Champion, Tuvshinbayar Naidan (Image source: english.news.mn)

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

 Jessie T. Ponce Photography

Families and competitors come from all over the province and had to travel great distances just to attend the naadam.

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 wrestlinghorse 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.

Jessie T. Ponce Photography

Mongolians wear their best delh or traditional robes, during the naadam. Medals gained from competitions and public service are likewise displayed.

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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Spectators eagerly wait for the next round of wrestling matches at the naadam

Jessie T. Ponce Photography

An elderly fan patiently waits for the games to start.

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Game officials huddle before the matches

Jessie T. Ponce Photography

And then the wrestling competitors start to arrive.

Jessie T. Ponce Photography

Certain ceremonies which included singing are part of the wrestling game.

Jessie T. Ponce Photography

And the wrestling matches begin. Several matches happen simultaneously.

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Mongolian wrestling is not only a game of strength and agility but also of wit and strategy

Jessie T. Ponce Photography

And then a match winner is declared. Certain symbols in the wrestler’s cap symbolize his rank and title in the sport.

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The archery competition has started in another section.

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Unlike before, women may now compete in archery.

Jessie T. Ponce Photography

Male competitors check their record at the officials’ table.

Jessie T. Ponce Photography

Other naadam participants choose to play games using shagai (sheep anklebones) in another section of the naadam area.

shagai, sheep anklebones

As the naadam’s honoree and having the heart of a true champion, Naidan joined his revering fans in all the fun and excitement.

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