In 2007 we went to Xilamurenzhen (Darhan Muminggan, Baotou) in Chinese Inner Mongolia to assist to the Nadaam Festival.
The name Xilamuren comes from the Mongolian word for “Yellow River”.
Located at 100 km from Hohhot, capital of Chinese Inner Mongolia, Xilamuren is a typical plateau grassland which is covered by grass and flowers during the warmer seasons. The soil has a caracteristic yellow dust composed by the sand by the not far Small Gobi desert.
What is Nadaam
Nadaam stands for “games”, specifically it refers to the three main activities that enchant the man virtues: wrestling, archery and horseracing. In this article we will focus specifically in the wrestling.
Each of the three activities are performed following specific rituals and rules that can change by area and which have a deep cultural meaning for nomads cultures.
Many societies recall their history and recreate a commonality of nationhood around battle sites, ancient landmarks and historic buildings, but these physical reminders are not usually part of a nomadic culture indeed until relatively recently, there was little recorded archaeological evidence of Mongolia’s history. Much of Mongolian cultural history is embedded in the traditions of the Mongolian people themselves, in their music, poetry, oral narratives, clothing, and rituals associated with festivals and performances such as Naadam
Nadaam is centenary tradition of the nomadic tribes that populate Mongolia to Western Turkic nomadic tribes of Tuva. Most probably it was initially performed as a ritual preceding the hunting activities.
With the introduction of Buddhism to the Mongol tribes, it also assumed a religious value. Along the centuries it evolved in the demonstration of the power of different clans and subsequently as a political occasion not just to remind the unity,but also the power of the monarchs, etc.
In modern Mongolia the Nadaam has become a very important channel to transmit unity in the country after the collapse of the USSR in 1991. Functional to rediscover the cultural idenitiy of Mongolians, Nadaam has a firm political message (the opening is usually done by the president himself and transmitted in the TV).
Similarly in Tuva Republic (Russia) Nadamm has a value of self-rediscovery, unity and entic identity, but not a political one (at least on national level).
In Chinese Inner Mongolia instead prevails more a taste of etnic-pop-culture in Chinese Han population majority, but it still survive in some areas as a cultural meanining. Also in the last year Mongolian etnic groups are seen new way of expressions in the customs and the folk music.
The wrestling is common in all the nomadic old Mongolian tribes-alike areas.
It’s called Huresh in Tuvan, Iarudi in Mongolian, and Bokh in Chinese Inner Mongolia. Mostly performed by males wrestlers, but there are also many example of women wrestler in the tradition and especially today in Tuva and Mongolia.
When the Nadaam assumed along the centuries a clearer political meaning the wrestlers began to be professionals specifically hired by singular clans, monarchs and even lamas. In a not very far past lamas usually possessed even their own scudery (even in Tibetan plateau, Gansu and Qinghai we can find similar activities for horse racing and bow contests) and their horses were regarded with high respect and ammiration.
The wrestlers prepare their bodies to be ready for all the conditions, the match infact are not divided by categories as contendents weight and hight, instead are usually opened to all the contendent.
Each professional wresteler is always followed by his coach.
The Opening Rituals
The rituals reminds us that Bokh is not cruel or violent sport. Everything proceed following a very specific etiquette and honor code to enhance the contenders abilities, agility and strengths.
In different areas the dresses of the fighter can change, becoming eventually very minimal.
After been announched to the public the contenders do their entrance in the arena. They compose a clockwise circle, in respect of the four cardinal directions, and to show themselves in front of the judge (or to a leader which will follow the games) and then to the crowd.
When direct in the judge direction they preform the divkh or devekh, also known as “Eagle dance“. Devekh is a slow-moving dance which function is show not just the agility and the martial skills of the contenders but that also to evocate the main figures of the Mongolian nomadic symbols which vary by area. Mostly we can recall the lions, the eagle, the elephant and Garuda (the eagle divinity common in Buddhism and Hinduism).
In the case of those of Chinese Inner Mongolia in Xilamuren of the torso reminds of the lion, while those of the open and strait harms those of the flying eagle.
The fights are usually opened to everyone, in Mongolia and in Tuva there are specific accademies to train them.
The wrestlers before fighting are checked by their trainers to have a quick grooming for their fingernails and on their equipement.
Also during the fight the will always respect the other participants, an old fashion handshake usually proceed the match and another one close the performance.
Taking advantage of another wrestler is avoided. For example if one of the contendent loses his trousers the wrestlers stop the match, othervise considered as cheating. Also attacking the adversary legs or the belt area is uncommon, therefore the fights might last quite long, for high-experts even 30-45 minutes. It ends when one of the two opponents felts to the ground and the crowd esulting.
Assisting from so close to Nadaam makes you feel part of it. The horse racing in the steppes, the wrestlers and the crowd are unforgettable.
I will plan more trips like this one to Mongolia and Tuva to compare the different aspects of Nadaam in these cultures… and why not, perhaps have fun again in the crowed!