Mongolian marriages are monogamous. In terms of celebrated events, weddings have traditionally been given more importance than births or deaths. In the old days, Mongols typically married young: girls when they were 13 or 14 and boys a few years later. Today herders and peasants tend to marry when they are in their early twenties, urbanites on their late 20s and early 30s. [Source: William Jankowiak, Ian Skoggard, and John Beierle, e Human Relations Area Files (eHRAF) World Cultures, Yale University]
According to the e Human Relations Area Files: Historically, engagements were made when children were fourteen or fifteen years of age and the divination of a lama was obtained to decide whether an engagement would be successful. This is followed by a feast. When the male turned eighteen or nineteen and the female reached sixteen or seventeen their marriage was consummated. Marriages tended to be clan exogamous (with marriages outside the village or clan), until the 20th century, when prohibitions against marrying within the same clan were relaxed.
According to the U.S. Department of State: “The legal minimum age for marriage is 18 for all persons, and there were no reports of underage marriages...Divorced women secured alimony payments under the family law, which details rights and responsibilities regarding alimony and parenting. The former husband and wife evenly divide property and assets acquired during their marriage. In a majority of cases, the divorced wife retained custody of any children; divorced husbands often failed to pay child support and did so without penalty. Women’s activists said that because family businesses were usually registered under the husband’s name, ownership continued to be transferred automatically to the former husband in divorce cases. [Source: “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2015: Mongolia,” Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S. Department of State]
Mongol Marriage and Dating Customs
Marriages have traditionally been arranged. Before the 20th century, intermarriage between nobles and common people was permitted except that daughters of Zhasake lords were not allowed to marry common people. Marriage was generally arranged by parents, or local feudal lords as in the case of the western grasslands, with costly betrothal gifts demanded. Before weddings, Buddhist scriptures would be chanted and heavenly protection sought. [Source: China.org]
Although Mongolian poetry, literature and songs reveal a greater degree of romantic love, there is no tradition of dating yet premarital sex is common among herders. Newly married couples have typically gone to live with the groom’s family. The Naadam fair has traditionally been an event in which unmarried people sought partners, matches were made and weddings were conducted.
Levirate marriages in which a widow marries her husband's brother is an old tradition among Mongolians. It was developed to make sure the widow was looked after. Fraternal polyandry (a marrying several brothers) has also been practiced in Mongolia as it has been in Tibet. In cases of polygamy, unlike the Chinese, secondary wives were considered equal to the first wife.
Since the early 20th century, most marriages have been initiated by the couple themselves rather than by parental arrangement. The image of courtship presented in contemporary Mongolian stories and pictures is of a young couple riding across the grassland on their horses while singing in harmony. In form the traditional Mongolian wedding was an agreement between two families, with elaborate transfers of bridewealth in livestock from the groom's family and a dowry of jewelry, clothing, and domestic furnishings from the bride's. [Source: Library of Congress, June 1989 ]
Mongolian Marriage in the Soviet Era
The wedding, which was a contractual agreement between families rather than a religious ceremony, was marked by celebratory feasting that brought together as many of the relatives of the bride and the groom as the families could afford to feed. Some version of this custom survived in the countryside in the 1980s, as did the practice of the bride's moving to reside in the camp of her husband's family, which traditionally provided a new ger for the bridal couple. Brides usually had their own household and family rather than joining the household of their husband's parents as subordinate daughters-in-law, and they made fairly frequent return visits to their natal families. Among herders, a traditional place to seek a spouse was from the adjacent herding camp that exchanged daytime custody of lambs (to prevent the ewes from nursing the lambs in the pasture). In-laws frequently cooperated in herding or joined the same herding camp. [Source: Library of Congress, June 1989 *]
In cities, the wait to be assigned an apartment did not seem to delay marriages, perhaps because the couple had the option of moving to a ger on the edge of the city until an apartment became available. Urban weddings sometimes were celebrated in special wedding palaces. That of Ulaanbaatar, an imposing white structure vaguely resembling a traditional Mongolian hat in shape, was one of the capital's architectural highlights. For a modest fee, the couple received their choice of traditional or modern wedding costumes, the services of a photographer, the use of a reception hall, a civil ceremony and wedding certificate, and a limousine to carry them to their new home. Fellow workers and colleagues played a relatively large role in urban weddings, as guests and donors of gifts to set up the new household. *
Most marriages were between schoolmates or coworkers. Such a mechanism of mate selection reinforced the tendency, common in many countries, for people to marry within their own social stratum. Herders tended to marry herders, and young professionals married young professionals. Divorce was rare among both peasants and herders. There were 5.6 marriages and 0.3 divorces per 1,000 inhabitants in 1980 and 6.3 marriages and 0.3 divorces per 1,000 inhabitants in 1985. Mongolian fiction described disparities between the educational level of spouses or the unwillingness of husbands to accept the demands of their wives' jobs as sources of marital strain. *
Pre-Wedding Rituals in Mongolia
The traditional wedding process begins when family of the groom sends messengers to the family of the bride. The messages and ensuing negotiations are often conducted in verse. During the formal proposal the leader of the groom’s messengers delivers the following message in verse: “Our son and your daughter have come to marriage age. We have chosen this day to visit you to obtain your consent to the joining of the lives of our two children.” If the bride’s parent’s give their consent they offer their best wishes for happiness and harmony. After this, the messengers express thanks with a traditional poem.
According to Chinatravel.com: Marriage is a matter of strategic planning and careful deliberation, not something to be entered into hastily. When the young couple are of appropriate age, the young man will ask a respected person - usually his father, an uncle, or other relative - to intercede on his behalf, asking the young woman if she is willing to marry him. However, young, eligible women do not give in easily, as there are many factors to be considered. Should this preliminary courtship step prove successful, the young man will bring gifts to the young woman such as candy, cigarettes, wine, and maybe even livestock, and on that occasion, the extended family members of the young bride-to-be gather at her house to observe the ritual. If this step finds favor with the young woman's family and relatives, an announcement will be made regarding the proposed marriage and its date. [Source: Chinatravel.com \=/]
“In the interim, the engaged couple, with the help of their respective families, go about securing the necessary wedding gifts. Since the number 9 is auspicious in Mongolian culture, 9 gifts will be exchanged on either side. The value of the young man's gifts is generally greater than that of the young woman's - his gifts are usually in the form of livestock, as this forms the basis of a Mongolian family's livelihood - so it may happen that the young man is permitted to offer a lesser number of gifts so long as the value of his gifts exceeds the value of the young woman's gifts (which may necessitate a switch to a cheaper set of gifts on the part of the bride-to-be, so that the equation can go up, as it were).” \=/
“There is much excitement on the wedding day itself. Prior to the wedding ceremony the couple circle around their new home - a ger - three times for good luck, then jump over a pile of burning wood, the latter of which symbolizes a blessing by the fire god and expresses the hope that the couple's future together will be as bright as a flaming fire. At the wedding ceremony, family and friends sing, dance, and dine. This joyous ceremony continues for another two days, and is perhaps the most important event in the life of the young couple, and is an important event for the parents as well as for the village. There is feasting, dancing, music and the singing of traditional songs. White food, baked goods and roasted mutton are served and large amounts or airag are gulped down. Special farewell songs and a poem by the host. expressing his joy of sharing the day with his guest, are performed. [Source: Chinatravel.com ]
The ceremony for a traditional Mongolia Buddhist wedding takes place in the ger of the groom’s family. Before guests arrive, relatives block the door with wood as a sign of respect to the guests. When the wedding procession arrives, the groom’s father greets them. The guests ask why the door is blocked. The father explains that it is an ancient custom that dates back to the time of Saga Geser Khan. The wood is then removed, a white carpet is placed in front of the door, signifying that the marriage will be as pure as milk. The guests are invited inside.
When the guest are taking their seats inside the ger, the bride lights the stove. The guests are seated according to age. A respected elder, known as the Lord of the Feast, announces the order of events. He and other elders and honored guests are presented with cups of airag (koumiss, fermented mare’s milk).
The person who lead the ceremony receives a blue silk scarf called a “hadag”. It symbolizes well being and peace and is placed over a silver cup, which symbolizes honor, respect and purity. They ceremony leader recites a traditional poem about friendship, commitment, joy and continuing traditions and wishes the couple happiness and prosperity. The ceremony ends with a speech complimenting the mother of the bride for doing a good job raising her daughter and acknowledging her blessing of the marriage and allowing her daughter to leave home.
According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life,”“A custom of “denying entrance on marrying" has been common among the nomadic and seminomadic Mongols. The bridegroom, accompanied by relatives, rides to the bride's yurt (house). He finds the door slammed in his face. After repeated requests, the door is finally opened. He presents a hada (ceremonial silk scarf) to his parents-in-law on entering and is given a banquet with a whole lamb. After the meal, the bride sits with her back to the others. The bridegroom kneels behind her and asks what her nickname was in childhood. He drinks at her house all night long. The following day, the bride leaves the yurt first. She circles the yurt on horseback three times, then speeds along to the bride-groom's house. The bridegroom and his relatives ride after her. The door is also slammed in her face and is only opened after repeated requests. [Source: C. Le Blanc, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life,” Cengage Learning, 2009 ++]
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.
Last updated October 2022