MONGOLIANS: THEIR LANGUAGE, BUDDHISM, SHAMANISM AND CUSTOMS

MONGOLIAN LANGUAGE

Mongolians speak an Altaic language. Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Uyghur, Manchu, Uigur, Turkish and other Altaic, Tungusic and Turkic languages are Altaic languages in the Ural-Altaic family of languages. Some linguists believe they are related. Other believe they share similarities because of the borrowing of words by traditionally nomadic peoples. Ural-Altaic languages include Finnish, Korean and Hungarian.

In Mongolia, Mongolian is the official language. In Inner Mongolia, Mongolian and Chinese are official languages. The languages of the Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Mongols and Uyghurs are so similar that they can easily communicate with each other and often eat and party together when they live near one another. Mongolian is difficult to learn and speak. Travel writer Tim Severin wrote sounds “like two cats coughing and spitting at each other until one finally throws up..” Some of the more guttural sounds sound like someone is having difficulty breathing.

Spoken Mongolian has clipped tones. In Mongolia, the largest and most important dialect is Khalkha. Oirat is the only other major dialect. By contrast in Inner Mongolia there are a number of dialects, often localized to a certain region. In the central area people speak the Chahr-Shiliingol, which is closely-related to standard Khalkha; in the northeast Inner Mongolia. Barga and Buriat are spoken. The major dialects in the southeast, northeast and southwest, respectively, are Kkhorcgin, Alshaa and Ordos, The Oirat and Kalmuck dialects are spoken in northwest Xinjiang, Qinghai and western Mongolia. For he most part these dialects are mutually intelligible.

Mongolian Written Language

In the early 13th century, under Genghis Khan, the Mongols created a vertical script based on the Uyghur script, which was also adopted by many Turkic-speaking peoples and is related to the alphabets of Western Asia. It looks like Arabic written at a slant. The source of the Uyghur alphabets was the alphabet of the Sogdians, a Persian people centered around Samarkand in the A.D. 6th century.

Uyghur-derived written Mongolian uses a phonetic alphabet with 27 consonants and seven vowels sounds. The words look like characters, They are often written vertically. In Mongolia, Mongolian script was formally displaced by the Cyrillic alphabet in 1946. Mongolians kept their elaborate script alive in private. In Inner Mongolia in China, the Uyghur-based script was retained and now two written languages are used: Mongolian and Chinese. In China, Mongolian, is written from the left to the right with two or more syllables joined together to make a word unit.

In Inner Mongolia, the Chinese divide the Mongolian language into three dialects: Inner Mongolian, Weilate, and Baerhu - Buliyate (also mid-dialect, western dialect and northeastern dialect if divided according to regions). The Mongolian language, created as early as in the ear of Genghis Khan, is of the type of pinyin characters. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, kepu.net.cn ~]

Mongol Religion

Mongols have traditionally been Tibetan Buddhists. During the Cultural Revolution all but two of Inner Mongolia’s 2,000 temples and shrines were destroyed. There is a small community of Mongolian Muslims in Alshaa Banner in western Inner Mongolia. In Inner Mongolia, oboo-shrine rituals are important events. The oboos are thought to be inhabited by local spirts and deities. In the southwestern Ordodis region the Ghengis Khan Memorial draws large numbers of Mongols. Some Mongols have shrines in their homes dedicated to Mao and Genghis Khan.

Mongolians believed in shamanism in ancient times.They believed that medicine men-like shamans had the power to communicate with the gods, heal the sick and predict the future. The supreme Mongol deity was Tengri, the ruler of heaven. The Mongols believed that mountains were bridges between heaven and earth. Even today some Mongolia discourage the digging of wells and mines because they don't want to disturb, the spirits in the earth.

Horses sacrifices and divininization with bones was practiced. Horses are still sacrifice today. Their dried corpses are hung from long sticks in the Altai Mountain region of Mongolia. This ritual is performed because it is believed that only a sacrificed horse can carry the shaman to heaven.

The Mongols were much more open minded about religion than people in Europe and the Middle East. They generally didn't plunder churches or mosques (although they did burn down a quite few and massacred people who taken refuge inside) and as a rule they did not persecute people because of their beliefs.

The courts of the Great Khans contained Catholics, Nestorian Christians, Armenians, Manichaens, Buddhists, Muslims and animists like Genghis Khan. In the Mongol capital of Karakorum churches, mosques and temples stood side by side. As the Mongol empire expanded, many Mongols adopted the religion of their subjects, particularly Islam. The Western Mongols had largely accepted Islam by 1295.

Mongolians and Tibetan Buddhism

Today, Most Mongols practice the Yellow Hat sect of Tibetan Buddhism. Buddhism was introduced from Tibet to Mongolia in the beginning of the 13th century, when the red hat sect of Tibetan Buddhism began to find its followers among the Mongolian rulers. In the 16th century, many feudal lords as well as herdsmen shifted to the yellow hat sect of the Dalai Lama. In the second half of the 16th century it became the state religion of the Mongol Princes. The Mongols have used Tibetan Buddhism as way of unifying Mongolians and creating a sense of nationalism. It has incorporated many shamanist symbols and rites.

In 1578, in the midst of campaign, Abtai Khan became fascinated with Tibetan Buddhism and converted to the religion. He became a devout believer and bestowed the title of Dalai Lama for the first time to the spiritual leader of Tibet (the 3rd Dalai Lama) while the Dalai Lama visited the Khan's court in the 16th century. Dalai is the Mongolian word for “ocean.” In 1586, Erdenzuu Monastery (near Karakorum ), Mongolia's first major center of Buddhism and oldest monastery, was built under Abtai Khan. Tibetan Buddhism became the state religion. More than a century before Kublai Khan himself had been seduced by a Tibetan Buddhist monk named Phagpa perhaps, it is reasoned, because off all the religions welcomed into the Mongol court Tibetan Buddhism was most like like traditional Mongol shamanism.

Links between Mongolia and Tibet have remained strong. The 4th Dalai Lama was a Mongolian and many Jebtzun Damba, the Living Buddhas of the Khalkh Mongols, were born in Tibet. Mongolians traditionally provided the Dalai Lama with military support. They gave him sanctuary in 1903 when Britain invaded Tibet. Even today many Mongolians aspire to make a pilgrimage to Lhasa as Muslims do to Mecca.

Tibetan Buddhism caught on with ordinary Mongolians. The Dalai Lama became the spiritual leader for Mongolia as he did for Tibet. He ordered that the image of Gonggor be worshiped at home and issued laws forbidding the practice of killing women, slaves and animals as sacrificial funeral offerings in Mongolia. Reincarnated lamas were born and reborn in Mongolia. The Jebtzun Damba became Tibetan Buddhism third highest incarnation after the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama.

More than 2,000 monasteries were built and as much as 40 percent of male population men was made up of celibate monks. Large monasteries had 500 monks and schools for art, astronomy and theater. They regularly hosted religious dramas and festivals and were filled with pilgrims. Buddhist lamas became very powerful. They ran parts of Mongolia as feudal states like the lamas in Tibet did. Some lamas were like princes. They owned huge estates worked by nomadic serfs. In the modern country of Mongolia, but less so in Inner Mongolia, Buddhist monks in wine- colored cloaks still go from door to door blessing homes with a clash of cymbals and perform other Buddhist duties.

Mongol Shamanism

Shamanism is the traditional religion of the nomads and horsemen that occupied Mongolia. Mongolians have traditionally believed that shaman had the ability to “soul travel” and cure the sick. This belief helped them deal with the unexplained aspects of their natural world and its unanticipated hardships. Shamanism is still practiced by the Mongolians and practiced by minorities such as the Tsaatan, Darkhad, Uriankhai and Buryats.

In Mongolia both men and women can be shaman but a distinction is made between hereditary ones and those who have become shaman after suffering a serious illness. Shaman have traditionally been sought out to cure sickness and act as intermediaries between the human and spiritual world, often by going into a trance sometimes for hours at a time. During the Great Sacrifice, traditionally held on the third day of the after the lunar New Year, shaman divined the future from cracks made in heated sheep shoulder blades.

Shamanism also remains alive in common daily rituals such as rubbing holy stones together and the traditional blessing of dipping a finger in milk and flicking it towards the sky in honor of local spirits. After a statue of Stalin was removed, peasant sprinkled milk on it to "prevent his angry evil spirit from returning to haunt them. "

Tibetan Buddhism practiced in Mongolia is influenced by shamanism. During Tibetan New Year’s celebrations shaman have traditionally presided over parades in which Buddhist images were pulled on carts with the head of a magical green horse.

Shaman in an Inner Mongolia Mining Town

Reporting from Xi Wuqi city in Inner Mongolia, Jonathan Kaiman wrote in The Guardian, “Erdemt is a 54-year-old former herder (who, like many Mongolians, only goes by one name), and as a shaman, he is considered an intermediary between the human and spiritual worlds. Although he is new to the role – he became a shaman in 2009 – thousands of people, all of them ethnically Mongolian, have visited so that he could decipher nightmares, proffer moral guidance and cure mysterious ills. His patients pay him as much as they wish.[Source: Jonathan Kaiman, The Guardian, September 23, 2013 ^^^]

“Erdemt's hometown Xi Wuqi, a city of 70,000 flush against the grasslands, was built to help sustain the mining boom. The tiny Han-owned boutiques that line its broad, well-paved thoroughfares are so new that their interiors smell like fresh paint. Five years ago, its residents say, it was little more than a cluster of one-storey red-brick homes. ^^^

“Shamanism is among the world's oldest religions, dating back as far as the paleolithic era, and many of Erdemt's clients see him as an embodiment of a timeless order that was devastated by the boom. "In the past, living a pastoral life was the purest way to be in touch with nature – to absorb its energy," said Nisu Yila, a professional Mongolian wrestler in Xi Wuqi, as he sat on the shaman's living room couch wearing a traditional deel robe and a cowboy hat. "But bit by bit, that kind of life began to disappear. And we began to panic." The shaman, he said, reminds him of what China's Mongolians have lost. "He's like a short cut," he said. ^^^

Experts say that this sentiment – the desire to reconnect with a forgotten past – is nearly ubiquitous in China, a natural byproduct of rapid change. "Because of modernisation, and now urbanisation, traditional culture is vanishing and being replaced by western culture, and under such conditions, people realise that these things are worth protecting," said Tian Qing , the head of the Chinese Intangible Cultural Heritage Protection Centre and a prominent adviser to the government on cultural affairs. "Right now, Chinese society is like a pot of soup, and it's boiling over the top. Have you ever cooked? You think that's not going to hurt you? People here get psychological problems. There's pressure. There's difficulty. And so they look towards religion for comfort." Tian quoted a Tang dynasty poem to underscore his point: "Even a prairie fire can't destroy the grass; it just grows again when the spring breeze blows." ^^^

Shaman Ritual in Inner Mongolia Mining Town

Jonathan Kaiman wrote in The Guardian, “The shaman of Xi Wuqi city wakes before sunrise on a Wednesday morning in June, piles his family into his silver Peugeot, and drives out beyond the city's boxy mid-rises, past miles of strip-mines and coal refineries, and to the foot of a broad kelly-green hillside on the grasslands. He hikes to the top, removes his trainers and button-down shirt, and dons a black robe and a feather headdress. [Source: Jonathan Kaiman, The Guardian, September 23, 2013 ^^^]

“Then he gets to work. The hill is on the shaman's ancestral land, and he climbs it once a year to summon his ancestors; to express his desires, and to hear their demands. For the two hours he delivers a thunderous performance, rife with drum-beating, horn-blowing, the jingle of bells and the clanging of cymbals. His wife and son scatter sheep's milk and rice liquor beneath variegated prayer flags. They throw handfuls of confetti to the wind. ^^^ "I saw a spirit riding a white horse with a flowing mane, and he told me right now, your ability as a shaman, your energy, your magic, they've improved very quickly," the shaman said that afternoon, sitting in his two-bedroom apartment chain-smoking cigarettes, a Chinese news broadcast running mute on his flatscreen TV. "He said right now, you've already arrived – you can commune with the spirit of any river, or any mountain." ^^^

“While Erdemt's social role may be timeless, his professional duties – the therapy-like sessions and ebullient rituals – are inexorably modern. He provides solace to white-collar job seekers and helps local officials assess the spiritual implications of approving new mines. He understands that there are lines he cannot cross. ^^^

Becoming an Inner Mongolia Shaman

Jonathan Kaiman wrote in The Guardian, Erdemt “knew nothing of shamanism as a child. He spent his formative years in a felt-lined tent on the grasslands, frequently skipping school to help his parents herd. During Mao's Cultural Revolution, the religion was dubbed "feudal superstition" and banned. One of his neighbours was beaten for practising it openly, and decades of silence followed suit. [Source: Jonathan Kaiman, The Guardian, September 23, 2013 ^^^]

The shaman grew to middle age. He married and had two children, both of whom learned to rear sheep before they were packed off to university. The coal boom came suddenly, and in 2007, his pastures began to wilt; a summer hailstorm decimated his livestock. Newly destitute, he considered his options and moved to Xi Wuqi, where he found a part-time job unloading trucks. His wife bought buckets of sheep's milk and processed it into dried yogurt, a traditional Mongolian snack, which she sold to local markets. They were desperate to return to the grasslands. ^^^

“Around that time, Erdemt began to have strange dreams, he says. Some involved tigers; in one, snakes writhed around his body. He discovered within himself an extraordinary aptitude for prediction, allowing him to foretell chance encounters with old friends. One day in 2009, he quit his job and took a bus to Ordos, a gleaming new city in the area's arid west which, like Xi Wuqi, was built to accommodate the coal boom. There, amid empty skyscrapers and vast, dusty boulevards, he met a friend whose brother owned a brick factory in Mongolia; the brother knew a master shaman in the country's capital, Ulan Bator. Erdemt applied for a passport, hopped on a cross-border train, and showed up at the shaman's house carrying his suitcases. For 27 days, he memorised ancient texts and fine-tuned elaborate rituals; he returned to Xi Wuqi carrying a sheepskin drum, confident about his future. The decision has served him well, he says. Moving back to the grasslands is no longer a priority.” ^^^

Perils and Attraction of Being an Inner Mongolia Shaman

Jonathan Kaiman wrote in The Guardian, “Despite his success, Erdemt's status as a shaman in China is uniquely precarious. He's an emerging religious figure in an officially atheist state, an expression of ethnic pride amid roiling ethnic tensions, and an embodiment of the distant past in a rapidly changing present. His China is one of resource extraction, mass migration and cultural upheaval. It is a constant exercise in compromise and restraint.”[Source: Jonathan Kaiman, The Guardian, September 23, 2013 ^^^]

“"The government, they don't formally acknowledge me the way they acknowledge other religions," he says. "But as long as I don't do anything illegal – or at least, what they'd consider illegal – they won't limit me." Pamphlets and broadcasts are strictly out of bounds. Although he's careful to couch his ethnic sentiments in benign terms, he refuses to see Han clients. Most of them see his services as an investment, he says. They're angered by weak returns. ^^^

“Erdemt's son Bao Lidao, a bespectacled 26-year-old with ruddy cheeks and an explosive laugh, is experiencing a quarter-life crisis. After graduating from university in the region's capital city, Hohhot, Bao took a government job mediating between land-hungry railway ministry officials and the nomads they sought to displace. The position overwhelmed him. The nomads were fickle – they'd be seduced by sizable compensation packages one day and reticent the next, aware that the cash was, unlike their land, ephemeral. Last year, he took a secretarial job with the Xi Wuqi government, and he finds the position stultifying. "These people, although they drive good cars, they eat well, they live well, they wear nice things – I feel their hearts are empty," he said. ^^^

“Bao wants to be a shaman – for weeks in a row he'll dream of flying, which he takes as a cosmic sign. Yet his father, like so many in China, is a pragmatist. "He thinks it'd be best if I find my own career," said Bao. "Even if I don't become a shaman, I'll still be a shaman's son, and I'll dedicate myself to researching shamanism, developing the field. I think this is my life's mission." ^^^

Image Sources:

Text Sources: 1) Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia/ China , edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K.Hall & Company, 1994); 2) Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, China virtual museums, Computer Network Information Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences, kepu.net.cn ~; 3) Ethnic China ethnic-china.com *\; 4) Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/; 5) China.org, the Chinese government news site china.org | New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Chinese 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.

Mongolian Marriage

A Mongolian family usually consists of the parents and their children. When the son gets married he usually lives in a separate home close to his parents. There are also families formed of several married brothers and sisters-in-law in the farming and semi-farming areas. Mongolians practice monogamy. Before the mid-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 china.org |]

According to Chinatravel.com: Marriage among China's Mongolian ethnic minority 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 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. \=/

Mongolian Customs

The Mongolians are warm-hearted and straightforward. They welcome strangers travelling on the grasslands to stay for the night in their yurts and treat them to tea with milk, mutton and milk wine. Upon leaving, the guests will invariably be given a warm send-off by the hosts. |

As is the case with Tibetan “Presenting the Hada” is the most important welcoming gesture. According to Chinatravel.com: Hada, a Tibetan word, is a strip of silk used as a greeting gift among both Tibetans and Mongols. It is presented under very specific circumstances only: when welcoming unfamiliar guests in one's home or when encountering a stranger on the steppe with whom a cordial relationship has developed. Hada is usually made from either silk or cotton. Mongolian hada is generally white in color, but shades like light blue and light yellow occur as well. When one is lucky enough to be presented a hada, one should grasp it gently in both hands while bowing slightly, as this is what is expected of one by one's host, who will himself bow. The giving/ receiving of hada, including the act of bowing to each other, is an outward sign of mutual respect, something that is very important in Mongolian culture. [Source: Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/]

“Passing the snuffbox is an old tradition in Mongolian culture, and is the most common exchange of amenities when people meet. When one is a guest in a Mongolian home, the host will take out his snuffbox, open it - its contents generally being very aromatic and consisting of a blend of tobacco and/ or herbs - and pass it on to the guest. One is expected to pass the snuffbox under one's nose in order to better appreciate the tobacco's aroma. To be polite, one should nod one's head or give another sign of approbation. This shows respect and can serve as the basis for future amicable relations. The snuffbox itself may be in any of a number of shapes, from the rectangular/ square to the oval to the cylindrical, or in still other shapes, and with engravings whose workmanship reveal the quality of the snuffbox. The snuffbox contains a small spoon made either of gold, silver, copper, ivory, or camel bone.

“Pipes for a Smoke: When welcomed into a Mongolian home, a guest is expected to invite the host to smoke, and to offer the host his pipe. The host, anticipating this, accepts the pipe of the guest and fills it with his own tobacco. The host then passes his own empty pipe to the guest, who accepts it and fills it with his own tobacco. Then the two of them each enjoys his own tobacco, but smoked in the other's pipe. The pipe itself is commonly adorned with silver, with intricate flower motifs engraved into it. The bowl of the pipe is generally made of briar, while the bit, or mouthpiece, may be made of agate or jade. The tobacco pouch is generally made of brightly colored silk, which develops a fine patina over time. A Mongolian's tobacco paraphenalia is truly a thing of beauty, combining artistic expression with functionality.

Last updated June 2015


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