9 June 2011

The Mongolian Ger - The Cultural Traditions Of The Ger

My brief guide to traditions and etiquette when visiting a Mongolian ger

If there was a tick-list for experiences that travellers look for on their visit to Mongolia then sleeping in a ger would be pretty close to the top. However, when sleeping in a ger or even visiting a family ger en-route there is very much an etiquette that has to be followed. Here are a few interesting facts and some ger rules to help your visit.

Gers. Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur National Park, Mongolia
The ger has had an influential role in shaping the Mongolian character and Mongolian family life. The small confines prevent privacy but compel families to interact and to share everything. Life in a ger tightens the relationship between relatives - making families stronger.

1) The door of a ger will always face south. It is considered an auspicious direction. The doorway facing south allows for light and warmth of the southern sun to come through the doorway as well as preventing the mainly north-north-west wind from entering, thus providing protection. When entering a ger, try not to step on the threshold of the door or speak to someone across the threshold of the doorway as it is thought that the spirit of the house lives on the threshold and offers protection to the family. 

2) As you walk through the door, you should notice the stove/fire  - the central feature. Either side of the stove are the two central support columns. Try not to lean on them  or pass something between them as it may cause bad luck. The two central posts are said to support the ger, like a husband and wife support the family and also represent the past, present and future.

The structure of a Mongolian ger

3) Guests usually move in a clockwise direction when entering a ger - following the direction of the sun from sunrise to sunset. The west (left) is usually where saddles, bridles and other items associated with men's work are situated (the west side is believed to be protected by heaven). The east (right) is usually where food and cooking implements are situated  - the women's side of the ger (the east side is believed to be protected by the sun). Sitting on beds is not considered rude, these double as seats, even if someone is sleeping in one. The north end of the ger is considered the 'place of honour', the khoimor. It is here the family altar is usually placed. In Buddhist culture, the head is an elevated part of the body in symbolic terms and the feet have accordingly lower status - try not to point your feet towards other people or important items such as the fire or family altar.

The inside of a Mongolian ger

4) Traditional ornamental patterns are a primary form of decoration in a ger - you will find these patterns on the door, the ger supports and other furniture. Orange is the main colour - the colour of joy, energy and warmth. Mongolians value anything old and of good workmanship as they derive real pleasure from craftsmanship and traditional style - often possessions are highly decorated.

A traditional Mongolian saddle
Decoration on a saddle

5) The use of auspicious symbolism is to bring strength, offer protection and bring long life and happiness. You will see designs of the Buddhist Swastika and lions, tigers, dragons and the mythical Garuda. There are also stylised representations of the five elements. Patterns used in embroidery, bedcovers and tablecloths are usually symbols of beauty and nature such as flowers or butterflies. The Buddhist 'Knot of Eternity', a geometric design, is also frequently used.

6) Don't whistle inside a ger as herders believe this may bring bad weather. 

7) Try not to walk in front of an older person - respect should always be shown for their experience and wisdom.  

Admittedly, that's quite a lot to think about in a short afternoon visit. The best thing you can do is relax, try to be aware of your actions and make sure to enjoy what will probably prove to be one of the highlights of your visit to Mongolia. 

If you're interested in experiencing Mongolia the Eternal Landscapes way, why not take a look at my Mongolia holidays and tours?

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