21 February 2012

Tsagaan Sar - White Month - Mongolian Lunar New Year

Look out at the sky and look at the moon. On February 22nd 2012, you will see a new crescent. As the moon passed from its dark phase into the new crescent (Feb 21st-22nd) so the Mongolians began the celebration of their new year - known as Tsagaan Sar (White Month).

Celebrate 'Bituun' - the close down of the old year before the welcoming of the new.
Image by Egon Filter on one of our adventures  at Khongoryn Els
Tsagaan Sar is one of the most important celebrations in Mongolia and marks the end of winter and the beginning of a new year's cycle. Mongolians believe that the colour white symbolizes happiness, purity and an abundance of milk products (Tsagaan Sar symbolises wealth and prosperity in the family).

Tsagaan Sar is a time when Mongolians come together to show respect to the family elders and to renew friendship. The preparation for Tsagaan Sar begins many weeks before the actual national holiday. Mongolians like to start off the new year with their ger, apartment, or house being very clean. Many families will take this time to redecorate by buying new flooring or rugs to hang on the walls. In addition to new household goods, families will buy new clothing as well. On Tsagaan Sar, you can usually find Mongolians wearing a new, clean deel (Mongolian traditional dress).

The day before New Years Eve is called Bituun - this means 'to close down'. On this day people eat to be full - it is believed that if you stay hungry you will be hungry for the coming year. On the Tsagaan Sar table will be bread, meat, up to (or more than) 1000 buuz (dumplings) and the fat tail of a sheep. According to custom, the fattest sheep should be killed and the lower back and tail boiled and served on the table for the entire holiday.

Tradition states that before starting the meal, the host parts with the old year in a symbolic ceremony. Having placed a leg of lamb on his plate, he slices it and gives everyone a piece. Then he breaks the bone and draws out the marrow, thus symbolizing the opening of the New Year.
Tsagaan Sar is a time for traditions - such as the giving and receiving of the snuff bottle.
Image taken by Egon Filter en route on one of our adventures
On the morning of the New Year everyone rises bright and early to greet the sun. Traditionally, members of the household honour the nature and spirits of Mongolia by going to an ovoo - a stone shrine placed on a hill or mountain top. They will take food and offerings and the oldest will voice words of gratitude and praise to the spirit of the mountain and the surrounding area.

In order to have health and happiness in the new year each individual must take their 'first steps of the New Year'. Their lunar year of birth and the current year will dictate the direction that they walk in - it is believed to be important to start your way in the right direction on the first day of the new year.

After the first steps are taken all family members re-enter their home and start the Tsagaan Sar greetings. The snuff bottle is passed round. During New Year's Day children honour their senior relatives. White and blue scarves, khadag, are presented to the most honoured as a symbol of respect (white scarves symbolise milk and the blue the Eternal Sky).
During Tsgaan Sar, both white and blue khadags are given as a symbol of respect.
 As Tsagaan Sar is celebrated by Mongolians all previous things pass away with the previous year. As the new crescent moon rises so the new year starts - positive and white (or clean).

Shine jilin mend khurgie!

20 February 2012

These 'dog gone' days - A Mongolian Tradition

When my old dog died suddenly last week, I wondered how Mongolians treated the death of their family dog. 

Spend time in Mongolia and you will notice that a majority of families own a dog. Very rarely are they fashionable, small, pedigree dogs as traditionally the role of a dog in Mongolia was to alert it's owners to the arrival of strangers arriving from the wide-open steppe, herding the livestock when families moved to new pasture and guarding against the threat of wolves (yes, wolves). 

In Mongolia, when you are invited into a herder's home, there is very much a set pattern of introduction. There are many types of greeting in the Mongolian language that are used depending on the situation. People in the countryside often often salute each other with an enquiry about the wellness of the family, their livestock, the condition of the pasture or the grazing and also the weather. Only after  quite some time is it appropriate to discuss other matters.  There you sit in the ger, very aware that shortly the conversation will turn towards you and that informal interview is about to start - where are you from, what is the weather like, how good is the pasture, how many head of livestock does your country have...... Photographs help the conversation along and I have always shown photos of my dogs here in the UK. The response was they looked like they would be good against wolves. Do you have wolves in the UK?

The Mongolian 'Bankhar'. In Mongolia, when approaching a ger  it is always a good idea to call out 'Noikhoi
Khori' - 'Hold the Dog'!  Even if there is no dog, you can still shout it to let the host know that you are coming

Image taken from asiafinest.com
Traditionally in Mongolia, dogs were one of few animals given their own name and treated with honour - a belief remains that dogs are the last stage before humans in the reincarnation process. When a dog dies, the owner whispers in the dog’s ear his wishes that the dog will return as a man in his next life. They are buried high in the hills so that people do not walk on their remains. Their tail is cut off and put beneath the head, and a piece of meat or fat is cut off and placed in the dog's mouth to sustain its soul for its journey; before the dog is reincarnated, the dog’s soul is freed to travel the land, to run across the high open steppe for as long as it would like. 

My family will wait a while, but will eventually start looking for another dog as our second dog is definitely lonely without his best mate. We will bring him into our home in the Mongolian way - giving food to the mother dog and milk to the young dog and whisper it's name into it's ear.

It will be an English dog with Mongolian spirit.  

And now in 2013, introducing Walter!

7 February 2012

Mongolian Superstitions - Don't Go Star Gazing!

Mongolia may be fully embracing the 21t Century, but traditions and superstitions remain an important part of everyday life

The traditional sacred scarves of Mongolia - khadag.
The Mongolian khadag - honouring the Eternal Blue Sky
Mongolia is known as the the Eternal Blue Sky. Not only because of its 260 blue sky days on average per year but also in connection with the ancient practise of shamanism - the worshipping of the Eternal Blue Sky (Tenger) and the myriad spiritual forces of nature. Traditionally, Mongolians are deeply superstitious and these superstitions are unwritten rules that live in the mind of nearly every Mongolian - including the Eternal Landscapes team. As part of our EL welcome pack, I include a file on Mongolia's culture and traditions, but in advance of your arrival (!), here are a few suggestions:

Shake hands if you have stepped on someone's foot. Why? You have invaded their social space and you may become enemies. 

Don't whistle inside a ger. Why?  Mongolians believe this may bring a natural disaster – such as a very strong wind or heavy rain that causes flash floods. Mongols do ‘whistle for the wind’ in the summer outside, when a breeze helps to keep down the flies. They do no whistle in the winter or spring for fear it will bring storms.

Do not step on the threshold of the door or speak to someone across the threshold of the doorway. Why? It is thought that the spirit of the house lives on the threshold and the threshold offers protection to the family.

If you see a shooting star never point to it or mention it.  Why? Briefly, in Mongolia, shooting stars are seen as an omen of a death. This is because they say that each star represents a person and when you see a shooting star it highlights that person's death.

If you're interested in finding out more about Mongolia, why not look at my brief guide to Mongolia's country profile on my Eternal Landscapes website?