The landlocked East Asian country of Mongolia has a unique culture that is heavily influenced by the traditional nomadic way of life of its people. Although the culture is influenced by Chinese, Indian, and Russian cultures, it still maintains a distinct identity of its own.
Ethnicity, Language, and Religion in Mongolia
Mongolia is home to a population of around 3,103,428 people. It is one of the world’s least densely populated nations. The Khalkh ethnic community comprises 81.9% of Mongolia’s population. Other ethnic groups inhabiting Mongolia are Kazak, Dorvod, Bayad, Buryat-Bouriates, Zakhchin, and others. Mongolian is the official language of the nation and the Khalkha dialect is predominant. 53% of Mongolia’s population adheres to Buddhism. Muslims, Shamanists and Christians account for 3%, 2.9%, and 2.2% of the population, respectively. A vast section of Mongolians (over 35%) is not affiliated with any religion.
Mongolian cuisine is significantly influenced by Russian and Chinese cuisines. It is heavily reliant on dairy products, animal fats, and meat. Cooked mutton is the most popular dish in the rural areas while steamed meat-filled dumplings are commonly consumed in the cities. Limited spices and vegetables are used as the region’s extreme climate is not suitable for most crop growth. A number of domestic animals like cattle, camels, yaks, sheep, etc., are reared for meat and milk. Meat is either cooked or dried for winter. The animal fat in Mongolian dishes helps the people stay warm during long, cold winters. Salted milk tea is the most popular beverage in Mongolia. Vodka is the most popular alcoholic beverage.
Clothing in Mongolia
Mongolian dress has hardly changed through the centuries since it is well-adapted to the region’s harsh climate and the lifestyle of the people. The deel or kaftan (a long, loose gown) is the traditional garment worn by the people. The deel has a high collar, overlaps at the front, and closes at the right side. The traditional deels have five fastenings while the modern ones have round necklines and decoratively cut overlaps.
Literature and the Arts in Mongolia
Mongolia has a long history of oral literature. Traditional epic poems and Üliger (tales and myths of the Mongols) characterize this type of literature. The Secret History of the Mongols is one of the most internationally renowned books on Mongolian history. It was written in the 13th century. Over the centuries, Mongolian literature was also significantly influenced by Indian and Chinese literature as well as Buddhism. During the Qing dynasty’s rule, a number of Chinese novels were translated to Mongolian. Nationalist literature also developed during this time. Some examples of such works include the Blue Chronicle and Crazy Shagdar.
Mongolian art is also praised for its uniqueness and beauty. Prior to the 20th century, most artworks from the nation served religious functions. Paintings or appliqué work of thangkas were the most common forms of Mongolian art. Bronze Buddhist sculptures were also produced in large numbers. During the socialist era, socialist realism was the predominant theme of Mongolian art. However, thangka-like paintings representing secular or national themes were also produced during this time. In the 20th century, modernism influenced Mongolian art with the first famous work of this genre being Ehiin setgel (Mother's love) by Tsevegjav. Later, all forms of art flourished in Mongolia.
Performance Arts in Mongolia
Mongolia has an ancient musical tradition. Morin Khuur or the horsehead fiddle is a traditional musical instrument of Mongolia. It is often regarded as the country’s symbol. Western-style classical music was introduced in Mongolia in the 20th century pop and rock music was adopted by the younger musicians of the country more recently. Mongolia has its own version of the Waltz called the Mongolian Waltz. The dance is unique to Mongolia and involves a horseman and horsewoman circling each other to a traditional song. Biyelgee is another Mongolian dance form. This dance form originated from the nomadic way of life and are performed half-sitting or cross-legged. There is practically no use of legs in this dance. Rhythmic upper body movements are used to express various emotions and stories. Operas, plays, ballets, folk art performances, etc., are all supported by the Mongolian government.
Sports in Mongolia
A variety of traditional games are played in Mongolia. Chess, dominoes, and checkers are played widely. The Naadam Festival of Mongolia is a centuries-old tradition where three main sports are played. These sports include wrestling, horse racing, and archery. Genghis Khan considered them as essential for any Mongol warrior.
Life in the Mongolian Society
The traditional Mongolian society had clearly defined gender-based roles. Men were expected to perform more labor-intensive activities and handle external affairs including trade, administration, and military. Women were assigned household chores and childcare duties. Women in rural areas were also expected to take part in agricultural work and livestock maintenance. During the socialist regime, women enjoyed legal equality with men and many entered the workforce of the country during this time.
Marriages in Mongolia were always arranged by parents but the situation is fast changing in the present day. The practice of paying a bridal dowry is common in the country. Brides usually move in with the groom’s family after marriage. In nomadic communities, several generations of a family live together in the same camp and share herding tasks.
Children have always been highly valued by the Mongols. Large families with many children were the norm in the past as many children translated to extra help and security in old age. While the mother is the primary caregiver for her children, the entire community participates in teaching social and moral values to them. While formal education in the country was limited to Buddhist monks before the 20th century, socialism led to the rise in the country’s literacy rate.
Horses have always played a significant role in Mongolian life and the arts. Hospitality is also of extreme importance in the nation. Heroic epics have for long influenced the lives of Mongolians. The word "baatar" meaning “hero” in Mongolian is thus used in many personal names of Mongolians. It is also present in the name of the Mongolian capital city - Ulaanbaatar.