Xilituzhao Temple

Inner Mongolia may be known as the ancient birthplace of rugged horsemen and fearsome warriors, but its official religion is one marked by peace and tranquillity. The enduring influence of Tibetan Buddhism can be seen throughout the region in the form of elaborate monasteries, colourful prayer flags, and vibrant religious ceremonies. Located in Inner Mongolia’s capital of Hohhot, Xilituzhao Temple is one such spiritual gem. It is dedicated to the Gelugpa or “Yellow Hat” sect of Tibetan Buddhism and was originally built in 1585 during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) for the 3rd Dalai Lama, although it had to be reconstructed toward the end of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) following a disastrous fire. It may be overshadowed by its larger neighbour, Dazhao Temple, but it is by no means the underdog!  

Its architecture is a unique blend of traditional Han Chinese and Tibetan features, reflecting the culturally diverse nature of Hohhot. After all, it doesn’t get much more multi-ethnic than a Mongolian city in China following a Tibetan religion! The temple itself is a typically symmetrical complex, with various side halls, storehouses, pagodas, and towers surrounding the central halls. A large and intricately carved archway leads into the complex, where you’ll be met with Da Dian Hall. In front of the hall, a monument written in four different languages attests to the multicultural character of this historic site. 

Its exterior decorations and the colourfully glazed tiles of its interior walls are markedly Tibetan in style, setting this building apart from others in the complex. The hall is further split into two parts: the Buddha Worshipping Hall, which was tragically damaged during a fire; and the Sutra Hall, which is in comparatively good condition. Not far from Da Dian Hall, the Lama Pagoda looms over the complex at 15 metres (49 ft.) in height and is entirely crafted from clear white marble.  

“Xilitu” translates to mean “Holy Seat” in Mongolian and refers to the fact that, since 1735, Xilituzhao Temple has been the residence of the Grand Living Buddha, who serves as the main authority on all Buddhist religious activities in Hohhot. While the temple is a popular tourist attraction, it is still an active house of worship and is currently home to the 11th Grand Living Buddha, along with numerous other monks. Throughout the year, it plays host to a number of religious activities, conferences, and festivals. Even at the grand old age of 432, it seems this venerable temple is still a long way from retirement!

The Juyan Lake Basin

Nestled deep within the barren expanse of the Gobi Desert, Juyan Lake was once a focal oasis along the ancient Silk Road. It is located within the fertile Ejin Banner of Inner Mongolia, not far from the border with Mongolia proper. In ancient times, its strategic importance meant that, from the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD) onwards, it was guarded by a military frontier town named Juyan. Its significance was twofold: its bountiful waters could provide sustenance for the nearby garrisons along the Great Wall; and having control of it meant the northern nomads could not prosper from it. If the lake had been left undefended, it would have provided an ideal route through which to invade China from the north. The lake was held in such high esteem that it was even visited by the Italian explorer Marco Polo during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368)!

Unfortunately, as the old saying goes, all good things are doomed to come to an end. Due to environmental changes, the western section of the lake dried up in 1961, and the eastern section followed suit in 1992. This caused a major crisis in the region and the government was forced to take action to protect the oasis. Their tireless work meant that the eastern section eventually reappeared in 2005, although it is now more of a wetland than a lake. Nowadays it is known as the Juyan Lake Basin and covers an area of approximately 10,000 square kilometres (3,900 sq. mi). Surrounded by mountain ranges on all sides, this fertile valley represents a verdant paradise hidden away in the hostile desert. 

The Architecture of Mongol Ethnic Group

Nowadays, most Mongols live in modern apartment blocks or fixed residences. However, you’ll still find plenty of Mongol people maintaining their nomadic heritage and living on the grasslands in a type of portable domed tent known as a ger or yurt. Some people even alternate between the two; living in urban housing for part of the year and then shifting to a ger in order to tend to their livestock. The use of these unusual abodes dates back to the time of the mighty Genghis Khan, roughly around about the 12th century. With their bright white exteriors and perfectly rounded shape, these magnificent gers look like glittering pearls scattered across the jade-hued grasslands.

They are made by first erecting a series of wooden lattice frames into a circular shape and then securing them with rope. This forms a self-supporting cylinder that is approximately head height. A door frame is then fitted at the front, while roof poles are used to give extra support. Finally, a canvas typically made from sheep’s wool is drawn across the wooden skeleton and the ger is complete. To give the ger additional stability during inclement weather, a heavy weight is suspended from the centre roof pole.

The ger is ideal for both warm summers and harsh winters, since it is spacious, well-ventilated, but also well-insulated. Its conical roof is perfect for shedding rain, its white exterior is designed to reflect the sunlight during the peak of summer, and its ground-hugging base protects it against strong winds. Smaller gers are typically designed to accommodate up to 10 people, while larger ones can house over 20! Skilled Mongols can erect a ger within half an hour and dismantle it just as quickly, making it the ideal home for the wandering nomad. Once packed up on the back of a yak or camel, it can be easily transported to the next destination. In short, it’s the original mobile-home!

According to tradition, the door to the ger should typically face south and the interior layout should be separated into approximately eight sections: the north, northwest, west, southwest, northeast, east, southeast, and centre. In the northern quarters, there is usually an eight-legged table that is used for keeping cosy quilts, exquisite rugs, and other clothing items. Men’s clothes must be placed above women’s clothes and it is considered taboo to put the neck of any piece of clothing facing the doorway, as this is a practice reserved for the deceased.

The northwest is a holy area reserved solely for Buddha. It is resplendent with shrines and niches, all containing Buddhist statues that have been safely locked away. During religious festivals, the occupants of the ger will light candles and make offerings to these statues while praying for wealth, longevity, and good fortune. The wild western quarter is designated as the man’s private kingdom, full of guns, knives, saddles, and wrestling gear.

The southwest is where yoghurt tanks and more saddles are kept, while the northeast houses cases of women’s clothes and jewellery. The eastern quarter acts as a sort of makeshift pantry, with meat, vegetables, fruits, and cooking utensils arranged into tiers on a special rack to keep them separate. The southeast is a much more flexible area, as it can be utilised in a number of ways depending on the season. In spring, it is filled with water buckets and dried cow’s dung, which is burned as fuel. During summer and autumn, a yoghurt tank and various clay utensils are added for the making of milk products. Under emergency circumstances, it is sometimes even used as a shelter for newly-born calves!

Finally the centre, arguably the most significant section of the ger, is reserved for the fire stove. After a ger has been erected, the first thing that the occupants must do is decide on the position of the stove. Fire is the lifeblood of any Mongolian household, as it provides the means to boil water for tea, cook family meals, or simply keep the ger warm. For this reason, it is of paramount importance that the stove is positioned correctly within the ger.

If you happen to be visiting a ger, there are a number of customs and taboos that you should be aware of. One must not approach a ger by automobile or on horseback within a certain radius. Touching the entryway or the centre roof poles of the ger is deemed impolite. Never step on or over a saddle, as the Mongols’ have a deep-rooted reverence for the horse and damaging or disregarding a saddle is considered highly disrespectful. Similarly, you shouldn’t sit in front of or near Buddhist shrines out of respect for the Buddha. Lastly, you should only take a seat after being invited to do so by your host, with male and female guests sitting separately. Remember, while the Mongols are renowned for their warm-hearted nature, these are the descendants of Genghis Khan, so the last thing you want to do is offend them!

The Yin Mountains

Forming part of the eastern border along the Gobi Desert, the Yin Mountains stretch for over 1,000 kilometres (631 mi) from Inner Mongolia to northern Hebei province. At points they rise to a mighty 2,180 metres (7,152 ft.) in height, while at others they drop to a modest 1,500 metres (4,921 ft.). Their northern slope is comparatively gentle, but the southern slope is steep and forms a sharp natural barrier against the plain below it. Yet it’s not the mountain range’s height that makes it so special. The range is home to over ten thousand cliff paintings known as petroglyphs, where the rock’s surface has been incised, carved, or abraded to form a primitive work of art. Since prehistoric times, these mountains and their surroundings have served as the muse for countless individuals.

These petroglyphs can be separated into four main sets: the first and oldest set, which dates back to the Xia (c. 2100-1600 BC), Shang (c. 1600-1046 BC), and Zhou (c. 1045-256 BC) dynasties; the second set, which were carved by Xiongnu nomads and range from the Spring and Autumn Period (c. 771-476 BC) to the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD); the third set, which portrays distinctly Turkish characteristics and dates back to between the Jin Dynasty (265-420 AD) and the Tang Dynasty (618-907); and the final set, which were executed by Mongolian tribes sometime from the Song Dynasty (960-1279) to the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912).

Some of the oldest rock paintings were examined as early as the 5th century by the geologist Li Daoyuan of the Northern Wei Dynasty (386–535). While his findings represent the earliest record of the paintings, they weren’t formally surveyed until 1976. From then on, experts, scholars, and tourists have been drawn to the mountain range, tempted by the opportunity to catch a glimpse of our prehistoric origins. The paintings provide an invaluable insight into the lifestyle, beliefs, and customs of the ancient nomads that once roamed these open plains.

The paintings themselves are scattered throughout the mountain range, with the largest concentration being located on Mount Hei. The early paintings are dominated by scenes of hunting and feature a wide range of animals, including goats, sheep, antelopes, elks, moose, deer, horses, camels, wild ox, wild boar, rabbits, foxes, wolves, tigers, leopards, and even ostriches! Many of these species have since disappeared from the region, but these paintings act as a testament to their presence.

On many of the cliff-faces, a certain pattern emerges regarding the distribution of the paintings. While scenes of hunting and wild animals are found mostly towards the base or mid-point of the cliff, those of deities, celestial bodies, or constellations tend to be engraved high on steep cliffs or on giant rocks near valleys. This demonstrates an early veneration for religious figures and implies that, as with many primitive peoples, the nomads of the Yin Mountains associated the life-giving properties of water with the gods.

These early paintings were predominantly chiselled or ground into the rock using basic metal or stone tools, meaning they are often uneven in depth and density. The rock paintings of later periods are characterised by thinner and more superficial lines, which were formed by literally scratching into the rock-face using much slimmer utensils. As time went on and the paintings became more sophisticated, so too did their themes. Scenes of hunting are replaced by tableaus of herding and grazing domestic animals; the faces of anthropomorphic animal gods are gradually superseded by the distinctly human features of Buddhist deities; and simple skirmishes between different tribes become spectacles of brutal warfare. As society continues to advance at a rapid pace, these paintings serve as a poignant reminder of mankind’s humble beginnings.


black city 01

As wind whips the sand dunes across the Gobi Desert, the once illustrious Khara-Khoto or “Black City” is slowly being buried by sand. According to local rumour, it is inhabited only by ghosts and demons. Yet it wasn’t always a place of desolation and death. The city was founded by the Tangut people in 1032 as the capital of their Western Xia Dynasty (1038–1227) and soon rose to become a thriving trade hub. The fortified city was captured by Genghis Khan in 1226 but, far from being lost, it actually thrived under Mongol rule. During the Mongol-led Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), it expanded to three times its original size and was even visited by the intrepid explorer Marco Polo, who referred to it by its Tangut name of Etzina. The Tangut people, though subservient to the Mongolians, were able to enjoy a life of peace for a further 150 years under their rule.

However, as the Yuan Dynasty began to collapse, disaster loomed on the horizon. After a crushing defeat at Jiayu Pass in Gansu province, the Mongolians were driven out of China by the armies of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Many of the Mongolian troops made it to Khara-Khoto and were able to settle there, as the Ming army chose to concentrate on returning order to the provinces of China rather than pursue them. While the Ming Dynasty consolidated its power in China, the Mongolian armies waited on the outskirts and greedily eyed the possibility of conquering the country again. By 1372, Mongolian troops had begun massing at Khara-Khoto with the eventual aim of reinvading China. It was this bold move that would seal their fate.

black city 03No one knows exactly how Khara-Khoto fell, but local legend states that Ming troops laid siege to the city in that same year. The city was so well-fortified that they were unable to take it by military force, so instead resorted to far more cunning tactics! They found a way to divert the nearby Ejin or “Black” River, which was the city’s only water source. By denying it this precious lifeblood, the Ming troops choked the city without ever needing to set foot inside of its walls. As their gardens and wells began to dry up, the people of Khara-Khoto realised that they must make a terrible choice: die of thirst, or face the Ming soldiers in combat.

A Mongol military general named Khara Bator supposedly became so crazed by this plight that he murdered his wife and children before committed suicide, although another version of the rumour states that he made a breach in the northwestern corner of the city wall and escaped through it. Upon either his demise or his escape, the remaining Mongolian soldiers tried to hold out within the fortress. When the Ming armies finally attacked, they slaughtered the soldiers like cattle. Thereafter, the city was permanently abandoned and fell to ruin. It would be another 600 years before someone would finally uncover this ancient metropolis from beneath the dusty sand.

When Russian explorers Grigory Potanin and Vladimir Obruchev heard rumours that an ancient city lay somewhere downstream along the Ejin River, it sparked the interest of the Asiatic Museum (now the Institute of Oriental Studies) in St. Petersburg. In 1907, they promptly launched a new Mongol-Sichuan expedition under the command of Pyotr Kuzmich Kozlov. Within a year, Kozlov had discovered the Khara-Khoto ruins and obtained permission to dig in the site from a local Torghut lord named Dashi Beile, in exchange for a free dinner and a gramophone!

balck city 02During his initial excavation, he uncovered over 2,000 books, scrolls, and manuscripts in the forgotten Tangut language, including a Chinese-Tangut dictionary titled Pearl in the Palm. These treasures were sent back to St. Petersburg, along with Buddhist statues, texts, and woodcuts that were found in a stupa¹ outside of the city walls. Over time, further excavations would produce thousands more manuscripts, daily items, and works of religious art, and the site would even be visited by famous archaeologists such as Aurel Stein and Langdon Warner. While these precious relics have all been carefully housed in museums across the globe, Khara-Khoto remains open for any visitor daring enough to wander its haunted ruins.

Nowadays all that is left of this venerable city are the 9-metre (30 ft.) high ramparts, the 4-metre (12 ft.) thick outer walls, a 12-metre (39 ft.) high pagoda shaped like an upturned bowl, an assortment of crumbling mud houses, and the remnants of what appears to be a mosque on the outskirts of the city walls. With the Ejin River largely dried up and the sand dunes constantly moving on the wind, navigating the desert surrounding the city is treacherous and must be done with extreme care. If you’re feeling particularly brave, you can pitch a tent and stay overnight. Only then might you witness the fuel-less flames that burn for hours, the balls of light dancing in the desolate dark, and the sounds of raucous banging from unknown sources as the ghosts of Khara-Khoto welcome you to their humble home!


Stupa: A hemispherical structure with a small interior designed for storing Buddhist relics and for private meditation.

The Hulunbuir Grasslands

As one of the largest prairies in China, the Hulunbuir Grasslands represent some of the finest patches of untouched wilderness in the country. With over 3,000 rivers, 500 lakes, countless woodlands, and vast meadows making up its expanse, the grasslands are a treasure trove of natural beauty and wonder. Aside from the Greater Khingan Mountains stretching from its north to its south, the area is markedly flat and provides virtually endless views of its lush greenery. Many diverse ethnic groups call this verdant paradise home, from the Mongolians and the Han Chinese to the Manchu and the Daur people.

The grasslands themselves are named after two lakes that lie at their centre: Lake Hulun in the north; and Lake Buir in the south. Lake Hulun is the larger of the two, while Lake Buir lies partially within Inner Mongolia but predominantly in Mongolia proper. A dazzling local legend recounts the origin of these two lakes. There once was a brave Mongolian tribe who boasted a famous couple: a beautiful girl named Hulun, who was renowned for her skill at singing and dancing; and a strong boy named Buir, who was celebrated for his talent at riding and shooting a bow.

One day, a demon came to the prairie and threatened the safety of their tribe. The couple fought against the demon until the girl, realising they could not defeat it in combat, transformed into a lake and drowned the demon. By sacrificing herself, she saved the entire tribe. The boy Buir was so distraught at the loss of his love that he too turned into a lake. In short, rather than crying a river, he wept a lake! This is how the two matching lakes of Hulun and Buir came to be.

Pearl white yurts are dotted throughout the jade-hued grasslands, where farmers while away their leisure hours in the serenity of nature. Nowadays, while the grasslands and lakes continue to be popular tourist attractions, they are mainly used for grazing livestock and farming. Their vast fields abound in horses, sheep, cattle, cashmere goats, and even camels! In fact, the grasslands are held in such high esteem that any produce from the region, such as meat, milk, leather, or wool, is highly sought after. The low level of pollution in the area means that many Chinese people regard animal products from Hulunbuir as “purer” than those from anywhere else.

The region’s northerly location makes it warm and pleasant in the summer, but cold and snowy in the winter. During the summer, the grass looks as green as emeralds and the meadows are awash with a blanket of multi-coloured wildflowers. Visitors can spend blissful days galloping across the plains on horseback, riding camels, taking a tour on a horse-drawn cart, or paddling a boat out into one of the lakes. On festivals or special occasions, wrestling, archery, and horse racing competitions are held throughout the day. In the evening, the smell of traditional roasted lamb wafts on the air and people gather around crackling bonfires as the sun goes down. Even in ancient times, this place was renowned for its beauty and was immortalised in a Chinese poem, which describes it thusly: “The sky is blue, and the grass is boundless; when the long grass bows in the wind, suddenly the horses and sheep will appear”.

Ejin Banner

Ejin 01

Where hooves once thundered across the verdant grasslands, the feet of intrepid explorers now tread. Historically, Ejin Banner served as the hunting grounds of the fearsome Xiongnu people until the region was conquered by the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD) in 121 BC. In 1226, it was incorporated into the Mongol Empire (1206-1368) by Genghis Khan and, during the Mongol-led Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), it became home to a vast constituency of Mongolian nomads. The term “banner” is Mongolian and refers to an administrative division much like a county. Resting within the hostile Gobi Desert, Ejin is the westernmost banner in Inner Mongolia. It borders Gansu province to the southwest and Mongolia to the north. Although the majority of the population is now Han Chinese, it is still regarded as a culturally Mongolian region.

Not only is it larger than the provinces of Jiangsu and Zhejiang, it is so geographically vast that it is roughly the size of South Korea! Its name is derived from the Ejin River, which flows from the Qilian Mountains in Gansu province through to the Juyan Lake Basin within the region. Ejin Banner is famed for its diverse natural beauty and boasts one of the largest Euphrates or desert poplar forests in the world, which covers a colossal area of over 300 square kilometres (116 sq. mi). In autumn, the leaves turn a rich golden colour and the forest shimmers in the desert sun.

black city 01Within the Ejin Banner, the Juyan Lake Basin has been a site of historical importance for centuries. It once boasted the famed city of Khara-Khoto, known in Chinese as the “Black City” due to its proximity to the “Heishui” or Black River. This ancient metropolis was built by the Tangut people of the Western Xia Dynasty (1038–1227) and rose to become a major trading hub during the 11th century. Towards the end of the 14th century, a brutal war between the Mongolian army and the Han Chinese army of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) meant that the city was tragically deserted. Having dried up many years ago, the Juyan Lake and the Black River have long been lost to the sands of time. Nowadays, all that remains are the abandoned ruins of this once venerable city.



The Badain Jaran Desert

Badain Jaran Desert02

From singing sand dunes to unexplained lakes, the Badain Jaran Desert is marked by its mysterious natural wonders. It stretches across Inner Mongolia, Ningxia, and Gansu province and covers a colossal area of 49,000 square kilometres (19,000 sq. mi). Although it is considered part of the Gobi Desert, as an independent entity it technically ranks as the third largest desert in China. To the east, it is separated from the Ulan Buh Desert by Mount Lang, and only Mount Yabulai stands between it and the Tengger Desert to the southeast. To the southwest lies the famed Hexi Corridor, a major section of the ancient Silk Road; and to the west flows the Ejin River, which cuts it off from the hostile Taklamakan Desert.

While deserts are not typically known for their habitability, archaeological findings suggest that the Badain Jaran Desert was inhabited or at least ventured into by people from as early as the Paleolithic Era (roughly 2.6 million to 10,000 years ago)! During the Xia Dynasty (c. 2100-1600 BC), the area was settled by the Tangut people, who were known to have traded with merchants from the ancient region of Bactria (2200-1700 BC) in Central Asia. Nowadays the desert is a popular tourist attraction, with visitors flocking to marvel at its myriad of natural oddities.

The Badain Jaran Desert boasts some of the tallest stationary dunes on earth, with most of them averaging at around 200 metres (660 ft.) and some of them reaching over 400 metres (1,300 ft.) in height. Most of the dunes are not stationary, but the ones that are still have a shallow layer of sand at the top that is constantly shifting. It is the middle and lower layers of these dunes that remain static, as the sand in these layers has been compacted over a period of more than 20,000 years. This has caused the sand particles to harden, eventually transforming them into solid sand or sandstone.

The desert’s largest stationary sand dune, known as Bilutu Peak, towers in at a height of 500 metres (1,600 ft.) from base to peak, making it the tallest sand dune in Asia and the tallest stationary sand dune in the world. To put that into perspective, Bilutu Peak is over 50 metres (164 ft.) taller than the Empire State Building! While the size of the sand dunes is undoubtedly impressive, it is their capacity to sing that attracts tourists from across the globe. Often referred to as the singing sand dunes, whistling sands, or booming dunes, this fantastical phenomenon is shared by only 35 other beaches and deserts around the world.

For reasons that are not entirely known, the dunes emit a low pitched rumbling sound that can reach over 105 decibels and last for more than a minute. It is believed that the noise is caused by the electrostatic charge generated when wind pulls the top layer of shifting sand down the dune slope. However, it will only occur under very specific circumstances. The dunes are eerily silent during the winter, when the sand retains moisture from the rain. Even in the summer, this booming sound can only be generated on the leeward face of a dune with a slope that rises at an angle of at least 60 degrees or more. Although the booming dunes might be seasonal, it is possible to make the dunes burp all year round! By moving your hand gently through the dry sand of a booming sand dune, you can destabilise the upper layer of sand and cause it to emit a brief “burping” sound.

Between these sand dunes lies another of the desert’s strange secrets: over 140 colourful lakes scattered throughout its sandy expanse. These lakes are typically found in the valleys formed between the larger sand dunes and provide sustenance to the numerous camels, goats, and horses that are herded through the desert by nomads. Around many of the lakes, a green ring of vegetation sits in stark contrast to the barren desert that surrounds it. Some are freshwater lakes, while others are extremely salty. Large populations of brine shrimp, algae, and certain minerals cause some of the lakes to change colour at different times of the year.

Badain Jaran Desert01It is believed that the lakes are formed from melted snow and spring water that trickles down from the nearby mountains and runs under the desert in underground streams, although the true source of the lake water has yet to be found. On the southeastern margin of the desert, the lakes are long and shallow, reaching depths of less than 2 metres (6 ft.). These lakes have a much lower salt concentration than the deeper oval-shaped lakes found further in, which can reach maximum depths of up to 15 metres (49 ft.).

These verdant oases in the otherwise desolate desert have allowed more than just plant life to flourish. Situated on the banks of a lake in the middle of the desert, the Badain Jaran Temple has been a centre for Tibetan Buddhism since it was built in 1868. Its isolated location means it has been untouched by the warfare and unrest that typically plagued other temples in China. Elaborate statues, wood carvings, relics, and a small white pagoda have all been beautifully preserved within this ancient temple complex.

black city 02On the northwestern edge of the desert lies the Ejin Banner, which once served as the hunting grounds of the fearsome Xiongnu people until the region was conquered by the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD) in 121 BC. Nowadays its population is predominantly Han Chinese, but it is still regarded as a culturally Mongolian region. Within its vast expanse lie the ruins of Khara-Khoto, an ancient metropolis that was built by the Tangut people of the Western Xia Dynasty (1038–1227) and rose to become a major trading hub during the 11th century.

The unusual terrain in the Badain Jaran Desert means that these attractions can only be reached by hiring a special jeep. Unlike other vehicles, these jeeps are designed to drive on sand, and are capable of ascending and descending the sand dunes. The climate in the Badain Jaran Desert oscillates between the temperate arid and the extremely arid, so it is of paramount importance to be prepared on your travels. Temperatures can rise to a sweltering 41 °C (106 °F) during the day and plummet to −30 °C (−22 °F) at night. When the sun is at its hottest, sand temperatures can easily exceed 80 °C (176 °F), so be sure to don appropriate footwear. In short, choose boots that were made for walking, not melting!

The Spirituality of Mongols Ethnic Minority

Mongolian Spiritulity

Most Mongols follow a folk religion known as Mongolian shamanism, which is part of a much broader Central Asian faith called Tengrism. It combines numerous shamanistic[1] and animistic[2] elements, and is intrinsically intertwined with aspects of the Mongolian people’s tribal culture. However, during the Mongol-led Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), Buddhism grew in popularity throughout China and soon became mingled with Mongolian shamanism, producing a new branch of the religion that is often referred to as Yellow shamanism. It is so-called because it incorporates many features from the Gelug or “Yellow Hat” sect of Tibetan Buddhism. This serves to distinguish it from another form of the religion that adamantly rejected Buddhist teachings, known by the ominous title of Black shamanism.

Generally speaking, Mongolian shamanism is centred on the worship of deities, called tngri, and the God of Heaven or ultimate deity, known as Tenger. From the 13th century onwards, Genghis Khan was elevated from legendary conqueror to godlike entity, as he is considered to be one of the embodiments of Tenger. The Mausoleum of Genghis Khan in the city of Ordos serves not only as a monument to his historical legacy, but also as a religious centre where he is worshipped.

Within the pantheon of gods, the highest group are the 99 tngri, 55 of which are benevolent or “white” and 44 of which are malevolent or “black”. These are followed by the 77 natigai or “earth-mothers”, below which are numerous other deities of various types and functions. Historically the tngri were common to all clans, and could be called upon by special individuals known as shamans (böö) and shamanesses (udgan), who acted as intercessors between the human and the spirit realm. However, under certain circumstances, clan leaders, nobles, and even commoners could interact with the spirit world.

Mongolian spirituality 01After these core deities, there are three groups of ancestral spirits that were usually specific to a clan. The first were the “Lord Spirits”, which were the souls of previous clan leaders; the second were the “Protector Spirits”, made up of the souls of great shamans (ĵigari) and shamanesses (abĵiya); and the final group were the “Guardian Spirits”, consisting of the souls of smaller shamans (böge) and shamanesses (idugan). That being said, there was still plenty of room in the spirit realm for the little guys too!

Although they weren’t inducted as ancestral spirits, there were three further divisions of spirits that could be called upon in times of need: the white spirits of nobles from the clan; the black spirits of commoners; and the evil spirits of slaves and non-human goblins. Since delegation is as important to the spirit realm as it is to the business world, white spirits could only be called upon by white shamans and conversely black shamans were only permitted to contact black spirits. If a white shaman called on a black spirit, they would lose their right to summon white spirits, while if a black shaman dared contact a white spirit, he would be brutally punished by the black spirits.

The worshipping of these deities and spirits is primarily done at sacrificial altars known as ovoos or “magnificent shrines”. Ovoos are sacred stone heaps that are typically made from nearby rocks, wood, and strips of colourful silk. They vary in size and are often located in high places, such as at the top of mountains or within mountain passes. Each ovoo is meant to be symbolic of a deity, so there are ovoos dedicated to heavenly gods, mountain gods, gods of nature, ancestral spirits, and any otherworldly entity you could think of! Slaughtered animals, incense sticks, and libations all serve as worthy sacrifices when one is worshipping at an ovoo.

Mongolian ovoo 05If a Mongolian person happens to pass by an ovoo while traveling, it is customary to stop and circle the ovoo three times in a clockwise direction, as it is believed this will protect them during their journey. After that, they will usually pick rocks up from the ground and add them to the pile. In some cases, they might even leave offerings in the form of candy, money, milk, or alcohol. As modernity has crept in, these traditions have had to change, and it is now considered acceptable to honk your horn while passing an ovoo if you don’t have time to stop.

At the end of summer, ovoos become the site of Heaven worship ceremonies, where people gather to make offerings to Tenger. They first place a tree branch or stick into the ovoo and tie a blue ceremonial silk scarf to it, known as a khadag. This scarf is meant to symbolise the blueness of the open sky and Tenger himself, who is regarded as the sky spirit. They then light a fire and make offerings of food before taking part in ceremonial dances and prayers. Food left over from the offering ceremony becomes part of a lavish feast that is shared by all of the participants. After all, maintaining that religious fervour must really work up an appetite!



[1] Shamanism: The practice of attempting to reach altered states of consciousness in order to communicate with the spirit world and channel energy from it into the real world. This can only be done by specialist practitioners known as shaman.

[2] Animism: The belief that all non-human entities, including animals, plants, and even inanimate objects, possess a spiritual essence or soul.