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.

The Mongolian Ovoo

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Along the long and winding country roads of Inner Mongolia, strange mounds loom at the roadside, bedecked with colourful prayer flags and piled high with smooth stones. Known as ovoos or “magnificent shrines”, these sacred heaps are typically fashioned from nearby rocks, wood, and strips of colourful silk. In areas where rocks are too few, they can even be made from soil, sand, or tree branches. They vary in size and are often located in high places, such as at the top of mountains or within mountain passes. According to traditional Mongolian shamanism[1], 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. If 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, it is customary to pick rocks up from the ground and add them to the pile as an offering. Anyone who is specifically seeking a blessing from the gods will leave finer gifts in the form of candy, money, milk, or alcohol.

ovoo 01In fact, leaving an offering is such an integral part of the tradition surrounding ovoos that you’ll often find a variety of miscellaneous items underneath them, including old steering wheel covers, wooden crutches, empty liquor bottles, and even horses’ skulls! 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. While ovoos dedicated to the rich pantheon of deities in Mongolian shamanism tend to be for public use, those built for ancestral gods or village gods are often private shrines for a specific clan or shared by a certain village, banner, or league.

At the end of summer, ovoos become the site of Heaven worship ceremonies, where people gather to make offerings to Tenger, the God of Heaven according to Mongolian shamanism. 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, burn incense, 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.

The Mongol Ethnic Minority

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You might be surprised to find that Mongols, or Mongolians, are classified as one of the 55 recognised ethnic minorities in China. Yet there are approximately 6 million ethnic Mongols living in the country, nearly twice the population of Mongolia itself! While constituencies of Mongols are scattered throughout the northeastern provinces, the largest concentration can be found in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. That being said, what precisely defines the Mongol ethnicity is a subject that is under heated debate!

A Mongol is a member of an ethnographic group made up of a number of tribal peoples, who roughly share the same social structure, economy, culture, and language. Generally speaking, they are descended from nomadic pastoralists who lived on the steppes of Central Asia, were notoriously excellent horsemen, and travelled with their herds over vast grasslands. Frequent wars, tribal disagreements, and migrations caused a widespread diaspora, meaning communities of Mongols can be found throughout Central Asia.

Nowadays they can be roughly classed into a myriad of sub-groups, including: the Khalkha, the Dorbet, the Olöt, the Torgut, the Buzawa, the Chahar, the Urat, the Karchin, the Ordos Mongols, the Bargut, the Daur Mongols, the Monguors, and the Buryat. In spite of their shared ethnicity, each of these sub-groups has their own distinctive traits and customs. In China, even the Tuvan people are classed under the Mongol ethnicity, although their culture is considered to be wildly different from most Mongols.

Historically, the ancestors of the Mongols were small nomadic tribes, such as the Xiongnu, the Xianbei, and the Donghu, who roamed the regions surrounding the Argun River sometime between the 5th and 3rd century BC. They remained largely separate until the beginning of the 13th century, when an enigmatic warrior loomed on the horizon and threatened to irrevocably change the course of history.

In 1206, this powerful and persuasive clan leader called on all of the other clan leaders in the region to gather at a specific location along the Orkhon River in order to hold an assembly known as a kurultai. At this assembly, he persuaded his rivals to not only form an alliance and unite their separate territories, but to make him their ruler. His name was Genghis Khan. From then onwards, these tribal peoples were known as the Mongols and the Mongol Empire was born. With the formidable Genghis Khan at its helm, it grew to become the largest contiguous land empire in world history. Even after the Mongol Empire collapsed, his legacy would live on in his grandson, Kublai Khan, who conquered the entirety of China and established the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368).

It was the creation of the Mongol Empire that largely facilitated commercial and cultural exchange between China, Central Asia, West Asia, and Europe, while the Mongols openness to other cultures during the Yuan Dynasty led to an era of religious freedom where Tibetan Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity were all allowed to flourish in China. Alongside the Manchu, the Mongols were the only non-Han Chinese ethnic group to have taken control of China proper. As such, their contributions to Chinese history, culture, literature, language, medicine, and astronomy have been invaluable.

From bright white gers glittering like pearls on the grasslands to the strange and haunting sounds of Khöömei or Mongolian “throat-singing”, their unusual lifestyle has been a source of fascination for centuries. Time may have passed, but they have remained much unchanged: formidable on horseback, deftly accurate with a bow, fearsome in their wrestling attire, and unparalleled in their toughness.

Read more about Mongol Ethnic Minority:

Mongolian Spirituality       Mongolian Ovoo