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Naadam (Nadam, Nadaam)

Type of Holiday: Sporting
Date of Observation: July 11-13
Where Celebrated: Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
Symbols and Customs: Airag, Archery, Eagle Dance, Horse Racing, Uukhai Song, Wrestling


The sporting and cultural festival known as Naadam dates back more than 2,000 years, to a time when the nomadic tribes that inhabited Mongolia celebrated the skills-strength, speed, and marksmanship-on which their survival depended. They held competitions in what they called "the three manly games"- ARCHERY , HORSE RACING , and WRESTLING -before going into battle and after winning a war, and often when a new king was crowned. When the legendary Genghis Khan united the nomadic tribes and became ruler of the Mongolian Empire in the early thirteenth century, the games' popularity was widespread, and the top competitors were often war heroes. Starting sometime in the seventeenth century, the games were held in conjunction with Buddhist religious holidays, and then, beginning in 1922, they were held to celebrate the anniversary of the revolution that drove out the Chinese and led to the establishment of the Mongolian People's Republic. Nowadays, Naadam, which means "game" or "competition" in Mongolian, is primarily regarded as a traditional sporting event that celebrates the Mongolians' proud history and culture. Although smaller competitions are held throughout the country, the main Naadam celebration takes place in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar for three days in July. Spectators and competitors arrive from all over, setting up their ghers or yurts-the collapsible canvas and felt tents stretched over a wooden framework used by the early nomadic tribes-on the open grasslands surrounding the capital. The festival opens with a huge parade of monks, military brass bands, and athletes dressed in traditional Mongolian costumes. Three days of fierce competition and equally enthusiastic merrymaking follow. Although the festival still focuses on the "three manly games," women are now allowed to compete in everything but the wrestling.



Airag is made from fermented mare's milk. It is a popular drink in Mongolia and a traditional cure for everything from digestive ailments to anemia, tuberculosis, and impotence. The winning five jockeys (usually children) of the HORSE RACING event are each given a cup or bowl of this beverage to drink, and they sprinkle the remainder over their horses so the animals can share in the victory celebration.


The archery contests held during Naadam date back to the time of Genghis Khan, but archery itself has played an important role in Mongolian history since 300-200 B . C . E . The Mongols use bows made from layers of wood, horn, birch bark, fish glue, and other traditional substances, which make them very strong and difficult to bend. The arrows are made from the wood of willow or pine trees, with heads made of bone and vulture feather "fins" that help them travel farther. The target is unusual as well: a wall of leather cylinders that is placed about seventy-five meters away from the male archers and sixty meters from the women; for younger competitors, it is placed at a distance of three (for girls) or four meters (for boys) per year of age.

Archers compete as individuals as well as in teams. The men shoot forty arrows and the women twenty, wearing a special glove to protect the hand that pulls back on the string and protective clothing around the arm that pushes against the bow. Referees standing near the target raise their arms and sing the UUKHAI SONG when the target is hit. The winner of the archery competition is honored with the title of mergen, which means "sharpshooter" or "marksman."

Eagle Dance

The devekh or eagle dance is performed both before and after the WRESTLING competition. With arm movements that imitate an eagle in flight, the dance serves as a warm-up exercise beforehand-not to mention a way of displaying the competitor's well-developed physique. At the end of a round, the loser must walk under the winner's arm, and the winner then performs the eagle dance again, this time to symbolize his invincibility.

Horse Racing

The horse was for many centuries as central to the nomadic Mongolian way of life as the car is to the lifestyle of modern-day Americans. Although most Mongolian families no longer raise their own horses, herdsmen continue to do so for the races that are such an important part of Naadam.

What makes the Naadam horse races so different from races held elsewhere is that instead of running around a track or set course, the race is run in the open, over distances of roughly ten to twenty miles (depending upon the age of the horse) of grasslands with many natural obstacles. Although originally the competitors were adult men riding horses who had not yet been broken, today's jockeys are young children aged five to twelve who have been riding horses since they were born. Their lighter weight poses less of a burden for the horses, who have been specially trained for this event by charging up steep hills in midsummer heat, wrapped in sheepskins, and who are of a pony-like breed that can run for hours without getting tired. Although the young jockeys, many of whom prefer to ride bareback, are very skillful when it comes to maneuvering their horses, knowing just when to restrain them and when to let them run at full speed, falls and injuries are fairly common. The winner of the race is the horse that successfully completes a round trip-with or without its rider-from the starting line out to a designated point and then back again. The start of the race is particularly exciting, with all the young jockeys circling the starting line yelling "Giingo!"-an ancient Mongolian war-cry.

The fact that the winning horse receives more attention than its rider-songs of praise are traditionally sung in honor of the five horses that come in first-is an indication of the symbolic role horses have played in the survival of the Mongolian people. Even more significant is the fact that after the medals are awarded to the winners, the losing horse and its rider are invited up to the judges' stand, where the national storyteller (similar to the poet laureate of the United States) recites an ode designed to cheer up the jockey and give him the confidence to try again the following year.

Uukhai Song

Sung during the ARCHERY competition, the folk song known as uukhai is an ancient one, dating back to the days when the distance from the archer to the target was about three times as long as it is now. Because the judges were standing near the target and the archer was too far away to hear them, they would start singing the Naadam

uukhai song as the archer drew back his bow and then, through hand signals and changes in the song's melody, indicate how accurate the shot was.


Wrestling has always been the most popular sport in Mongolia, dating back thousands of years. It differs from American wrestling in two important ways: there are no separate weight classes and no time limits. It is possible, therefore, to see a relatively small man wrestling with someone twice his size, or to see two wrestlers locked together for long periods of time, each waiting for the other to make a false move. All of the wrestlers wear small, tight briefs or loincloths, velvet caps, boots with turned-up toes known as gutuls, and a small jacket known as a zodog that covers only the arms and the back of the shoulders, leaving the chest bare so that the competitors can prove their manliness. Many of them look more like Japanese sumo wrestlers than their somewhat trimmer American counterparts.

The wrestling competition goes on for two days, with hundreds of wrestlers from all over Mongolia competing simultaneously. The trick is to get one's opponent to lose his balance and touch the ground with a knee or an elbow, after which the winner performs the celebratory ritual known as the EAGLE DANCE . The winning wrestlers are awarded titles-"Falcon" if they win five rounds, "Elephant" if they win seven, and "Lion" if they win all of their matches. If a Lion goes on to win the following year, he earns the title of "Titan," and subsequent wins add epithets like "Nation-wide" or "Invincible" to his title.


Freeman, Dave, et al. 100 Things to Do Before You Die: Travel Events You Just Can't Miss. Dallas: Taylor Pub. Co., 1999. MacDonald, Margaret R., ed. The Folklore of World Holidays. Detroit: Gale Research, 1992. Trawicky, Bernard, and Ruth W. Gregory. Anniversaries and Holidays. 5th ed. Chicago: American Library Assocation, 2000.


Center for the Study of Eurasian Nomads


Mongolia Today Magazine
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009


July 11-13
This Mongolian festival, sometimes spelled Nadaam, spotlights three major sports events. Its history goes back to the 13th century when Marco Polo described a gathering of 10,000 white horses. Mongolian chieftains, after meeting for parleys, competed in horse racing, archery, and wrestling, the "three manly games" for a Mongolian. Later, the fairs included women and were held in July or August when the pastures were lush and the horses well-fed.
Today Naadam is held from July 11 (Revolution Day, a legal holiday in Mongolia) to July 13 in provinces throughout the country. The chief Naadam is in the stadium in Ulaanbaatar, the capital. In Inner Mongolia (the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region of China), Naadam is celebrated on July 20-26 on the Gogantala Pasture and at Lake Salim in the prefecture of Xinjiang. Other Naadams are held as people desire.
The fairs bring together the nomadic people who pitch a city of yurts or gers, felt tents. Wrestling is usually the first event; at Ulaanbaatar, several hundred participants make a grand entrance in special tight-fitting costumes that leave the chest bare, proving the wrestler is male, though today wrestlers often wear only tight shorts and boots. A legend has it that long ago many men were once defeated by a woman, thus the costume had to expose the chest. Titles awarded to top wrestlers are Falcon, Elephant, Lion, and Titan, and their prizes are silk scarves and horses.
The second sport is archery, a sport of great antiquity—sixth-century Mongols hunted hares with bows and arrows while riding at full speed. Modern contests are both on foot and horseback.
The last of the traditional sporting events is horse racing. In the national Naadam, the featured race is for children from around the ages of 6-10 who cover cross-country courses ranging from 5 to 30 kilometers. When night falls, a bowed stringed instrument called a matouqin is played, and people sit by their yurts talking, dancing, and drinking aromatic butter tea and kumys, a drink made of fermented mare's milk.
Mongolian Tourist Board
State Administrative Bldg.-14
Sambuu St.-11
Ulaanbaatar-38, 210628 Mongolia
976-11-318-493; fax: 976-11-318-492
United Nations Office in Mongolia
12 United Nations St.
P.O. Box 46/1009
Ulaanbaatar, 210646 Mongolia
976-11-327870; fax: 976-11-324683
AnnivHol-2000, p. 115
FestWrld: Mongolia-1999, p. 20
FolkWrldHol-1999, p. 432
HolSymbols-2009, p. 605
Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.