Mar 12, 2014

Naadam: The Mongolian Festival of Manly Arts

When I was at Indiana University (1982-84), I was ostensibly studying for a M.A. in English, but there were so many options that I ended up rushing around all over campus, taking courses in Mandarin Chinese, Russian folklore, South Asian anthropology, and even Mongolian Civilization at the Department of Central Asian Studies.

The professor told us abut the Naadam Festivals that celebrated the Eriin Gurvan Naadam, Three Manly Arts: wrestling (Bokh), horse racing, and archery.  The biggest is held in the National Sports Stadium in Ulaan Bataar and broadcast on national television, but there are smaller Naadams every July across the country.

Wrestlers wear a distinctive costume: a short jacket that just covers the arms, tight-fitting shorts, a cord around the belly, and leather boots.  There are no weight or age divisions, so it is common to see men of vastly different sizes competing.  The goal is to get your opponent onto the ground without touching his legs.

Every wrestler is accompanied by a zasuul, a combination coach and cheerleader, who encourages him with words, songs, and an occasional slap on the butt.

I was definitely interested in seeing hundreds of muscular Mongolian athletes in shorts grabbing at each other. Unfortunately, going to Mongolia was out of the question during the Cold War, and even today, it's a long haul for Americans, a 20-hour flight with layovers in Tokyo and Seoul. (Maybe worth the effort for bodybuilders, Buddhist monasteries, and the Kharkhorin Penis Stone).

But there are about 20,000 Mongolian immigrants in the United States and Canada, and every July since 2000 they have been holding their own Naadams in Vancouver, British Columbia; San Francisco; New York City; Arlington, Virginia; and Bloomington!

Because of space limitations, they usually omit the horse racing and the archery, and concentrate on the Manly Sport of Wrestling. Plus dancing, cultural displays, and food.

I never saw Westerners participating, but they did on this episode of Last Man Standing.

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