Mongolian traditions and customs

What traditions and customs are there in Mongolia?

Overview of the customs and traditions of Mongolia.


Food in daily life

Approximately twenty-five million head of cattle supply the staples of the diet; meat and dairy products figure prominently in this cuisine. Mongolian cuisine is generally very simple and does not use many spices, flavors, or sauces.

Common dishes include steamed meat dumplings (buuz), lamb noodle soup (guriltai shul), and fried meat dumplings (huushuur). Mongolians drink copious amounts of milk tea (“suutei tsai”), which often contains salt and a generous spoonful of fresh or rancid butter.

Food customs on ceremonial occasions

Food is an important element of the Mongolian hospitality tradition. Upon guests’ arrival, each household is provided with a special hospitality platter containing homemade cheeses, flour cakes (‘bordzig’), sugar cubes and sweets.

The fattest animals are slaughtered to be eaten. Meat-filled dumplings are traditionally served to guests. Vodka shots are served at regular intervals during a celebration.


Traditionally, families were the main unit of production in this cattle-raising society. The kinship system was patrilineal, with sons generally establishing households in a common camp with their fathers.

Marriages were arranged by parents and a nuptial dowry (usually made up of animals) was negotiated based on the families’ social status. The 20th century norm became for children to choose their own marriage partners with less extensive parental involvement.


Hospitality has always been extremely important in Mongolian culture. Since visitors often travel great distances, there are many ritual ways to show courtesy, especially to guests.

One of the customs left over from feudal times is the tobacco bottle ritual: a guest and a host offer each other their tobacco bottles for examination as part of a greeting ritual. Guests are usually expected to be served the best possible food and vodka to be plentiful as well.


Religious beliefs

The main religion is Lamaism, which is the Yellow Sect of Tibetan Buddhism. Until the 16th century, shamanism was the dominant religion in Mongolia. Lamaism was introduced to the population by the leader Altan Khan (1507-83). In the 18th century, the Manchus further promoted Lamaism as they preferred Mongol men to become monks rather than warriors.

Parallel to the Stalinist period in the Soviet Union, the communists carried out massive religious purges in the 1930s. More than 700 monasteries were destroyed and thousands of monks were killed.

In the post-socialist period, Buddhism is experiencing a revival and young people are relearning Buddhist practices from their elders who still remember them from their own childhood.

About 5 percent of the total Mongolian population are Sunni Muslims, mainly ethnic Kazakhs in the western region. After 1990, Western missionaries came to Mongolia and began to proselytize; there may be as many as several thousand Mongolian Christians today.

Religious professionals

As the importance of Lamaist temples grew in society, each Mongol

the family was encouraged to have a son who would be raised in a temple and become a lama. Fewer women became nuns, although there were some who followed this career path. The training of the lamas focused on theological studies and learning to perform elaborate ceremonies for the people.

Since many temples had extensive libraries, some lamas were also trained in subjects such as astronomy, astrology, mathematics, and medicine. Although a small percentage of the temples remained intact under socialism, most were dismantled and the lamas returned to the general workforce.

In the post-socialist era, those familiar with Lamaist traditions are now in great demand to educate young people who have not received any formal religious training.

Rituals and sacred places

For centuries, Lamaist temples played a central role in community life and were an important meeting place for nomads living at considerable distances.

Although many temples were destroyed under socialism, some remained standing, including three main temples that were preserved as showcases of traditional culture: Gandan Monastery (Ulaanbaatar), Erdene Zuu Monastery (Ovorkhangai), and Amarbayasgalant Monastery (near Ulaanbaatar). Darkham).

Death and the afterlife

Funerals were traditionally an important and expensive event for Mongolian families. Substantial monetary gifts were usually given to the lamas to pray for the welfare of the spirit of the deceased.

Receiving consultation from the lamas on the handling and disposition of the body was considered very important to prevent future misfortune from occurring in the family. Others in the community typically provide gifts of animals and money to help the family at the time of the funeral.

Secular celebrations

The main holidays are the New Year (January 1); Lunar New Year or Coche Tsagaan, meaning “White Month”, a three-day public holiday with variable dates between late January and early February); Women’s Day (March 8); Naadam, anniversary of the Mongolian Revolution of 1921 (July 11-13); and Mongolian Republic Day (November 26).

The arts and humanities


Since the Mongols were always highly mobile, most of the art forms that became popular were portable and involved little or no equipment, such as epic poetry, literature, music, and dance.

The most famous epic poem of all time is “The Secret History of the Mongols”, a long poem describing Genghis Khan’s rise to power and the creation of the Mongol Empire. This poem was written in the mid to late 13th century and was supposed to be hidden from non-Mongols.

Folk tales also played an important role in oral literature and their themes ranged from love to heroism to supernatural acts. Modern literature has been heavily influenced by Western literary styles, especially Russian literature.

Graphic arts

The nature and types of graphic arts found in Mongolia are also influenced by the nomadic heritage. Everyday items such as saddles, horse blankets, trunks, and knives were often highly decorative.

Painting and sculpture can be found in permanent buildings, such as temples, throughout the country. Religious themes dominated traditional painting and sculpture because these art forms were largely produced in Lamaist temples.

The Ulaanbaatar Museum of Fine Arts has an extensive collection of paintings, sculptures, and other religious objects from different eras. Scroll-shaped paintings called tanka depicting the various gods and saints of Lamaist Buddhism that decorated all the temples.

These paintings were imported from Tibet and created locally by the lamas. Tanka came in a variety of sizes and were often painted on cotton or silk. In the post-socialist period, it has become increasingly popular for Mongolian families to own a tanka and display it in their homes.

Under socialism, local artists produced their own substantial body of Soviet -encouraged socialist art, which is less in favor today.

Performing arts

Performing arts have been widely practiced in Mongolia for centuries. Today there are many professional and amateur theaters and musical organizations both in the capital and in other cities of the province.

In both socialist and post-socialist times, the government has supported the performing arts, subsidizing touring shows of operas, plays, ballets, folk music and dance, and circuses. The most important folk instrument is the morin khuur (horse’s head fiddle), a stringed instrument whose name comes from the carved horse’s head on the tuning pegs.

The morin khuur has a trapezoid-shaped body, a leather soundboard, and two strings that are played with a wood and horsehair bow. Playing from a seated position, the musician supports the morin khuur on his knees.

In many areas of the country, men were traditionally expected to know how to play the morin khuur. It is often played in conjunction with the tovshuur and the shudraga (two banjo-type stringed instruments). Other instruments used in folk music include transverse and vertical flutes, drums, cymbals, gongs, and tambourines.

Like poetry, vocal music is very important in this culture and there are multiple types of popular songs. Herding songs and work songs are the most typical and can have specific purposes (for example, a herding song to call animals that have gone astray, or a work song sung while setting up camp).

Other popular song types include yurol (blessing songs), maatgal (praise songs), urtyn duu (long songs performed by professional singers with operatic training), and khoomei (overtone singing in which a performer combines humming and whistling to sound as if several people were singing at once).

In the post-socialist era, the country’s youth have embraced Western music, and there are quite a few nightclubs in major cities where you can dance to the same pop music that tops the charts in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere in Asia. A growing number of local rock groups are playing whose music is mainly sold in Mongolia, but can sometimes be found in other Asian countries as well.

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