Cultural Heritage on the Mongolian Plateau

The festive spirit of the season was interspersed with a touch of Mongolian festivity recently. A photography exhibition was curated by staff from ANU’s Mongolia Institute, in conjunction with a bi-annual Mongolia Update. The exhibition opening and the Mongolia Update was held on two consecutive days, with international delegates from Mongolia and Inner Mongolia attending the exhibition on the first evening, before presenting at the Mongolia Update the following day. The theme of both events was on the significance and importance of cultural heritage across the Mongolian Plateau.

Figure 1: Waiting for mounted archery to commence. Photo credit: Natasha Fijn.

Nomadic Culture and Heritage from the Mongolian Plateau: Mongolia Photography Exhibition

A photography exhibition entitled ‘Nomadic Culture and Heritage from the Mongolian Plateau’ was officially opened from 5–6:30pm on 26 November at the Centre on China in the World Exhibition space. The exhibition was open to the public for just over two weeks.

Four different series of images were showcased in the exhibition. In a photo essay along one wall, Natasha Fijn captured scenes during an international mounted horse archery event on the outskirts of the Mongolian capital, Ulaanbaatar. Li Narangoa, in a complementary series, contributed photographs from scenes at the summer Naadam in Kharhorin; the Mongolian Embassy contributed a series from a collection of photographers, featuring images from across the drier, more arid regions of the Mongolian countryside. The photographs are part of an initiative by the ‘Our Few Mongolians’ organisation. The fourth collection of images were collated by Dr Uchralt Odete, featuring photographs from the cultural heritage site of Xanadu, the former capital of Khubilai Khan’s empire in Inner Mongolia, with contributions from photographers from the region throughout the different seasons.

In conjunction with the Update and the exhibition, a traditional Mongolian home (ger) was set up on the ANU grounds under a grove of gum trees near the Coombs building in celebration of the circular yurt as an icon of Mongolian culture and heritage. The ger was a generous gift from the Mongolian Government to the Mongolia Institute at ANU.

Figure 2: Horse and rider performing in mounted archery event. Photo: Natasha Fijn.

Figure 3. Young archers and horses returning along runway. Photo: Natasha Fijn.

Mongolia Update

The bi-annual Mongolia Update is aimed at informing Australian Government, business and academic specialists, as well as the interested general public, of recent developments and trends in Mongolia’s politics, economics, society, culture and the environment. The 2019 Update was supported by the Embassy of Mongolia, with contributing scholars from The National University of Mongolia and The Inner Mongolia University.

Mongolia-Australia relations and cooperation have been successfully developing thanks to Australia’s growing interest in Mongolia and the reciprocal interest in Australia on the part of Mongolians. The update for 2019 included an analysis of cultural heritage, including the performing arts, literature, nomadic cultural heritage and Mongolian medicine. Unlike the previous four Mongolia Updates, this year included presentations from and on the broader Mongol cultural areas, including Mongolia, Inner Mongolia in China and Buryatia in Russia.

A Welcome to Country, followed by a didjeridoo performance, was followed by Mongolian traditional music played on a horse-head fiddle (morin khuur), a 21-stringed Mongol instrument (Master Yatug-a), accompanied by traditional Mongolian dance. In introducing the Update, Li Narangoa commented on the complementarity between Aboriginal and Mongol music and the joint underlying importance of a connection to the land. At intervals, the performers from the National Grand Drama Theatre of Mongolia played throughout the Update.

Former Minister of Culture, Sport and Tourism and popular author, Oyungerel Tsedevdamba, gave the keynote for the conference, giving an update on the current issues surrounding cultural heritage in Mongolia, nicely setting the scene for the proceeding speakers.

This year, there were two speakers from Inner Mongolia, Erhenbayer, Deputy Vice Chancellor from Inner Mongolia University, who spoke about the preservation of Mongolian literature, while Gereltu spoke about the importance of traditional Mongolian medicine in a framework dominated by modern biomedical practices.

Ariun-Erdene Bayarjargal from the ANU College of Business and Economy gave a presentation on the challenges of a rapidly changing economy to peoples’ lives in Mongolia. Lhagvademchig Jadamba from the National University of Mongolia presented on Buddhism in relation to current perceptions about Mongolian national identity, as well as the broader Buddhist geopolitics across the Asian region.

Gegentuul Baloud, based at Macquarie University, spoke about contemporary Mongolian wedding costumes with regard to performance within the current cultural economy in Inner Mongolia. Recent ANU doctoral graduate, Jonathan Ratcliffe spoke about the epic hero Gesar in relation to the preservation of cultural heritage in Buryatia, Russia. The former Australian Ambassador to Mongolia gave a presentation on the significance of cultural heritage in Mongolia from a diplomatic Australia-Mongolia perspective.

Narantuya Chuluunbat, Deputy Vice Chancellor at the National University of Mongolia, gave the final concluding address, summarising the important themes featured by the other presenters during the conference, while integrating this with her own observations about the current economic situation surrounding cultural heritage implications in Mongolia. The audience consisted of representatives from the Mongolian Embassy, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, diplomatic representatives with an interest in Mongolia, and interested ANU staff and students and academics who engage with Mongolian studies from other Australian universities.

Figure 4: Musicians performing at the Mongolia Update. Photo: Natasha Fijn.

ANU Students in Mongolia 2018, Post No. 3 ‘Eagle Hunting’

Eagle Hunting: Marketization of Traditional Practice

By Lucy Xu

Photo: Christopher Michel (CC BY 2.0).

The 6000-year-old tradition of eagle hunting in the far west of Mongolia is a fascinating aspect of Mongolian culture that first drew me to the country. I did a little background reading on eagle hunting before coming to Mongolia on the ANU study tour, and was aware that there are now fewer than sixty ‘true’ herders who hunt with eagles left[i]. Imitation eagle hunters have been cropping up across the country, capitalizing on a growing tourism industry. I witnessed this at popular monuments like the Zaisan Memorial, and along major roads. The changes in attitude toward eagle hunting culture, provides a lens for studying the impact of environmental and economic transitions in the modern century.

 

Eagle hunting, or falconry, is practiced in the rugged Altai Mountains by ethnic Kazakhs, but was once practiced across Mongolia among nomadic and noble families alike. Hunting is generally passed down from fathers to sons, but not exclusively so, with daughters also allowed to participate. Hunters capture chicks from their nests at the top of cliffs, selecting females (as they are larger and fiercer) with the strongest claws and eyes, to train with them for around six years. They live and hunt together for another five or six years, before the eagle is repatriated back into the wild to breed and continue the line of hunting birds. Done in its traditional form, this practice is sustainable, with minimal ecological impact.[ii]

 

In 2010, UNESCO inscribed eagle hunting as a practice on the Representative List of Intangible Heritage of Humanity. Eagle hunting was commended as an ancient cultural practice and in order to safeguard its legacy.[iii] The annual Golden Eagle Festival was initiated to ensure continued visibility of the tradition, in a manner that ensures adherence to certain levels of ethical and humane treatment, but the practice has become susceptible to exploitation.

 

Environmental challenges, particularly the changing climate (with harsh summers and catastrophic winters, including severe weather conditions known as dzud), as well as overgrazing of Mongolian lands in recent years has meant a loss in livestock numbers and a decrease in biodiversity. The impact of Mongolia’s economic transitions have meant that more Kazakh families send their children to the cities to earn incomes to supplement pastoralism, leading to an influx of herders seeking employment in the city, or to take advantage of opportunities facilitated by the burgeoning mining industry.[iv]

 

The small, but growing tourism sector, has spurred the exploitation of eagle hunting as a form of business, capitalizing on the market brought by tourists and travellers. As a result, imitation eagle hunters, often not upholding the customary process and violating ethical standards of treatment, have flourished as informal trade. The marketing of Mongolian values and customs can also be witnessed across other areas, as a result of increasing tourism.

 

During my time in Mongolia, I wish I had been able to see the unique bond of trust and companionship shared between a Kazakh hunter and the golden eagle. Instead, in the heart of the city, beneath tourist destinations, and along the highway, I witnessed shadow imitations of the practice. Eagles were chained to posts, often in the heat without shade or water. Tourists were told to ‘shake their arms’ to make the eagles spread their wings for stability and to look more impressive for the camera. It was heartbreaking to see such conditions and the departure from fundamental values connected with eagle hunting that makes it so rare and precious.

 

[i] Denhoed, Andrea. ‘The Golden-Eagle Hunters of Mongolia’ The New Yorker (20 October 2015) https://www.newyorker.com/culture/photo-booth/the-eagle-hunters-of-mongolia

[ii] Carney, Matthew. ‘Is this teenage Mongolian girl one of the last eagle hunters — or the first of a new breed?’ ABC News (2 May 2017) http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-05-02/mongolian-girl-keeps-ancient-eagle-hunting-tradition-alive/8481956

[iii] Ali, Hajar. ‘An Insight into the Life of the Kazakh Eagle Hunters’ Culture Trip (22 November 2016) https://theculturetrip.com/asia/mongolia/articles/kazakh-eagle-hunters/#

[iv] Stamboulis, Dave. ‘Mongolia’s 6,000-year Tradition’ BBC Travel (28 September 2016) http://www.bbc.com/travel/story/20160926-mongolias-6000-year-tradition