16: Two wrestlers do intense battle in Tsengel. There are no time limits to a round and some wrestlers engage in a waiting strategy, patiently hoping the other will tire - at which point he can be thrown. Photo: Ayesha Sitara

TSENGEL and HVOD – In a distant and violent past, Mongolians were once Asia’s most feared warriors, trampling the world under the hooves of their ponies, sacking cities and driving their enemies before them.

In the gentler days of the 21st century, the great khans and their fearsome cavalry armies are long gone, but Mongolia’s warrior heritage lives on.

That heritage was on full display this summer at Naadam, a centuries-old traditional festival and Mongolia’s foremost national holiday. After a two-year hiatus due to Covid, 2022’s event ran from July 11-13 across the nation’s villages, towns, cities and provinces.

Naadam is deeply rooted not just in the warrior ways of yore, but also in Mongolia’s nomadic customs and pastoral way of life. It focuses on three martial sports: wrestling, archery and horse racing.

It is manly stuff. As the country adapts to modernity, women can now participate in archery and horse racing but bokh – Mongolian wrestling – remains an all-male affair.

The festival kicks off with a traditional dance called biyelgee accompanied by musicians playing traditional instruments such as the morin khuur. Traditional cuisine, such as khuushuur (meat filled pastry) and traditional booze, such as  airag (fermented horse’s milk), is consumed with gusto.

Although Naadam features a wealth of often quirky nomadic folk games – such as solving puzzles and smashing the knuckle bone with one’s palm – the biggest crowd puller is bokh.

It is said that the Emperor Chinggis (Genghis) Khan initiated bokh to keep his warriors strong and fit. For wrestlers today, winning a big tournament is a matter of great pride, honor and prestige. The biggest is the Naadam held in Ulaanbaatar, the capital city of Mongolia. 

So, what are the rules of bokh, what are the special garments, what techniques are allowed and disallowed, and how is the winner crowned “Lion,” or tournament champion? 

Ayesha Sitara, a Hong Kong-based documentary photographer, witnessed the spectacle this year, first in a small village in Tsengel district and thereafter in the provincial capital of Hovd, Hovd province.

Sitara was immediately hooked. Below, she provides a gallery of this timeless spectacle of Asian machismo to readers or Asia Times. 

1: Wrestlers wait before the opening round in a village in Tsengel district, Bayan-Olgii Province, Mongolia. The story goes that a woman once participated, won and bared her naked breasts – so since then only males are allowed to participate and must wear a bare-chested jacket. Photo: Ayesha Sitara
2: A father sews up a son’s zodog (jacket) in Tsengel, Mongolia. The zodog is a bare-chested, long-sleeved jacket made from cotton and silk threaded with fiber and strings attached at the chest. Wrestlers usually prefer red or blue, similar to the colors of the Mongolian flag. Photo: Ayesha Sitara
3: The shuudag is a tight-fitting pair of briefs made of silk and cotton and woven with soft leather strings and fiber. This is also worn in blue or red and is kept short and tight for flexibility – as well as to prevent the opponent from easily getting a hold of you. Photo: Ayesha Sitara
4: The wrestler’s pointed hat, with a knot at the top, represents the five regions of the Buddhist government and its four sides represent the four old provinces of Mongolia. Stripes on the red tail mark the wrestler’s achievements and a silver badge on the front of the hat signifies a rank earned. Photo: Ayesha Sitara
5: The gutal are handmade cow leather boots with pointed toes. Special long socks are inserted to prevent slipping inside. A beginner or lower-ranked wrestler is not permitted to decorate his boots but ranked and champion wrestlers will ornately decorate the outside of their footwear. Photo: Ayesha Sitara
6: Registering to participate in the wrestling tournament in Tsengel, Bayan-Olgii province. Any male can sign up and there are no category restrictions of weight or age, but the total number of participants in a tournament must be an even number. Photo: Ayesha Sitara
7: Wrestlers performing a dance imitating an eagle or hawk in the city of Hovd. Before the start and end of each round (known as davaa), they raise their arms, swinging them from side to side, followed by slapping the back of their thighs twice and the front once to show their strength and ferocity. Photo: Ayesha Sitara
8: An intense match between two wrestlers at the Naadam Festival in Hovd, the capital of Hovd Province, gets underway. The round starts from a standing position and a wrestler’s hand can touch any part of the opponent’s body except the head. Photo: Ayesha Sitara
9: A little girl runs around collecting flowers, apparently oblivious to furious battles underway to her rear. Wrestlers are not allowed to strangle or strike their opponents. Photo: Ayesha Sitara
10: Up, up and away: A wrestler heaves his opponent off the ground in Hovd. Wrestlers are not allowed to lock arms around the opponent and so most often grab the thighs or legs to throw. Photo: Ayesha Sitara
12: A heated tussle during the Naadam festival in Hovd. Size doesn’t guarantee a win; balance, agility and mental composure are also vital. Photo: Ayesha Sitara
13: A wrestler gets his leg into the crotch of his opponent as the zasuuls (coaches) look on in Hovd. A wrestler’s skill lies is in how he uses various techniques in quick succession – flowing from grips to trips to lifts to throws. Photo: Ayesha Sitara
14: A wrestler hits the deck in Tsengel. When any part of the body other than the soles of the feet touches the ground – known as uvdug shoroodoh (“knee dirtied”) – he is defeated and his opponent proceeds to the next round. The loser will have to wait until next year for another try. Photo: Ayesha Sitara
15: A brawny wrestler bleeds from the eyebrows in Hovd. Although the intention is to defeat the opponent without hurting him, in bokh as in other contact sports, some injuries are inevitable. Photo: Ayesha Sitara
16: Two wrestlers do intense battle in Tsengel. There are no time limits to a round and some wrestlers engage in a waiting strategy, patiently hoping the other will tire – at which point he can be thrown. Photo: Ayesha Sitara
17: Crowds cheer the action. Mongolian wrestling is one of the most watched sports in the country, on both television and in stadiums. Judicious crowds are well educated in the body movements, vitality, skill, strength and patience of top wrestlers. Photo: Ayesha Sitara
18: The winner walks under the arm of the loser in Hovd. Normally, the loser will untie his zodog strings and walk under the arms of the winner, but if the loser is a higher-ranked player, out of respect, the winner walks under the loser’s arm – as is the case here. Photo: Ayesha Sitara
19: The winning wrestler distributes sweets to the fans in Hovd. After winning, he received sweets or aaruul – dried curd – an important source of nutrition among Mongolian nomads. Photo: Ayesha Sitara
20: The bemedaled chest of a champion wrestler from Tsengel Province. Before being crowned champion, a wrestler receives various named ranks depending on the round. Rounds are named after birds of prey and powerful animals, such as the falcon, kestrel and elephant. Winning the final round earns the title of “lion.” For the ultimate accolade – to be crowned double champion, or avarga – he will have to wait until the following year. Photo: Ayesha Sitara