Avançar para o conteúdo

Blog: Orkhon River Ovoo Ceremony, Mongolia

August 12, 2022

By Troy Sternberg

On a beautiful summer’s day a large family reunion took place on the idyllic steppe. Bathed in sun, several large tents had been set up on the grassland below the revered hilltop. It was a typical Mongolian scene – elders sitting at tables under the festive tents, children playing and running around, food and fermented horse milk (airag) in abundance and several Landcruisers and SUVs parked behind. It felt like a celebration as we drove up, the vehicle spilling out Japanese researchers, Mongolians from Mogod Soum, Bulgan Aimag and Troy. New people! The kids and teenagers ran over to talk with us in many languages. Japanese! English! What a surprise in this rural haven, lush grass cascading into the nearby Orkhon River.

Eating, talking and waiting for the ceremony. Photo by Troy Sternberg

Parking lot. Photo by Troy Sternberg

We were invited to the main tent and introduced. Of course, this was followed by a bowl of airag for all. It became clear that this was a family gathering, perhaps a clan. Many ages and generations were there, all dressed in ritual finery, dels and ceremonial hats. All were welcome, though our connection was less than clear. Had the Japanese professors met them previously? Was this an annual event? Was there a motivating reason or cause for the celebration? In Mongolian style the particulars were not important, they would emerge in time. First one must eat, relax and talk; later the details could be explained. The one hundred kin were in a festive mood.

Tents and Monk’s ger. Photo by Troy Sternberg

The assembly was a relative group, all tracing their lineage to a Buddhist monk from pre-Soviet times. In 1922 he had consecrated the hilltop, recognised by putting an ovoo on the summit. Today was the centenary of the event. Though for 70 years any mention of an ovoo ceremony was forbidden, this narrative had been reconstructed and accepted by all present. The story emerged that the Soviet government destroyed all the monasteries and expelled the monks. Thus the ancestor eventually got married, starting a family which led to all the participants at the commemorative ceremony. Chosen as an auspicious day, this was the 2nd gathering of the family at this site. The previous reunion had been 9 years before. This was a tribute to the ancestor as family members made speeches in his honour. Surprisingly, no one lived in the local area.

The event was much anticipated by the family. Plans were made months, even years ahead of time by those living outside Mongolia. Two families had lived in Japan for twenty years. This explained the fluent Japanese and cultural knowledge. The Japanese professors said they spoke flawlessly. One daughter had spent most of her life in Japan and had received a scholarship to study Maths at Nagoya University (known for environmental research in Mongolia). Several of them, especially the teenagers, spoke English as well.

The group was waiting for the monks to arrive from the capital to perform the ovoo ceremony. So we talked, walked about the several tents, explained where we were from and expressed a desire to see and share in the ovoo ritual. In time an SUV arrived. Out spilled four monks. Music over loudspeakers greeted the city guests. Without an introduction they were taken into a ger to be welcomed and fed by the family elders. Their next appearance was walking outside eating sheep meat off the bones. Amongst much expectation and anticipation the monks then emerged in full robes ready to conduct the ovoo ceremony.

Parking on hill. Photo by Troy Sternberg

Though only a few hundred meters uphill most people drove their vehicles and reparked near the ovoo. There at the top was a significant ovoo. Large, >2 metres high and several metres in circumference, next to the ovoo stood a tall structure (see photos). This was adorned by additional posts in an unusual display at the ovoo. Scarves were wrapped around a stick in the ovoo centre.

Walking to the hilltop. Photo by Troy Sternberg

Ovoo. Photo by Troy Sternberg

Ovoo external structure. Photo by Troy Sternberg

Ovoo #2. Photo by Troy Sternberg

Gradually the monks commenced the ceremony. This involved much time setting up and testing the microphone and amplification. Then came an orderly walk around the ovoo with the senior monk sitting closest to the ovoo. An incense fire was lit that effectively swathed the proceedings, lending a spiritual tone. Family members filtered in, talking, jovial, ready for the afternoon’s programme. Horse dung smoke were placed about. It appeared the most traditionally dressed sat closer to the monks and the ovoo. Women and men intermingled; children flitted around the hilltop.

Ovoo external structure #2. Photo by Troy Sternberg

There was no apparent introduction or beginning. The monks simply started chanting a repetitive verse. At a break three family members spoke some words – perhaps of thanks, or a benediction. The senior monk held the microphone, and sated from lunch, gave a relaxed drone, catching his breath and continuing. After some minutes the microphone was passed to the second monk to recite the words. Throughout cymbals and bells rang, a small drum kept a beat. At some point a new chant started, all stood up for this. The audience listened attentively, then focus gradually drifted. The sun was shining. In the foreground was the majestic Orkhon river. There was no other interaction between the monks and observers. An attendant ensured there was water and airag for the monks to drink. Another added incense to the fire. The chanting continued; the afternoon’s pattern was set.

Chanting in action. Photo by Troy Sternberg

The essence was the ritual to honour the family’s shared ancestor, the hilltop now named after the monk. People listened with passing interest, watched the free children, checked their mobile phones. Thus, the ceremony appeared to be process rather than content. It was not clear that listeners understood the chants. Each had roles to perform, the monks were external validation of reverence given to the event and imbuing importance to the proceedings. There was not a sense of dominant action or phase to the recitations. This was the performance that drove and enabled the reunion, the serious part of the afternoon. The event marked time, relations, recognition of the past and present.

Ovoo ceremony. Photo by Troy Sternberg

An explanation was that the three-hour ceremony encouraged people to pray and reflect. This was for relatives, nature, one’s hometown. Happiness and good things were considered. The elders respected the lamas, the process and ritual. Food was important, a whole sheep was cooked, including the head. There was airag, aaruul, milk and fruit for all. It was important to share the feast. There were presents for children and elders. It was uncertain when the family would next gather. Tonight, the family would camp on the steppe.

Festival. By Troy Sternberg

So the afternoon softly drifted on. It was a successful gathering of a cheerful family. People were jovial, happy, in good spirits. The Japanese vehicles, the families living abroad, the children at university, the display of tents and food reflected prosperity and standing. After an hour a visiting professor suggested we had stayed sufficiently long to be polite. That was the cue to slowly disengage and depart. Attention was slack, no one seemed to mind. We eased our way downhill. There our driver was eagerly waiting to depart. We eased over the grassland, waving goodbyes. A few hills further on we stopped, discussed the remarkable afternoon. One professor had had too much airag. We snacked on curds and cold meat, drank tea and enjoyed the excursion. We were back to Mogod in time for dinner.

News Archive

Amadu Djaló is a PhD student in African Studies at the Instituto Universitário de Lisboa (ISCTE-IUL) supervised by Joana Roque de Pinho. His thesis focuses on alternative models of development in a remote island community of Guinea-Bissau. For the MYNA project he is assisting with a systematic review on religious change(s) and environmental change(s) in drylands. 

Richard ole Supeet is a Kisonko Maasai pastoralist living in Loitokitok, Isinet, Kajiado County, Kenya. He is from the Ilaiserr clan, Iloodokishu subclan. He is of the IIkidotu age-set, and also farms. By profession, he is a teacher. He owns a local private school through which he aims to lift the standard of education in his community. Richard is also an experienced research assistant who has worked on multiple research projects. Richard and Joana Roque de Pinho worked closely together from 2000 to 2004, and again in 2009 when he took part in the documentary “Through our eyes: a Maasai photograhic journey” (2010)  by Lindsay Simpson & Joana Roque de Pinho 

Batbuyan Batjav is a social-economic geographer who has worked on nomadic pastoral issues in Mongolia for two decades. A former Director of the Mongolian Institute of Geography, he has been a Visiting Scholar at the University of Oxford, Colorado State University, University of Arizona and Cambridge University. He is dedicated to strengthening pastoralism as a viable contemporary livelihood.

Lenaai ole Mowuo is a Loita Maasai from Kenya, and belongs to the Ilmeshuki age-group and the Ilaiser clan. He keeps cattle, sheep, goats and bees; grows beans, maize and potatoes; and is also a boda-boda (motorbike taxi) rider. Lenaai has worked as a research assistant and a co-researcher in several research projects since 2007, and features in the film All Eyez on Me! (2021). In the MYNA project, he contributes to the Loita case-study that explores the links between land demarcation, the expansion of new churches and cultural change.  

Stanley ole Neboo, 36 years old, married with two children, is a livestock keeper in the Maasai Mara, Narok County, Kenya. Stanley studied business management, tourism, and conservation. He currently works as a freelance safari guide and is the Chairman of the Talek River User Association (Talek WRUA). He is one of the filmmakers in the award-winning participatory documentary “Maasai Voices on Climate Change (and other changes, too)  (2013; Jean Rouch Award for Collaborative Filmmaking). He contributes to the Maasai Mara case study with research on the role and position of Evangelical churches vis-à-vis rapid changes occurring on the land (fencing, climatic instability, land selling, conservation) and in family life.

Lhagvademchig Jadamba

Dr. Lhagvademchig Jadamba, in the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology, National University of Mongolia, is a cultural anthropologist specialized in Buddhist studies. His interests include religion in post-socialist Mongolia, religious diplomacy, Tibeto-Mongolian Buddhism and Buddhist art and literature. He is currently a Visiting Professor at the Center for International Studies (CEI), University Institute of Lisbon (ISCTE) and lives in Portugal with his family. He is also an advisor to the National Security Council of Mongolia. 

Batbuyan Batjav is a social-economic geographer who has worked on nomadic pastoral issues in Mongolia for two decades. A former Director of the Mongolian Institute of Geography, he has been a Visiting Scholar at the University of Oxford, Colorado State University, University of Arizona and Cambridge University. He is dedicated to strengthening pastoralism as a viable contemporary livelihood.

Megan Wainwright has a BA in Anthropology (McGill University) and MSc and PhD in Medical Anthropology (Durham University). She has worked as an independent research consultant since 2018 and lives in rural Portugal. She is passionate about research methods and the contribution anthropological and qualitative research approaches can make beyond disciplinary boundaries. She has expertise in qualitative evidence synthesis and is working with members of the MYNA team on a systematic review of the relationship(s) between environmental change(s) and religious change(s) in drylands. She also produces podcasts and provides methodological support to the project.

Zaira Tas graduated from her BA Liberal Arts and Sciences: Global Challenges in 2022 and has focused her studies on environmental sustainability and development. She has a particular interest in how the environment and human society interact and affect one another. She joined the MYNA team as a consultant, working on a systematic literature review examining the relationship between religious changes and environmental changes in dryland areas. She also accompanied team members on a recent field trip to Kenya, where she assisted with project management and interviews.

Angela Kronenburg García is an anthropologist, whose work has focused on resource access and land-use change in African drylands. She contributes to the MYNA project with case-studies in Mozambique and Kenya. In northern Mozambique, she explores how the expansion of Christian commercial farming is changing land use in a region that is partly Muslim and where the local population largely depends on small-scale (subsistent) farming for a living. In Kenya, she studies how the re-start of individual land demarcation, the proliferation of Evangelical churches and changes in Maasai culture connect in Loita.

Troy Sternberg Extensive travel led to Troy’s interest in desert regions, environments and people. Research focuses on extreme climate hazards (drought, dzud), environments (water, steppe vegetation, desertification) and social dynamics (pastoralists, social-environmental interaction, religion and environmental change, mining and communities).

Joana Roque de Pinho is an ecologist and environmental anthropologist whose research focuses on changing West and East African sub-humid and dryland social-ecological systems; and how members of rural natural-resource reliant communities experience and understand environmental changes. She is most passionate about collaborating directly with rural community members as collaborative researchers/visual ethnographers through participatory visual research methodologies. For the MYNA project, she explores the intersection of religious transformations with livelihoods, land tenure/use changes and climatic instability. She contributes a multi-sited Kenyan case-study that explores the neglected role of Christianity in Maasailand’s social-ecological dynamics, and participates in the Mongolia and Mozambique case studies.