15 March 2013

Mongolia's sacred ovoos

Travel across the landscapes of Mongolia and you'll frequently come across small mounds made up of rocks and stones. In the forest steppe regions, these mounds often consist of branches of trees. Look more closely and you will see steering wheel covers, plaster casts, crutches, empty bottles of vodka, sweets, small pieces of dairy products such as cheese and blue scarves. Here's your introduction to what they symbolise



Honouring the sacred spirits of Mongolia at an ovoo - Chuchee Mountain, high over Lake Khovsgol

A Sacred Landscape

Mongolia is known as the 'Land of the Eternal Blue Sky' and the Mongols practised ancestral Shamanism worshipping the Eternal Blue Sky (Tenger) and the many spiritual forces of nature. In 21st Century Mongolia a combination of Shamanistic and Buddhist belief remains as an easy and unselfconscious part of Mongolian life. The stone shrines are known as ovoos - erected by local families and travellers to show gratitude and respect, and to honour the spirits of the surrounding land.

Travelling Etiquette

They are circled three times in a clockwise direction and a small offering made in order to ensure the safety of the trip or to ensure good fortune in life. You don't need to find a plaster cast or consume an entire bottle of vodka - small stones are enough of an offering. The discarded casts, crutches, steering wheel covers and food offerings are people's ways of giving thanks for better health, a safe journey or maybe thanking the spirits for the much-needed rain.

As Tim Severin wrote in 'The Search of Genghis Khan',
'With time, the ovoos become strange spiritual junk heaps piled with the debris of Mongolian life - a rickety construction of anxieties and hopes.'
Don't be alarmed if you see a horse's head. The horse is a symbol of strength of spirit, freedom and independence - an honoured animal for a Mongolian herder and often when a herder's best horse dies, the spirit of the animal is honoured by the head being placed on an ovoo. This ovoo is at Jigleg Pass en-route through to the Darkhad Depression from Lake Khovsgol.
Travel through Mongolia and on your journey you will be accompanied by road side ovoos - stopping and circling them is almost guaranteed to become a memorable part of your Mongolian experience.Ovoos are an integral part of Mongolian life and any visit to Mongolia. The scarves (known as khadag) are the traditional ceremonial scarf of Mongolia and represent the Eternal Blue Sky. You will also find prayer flags (known as Wind Horses) and with either, the essence and the image of the prayer scarf/flag is activated when the wind blows and creates auspicious energy for the area in which the flags/scarves are located.

Before you leave Mongolia, make sure you circle an ovoo and leave a khadag to fly in the wind - it's a delightful custom and you will leave a little of yourself in the magnificent country that is Mongolia. 
Travel through Mongolia and on your journey you will be accompanied by road side ovoos - stopping and circling them is almost guaranteed to become a memorable part of your Mongolian experience.