Ovoo and nature

Kind and hospitable nomads living in a wild nature, that is the gist of what citizens of other nations have to say about the Mongolians. However, one of the things that this people revere the most must not be forgotten. They love their delightful fresh air, their dear green steppes, their beautiful mountains, lakes, rivers, forests, and taiga, but the reason for this love is a secret. The Mongolians have been shamanists from olden times, but the magicial beings of this shamanism and the magic of their shamans reside in the sky and the landscape, the mountains and the waters. This peculiar belief of old tradition is still very much alive today. In socialist times, people openly distanced themselves from this practice, but in their hearts, they never forgot these cults, which continued unbroken. They exist for all mountains, lakes, rivers, old trees, and hills of Mongolia. The objects of veneration are called "Ius" (water spirit, nymph, naiad) and "savdag" (mountain spirit, local genius). In other words, the mountains, waters, ranges, deserts, plains,and steppes of Mongolia all have their local deities. If you offer and pray to them, giving them your best tea and milk, you and your offspring will gain their favour and have a long life, wealth, and happiness. However, if you disrespect them and do harm to mountains, waters or trees, evil will befall you for several generations. Therefore, whenever people move to a new location, they first worship the water and mountain spirits, beg for leave to settle in that place, and appease them offering their choicest food.

The author's father is a man who roams about the wide steppes ot" Mongolia and befriends her beautiful nature, her mountains, lakes, and rivers. Whenever he returns from one of his long and dangerous journeys to distant parts, he brings back some interesting folktales and legends, too. According to his stories, the water and mountain spirits have all kinds of different characters. Some are fierce and harsh; some are mellow and placid. For everyone of them there is a special incantation and a special offering. Once my father was camping near a gorgeous mountain in Uvurkhangai aimag (province) with a group of travellers, and he was leading. They were sweaty, tired, hungry, and thirsty after a long march. My father, being their guide, decided to go hunting on that beautiful, nearly untouched mountain in order to get his trekkers a broth of fresh meat. So he put his ever­present rifle on his back and started to climb. Right in front of him, a fat mountain marmot was whistling. My father loaded, aimed, and shot. The marmot, however, not only did not move, but also calmly continued its whistling without any signs of being troubled. My father, astonished, raised himself up. A bit further, a herd of deer was wandering downhill, making a racket. He chose the fattest, took his aim, and "bang" came the shot, but they, too, did not seem frightened by the noise and peacefully continued their browsing. When he was heading down to the camp again after several other unsuccessful attempts, the locals came to meet him. "You have made a lot of noise on the mountain of that fierce spirit who does not allow the sound of gunfire," they scolded, "You must quickly soothe him". In his travels through the country, my father always reads sutras and says prayers to pacify the mountains, passes, and majestic peaks. He says, "The worshipping I usually do has saved me from a big sin. The water and mountain spirits have deflected from the game the deadly bullets I fired. If they had not done so, I would have fallen into a debt that a man cannot pay back in a lifetime."

Worshipping and protecting nature has been a particular inclination of the Mongolian people from ancient times. Respecting mountains and honouring rivers is a widespread habit. Even today, Mongolians worship and venerate nature. The "Mother Rock", resembling a woman with a traditional Mongolian hair dress, and the old "Shamaness tree", of a similar form, the "Wind-Horse ovoo (cairn)", "Dayan Deerkhiin Ovoo", the "Golden Ovoo", "Shiliin Bogd Ovoo", and "Songino Khairkhan" are famous places said to have been possessed by mountain spirits for centuries. The people of Ulaanbaatar have their Four Mountains, to which they pray and offer their best food and drink. Especially on the first morning of the Mongolian New Year, the inhabitants of the capital can be observed making offerings to these, localities. This is to insure good luck for one's family, children, and activities in the coming year.

People may lie to each other, but they cannot behave like this towards natural deities. The common herders tell many tales about water and mountain spirits that have been confirmed to be true even by scientific standards. These incidents have been investigated, but no ordinary explanations have yet been found. Persons who contracted incurable diseases or suf­fered losses in their family after cheating mountain or water spirits and using their offerings for themselves are still living among the Mongolians today.

We know that nature is alive. However, for the Mongolians the custom of worshipping and honouring their Mother Nature as described above is something essential, yet mysterious, an indestructible living religion. Therefore, people erect stone "ovoos" (cairns) on every peak and on every mountain pass as an expression of their pious feelings and decorate them with "khadags" (ceremonial strips of blue silk). A traveller on a far journey will then pray at these "ovoos" and add stones to them as a token of his reverence.