Mongolian art and culture
INFORMATION FOR TRAVELERS
MONGOLIA ARTS AND CULTURE
The art of the ancient Mongol is rooted in, and
component of, nomadic culture and folk art.
Art in Mongolia began with the impressions and expressions of feelings on
rock. Ancient petroglyphs created before recorded history, and later, various
Shaman symbols and sacred place identifications, bring us the voices and visions
of the ancestors. These works usually depict hunting trophies and domesticated
livestock, and more rarely, people and even carts with wheels.
The oldest examples of rock painting in Mongolia are located at Khoit-Tsenkher
Cave in Hovd Aimag. Painted in ochre on cave walls, these Stone Age paintings
depict mammoths, sheep and ostriches. Later, cave paintings from the Bronze Age
show animals, hunting scenes, carriages and various symbols.
The traditional Mongol zurag or painting style is developed from these
prehistoric rock paintings. This style of painting has long brush strokes which
taper at the end. It also tends to feature bright colours. In addition, Mongol
zurag has the following features:
Paintings usually show subjects from traditional nomadic life;
The paintings usually do not focus on a single subject but instead show many
There is no perspective in the paintings. Regardless of distance, everything is
shown in the same proportion.
Rock and cave paintings are, however, not the only important Mongolian early
artwork. The earliest examples of monumental sculpture known, not only in
Mongolia, but in Central Asia in general, are deer stones. Considered by some to
be the only genuine monument produced by nomadic art, deer stones are generally
made from grey granite or marble and measure between two and five metres in
height. Related to the religion of Shamanism, they are thought to mark the
graves of important kings or warriors and are often located in groups of five or
more. Altogether around 550 deer stones have been found in Mongolia and around
200 in the Eurasian countries surrounding it.
The deer stone can be divided into three sections representing the three worlds
of ancient Central Asian mythology: the sky, earth and the underworld. The top
part of the stone shows the sun and the moon, representing the sky; the center
shows a deer or other hoofed animal representing the world of the living whereas
the bottom part shows bows and arrows, swords and sometimes deities representing
the underworld. The deer, which is usually represented in silhouette with a long
snout is an important symbol for Mongolians, and is believed to be able to carry
the spirit of the dead to the next life.
The other major type of monument found in Mongolia dates to the Turkish Empire
between the 6th and 8th century AD. These human monuments are placed at graves
facing the direction of the sun. The figures may be shown seated or standing,
and are usually holding rituals cups against their chests, a symbol that they
are participating in their own funerary banquet. In front of the statue there
are usually a number of uncarved stone blocks, known as balbal. These may
represent the number of enemies defeated by the buried hero.
Another example of very sophisticated workmanship and artistic abilities of
early Mongolians are the ancient relics found in at the Hunnu tombs of "Noyon
Uul" which date back to between 1AD and 3BC. Jewellery, pottery and other early
artwork have been found here but the most well regarded piece is a felt carpet
which dates back around 2,000 years. The carpet shows a scene depicting a
predator attacking an elk. The genre and style of the work is reminiscent of
classic Greco-Scythian art, although it is a real Mongol folk art creation,
since it is a piece of everyday practical utility. The technique of design is
genuine Mongolian handwork style.
Even though Mongolians have traditionally been a nomadic people, there is a long
history of permanent settlements in Mongolia. One of the first of these is the
city of Khar Balgas which was the capital of the Uighur Empire between the 8th
and the 10th century AD. Built on the Orhon River, the city had streets and
separate commercial and residential areas and a number of different religions
including Christianity and Buddhism. Its ruins can still be seen today.
The Kidan Empire, which developed soon after the fall of the Uighurs, brought
about a period of urbanization in Mongolia. A network of cities (156 in total)
was developed along the trade route, and traces of Buddhist temples and frescoes
have been found in the remains of these settlements.
Later, during the empire of Chinggis Khan in the 12th century, the great capital
of Karakorum was established. The French monk William Rubruck (ca. 1210-ca.
1270) had the distinction of being the first European to visit the Mongol
capital on the Orhon River to return and write about it. Rubruck had decided to
undertake a mission to the Mongols primarily in the hope of converting them to
Christianity. His roundtrip journey lasted the better part of three years.
William described Karakorum: "In the Saracen quarter there was a market and many
streets. In the Chinese quarter lived the craftsmen. Besides there were people
of various nationalities, religion and faith, and twelve idol temples of
different nations. In the outskirts of the city there were two mosques of Islam
and one Christian church." It seems that during that time, the Christian
religion was preached in a Nestorian version of doctrine.
In fact, although Buddhism was present during the Uighur and Kidan empires, as
well as being the religion of choice of Chinggis Khan's grandson, Kublai Khan,
it wasn't accepted as a state religion until a meeting with Alta Khan and the
leader of the Yellow Order of Buddhism from Tibet in 1578. Around sixty years
later the son of Gombodorj, the "Tusheet Khan", who was the grandson of
legendary Avtai Sain Khan, was enthroned in 1639 as a theocratic monarch with
the name Zanabazar. He contributed greatly to the history of the Mongols and was
a pioneering role model in fine arts, especially sculpture. For more information
on the sculpture of Zanabazar. For centuries after the adoption of Buddhism in
Mongolia, Buddhist-related art was the predominate form of art created in this
country. There was at that time a whole network of locations in medieval
Mongolia where professional craftsmen were trained. The most famous among them
were Ikh Khuree, Zaya Khuree, Ikh Tamir Khuree, Bereeven Khiyd monastery
complex. Generally, artists were also monks (lamas), and the actual creative
process was also a spiritual one. Both art and architecture from this period
draw heavily from Tibetan and Chinese traditions, with some specifically
Mongolian elements woven in.
Indeed, the architecture of monasteries in Mongolia is particularly interesting.
This architecture was influenced by Chinese and Tibetan styles but many
monasteries also reflect the traditional architecture of the ger. These temples
are built with the same basic framework as a ger, with the felt covering
replaced with wood or stone, and the windows or shutters located at the top of
There are also Tibetan style complexes, like the Erdene Zuu compound, which was
erected on the ruins of Karakorum. At this unique site, visitors are able to
enjoy the ancient architectural and fine arts in one. Currently in Erdene Zuu
monastery compound there are 11 monasteries. Zanabazar was assassinated by the
Manchu Emperor in 1723 and Amarbaysgalant monastery was erected in Selenge aimag
on Iyven river in memory of him. This monastery is another unique site
representing an important stage of architectural art development in Mongolia.
The complex is laid out on a north-south axis and the buildings are Chinese in
style, but the roof structures are not like anthing else found in China or
In temples throughout Mongolia, the art relates to the gods and devils of
Buddhism. Often Buddhist dieties are presented in a form of icon portraits, with
surrounding accessories and symbols, painted with pigments on paper or cloth.
There are also appliqué pieces, which involve embroidery and sewing of various
cut silk details onto a background silk.
Another fine example of Buddhist art is the Undur Janraiseg statue located in
Gandan monastery in Ulaanbaatar which was constructed in praise of prosperity of
the 8th Bogdo Javzandamba Khutagt, the theological monarch and was devoted to
Aryabal Burkhan, one of Gods in Buddhism.
In Buddhist art, the masks of the Tsam ritual dance were also one of the main
artistic streams. These masks were created in 17th and 18th centuries by the
master team headed by Puntsag-Osor and formed the basis of traditional Tsam
ceremonies held on special days throughout the year.
For more information, please see Two-Dimensional Art and Three-Dimensional Art.
Thousands of years of nomadic life and the destruction of Mongolia's
Buddhist monasteries in the 1930s have greatly limited the survival of
pre-twentieth century Mongolian visual art. Still, the earliest examples
of Mongolian painting, petroglyphs, date to more than two thousand years
ago. Significant paintings also remain from the Uighur people, who lived
in the 8th century.
Mongolian art experienced a sort of renaissance beginning with the
flowering of Buddhism in Mongolia during Zanabazar's time, 1635 - 1723.
From this time until the shift to socialism in the early 1920s, much of
the subject matter in Mongolian art was Buddhist. The work of artists,
who were generally also monks, was used as objects of worship. The most
common media in religious two-dimensional art were mineral pigments on
cloth and appliqué (pieces of cloth stitched together and embroidered to
form an image.) Applique was especially suited to Mongolian life, as it
was easy to transport and held up well in the dry climate, as opposed to
paintings, which might be damaged by the climate and the wear and tear
of frequent rolling and unrolling. In addition, many monasteries were
engaged in printing sutras and religious texts by woodblock.
With political and social changes beginning in the early 20th century, some
artists began to move away from purely religious art and focused more on people
and everyday life. B. Sharav, who was educated as a monk, was a painter who
adjusted as his world changed and linked the old with the new in his art. The
Mongolian way of life is depicted in his famous work "One Day in Mongolia,"
which combines traditional Buddhist art aesthetics with secular subject matter.
With the support of the Soviets, the People's Republic of Mongolia was
established in 1924, and in this year B. Sharav painted a portrait of Lenin.
This adaptability of Sharav's illustrates a huge shift in Mongolian art: works
created during the period under Socialism were dedicated to publicizing the new
system. In the 1930s, Stalinist purges destroyed most monasteries and killed
many monks in Mongolia. Also, in the early 20th century, a new aesthetic was
introduced, as Mongolian artists were exposed to Western-style oil painting. In
order to develop Mongolian art systematically, specialized artists were trained
and specialized agencies were established in Mongolia. In the 1940s, the
Mongolian government began sponsoring art students' travel and study in the
Soviet Union. During this time, Socialist Realism and 19th century Impressionist
styles dominated art produced by Mongolians.
In the 1950s many genres of fine art, carpet and porcelain production were
introduced in Mongolia and developed. During this period many artists and
architects became very famous for their thematic work, namely, painter O.
Tsevegjav for animals (photo 6), U.Yadamsuren for workers, N.Tsultem and G.Odon
for history and everyday life, L.Gavaa for nature, and architect S.Choimbol for
The 1960s and 70s saw two interesting trends in Mongolian art. One is that
after decades of almost solely working in Soviet and early-Russian styles, some
Mongolian artists began to incorporate the older Mongolian aesthetic into their
pieces, which remained Socialist in tone. Thus, for example, one finds stylized
flowers, clouds, and rivers surrounding the Mongolian seal and all the ethnic
groups; or, an idyllic Socialist scene very reminiscent of Sharav's "One Day in
Mongolia." Also, the technique of applique resurfaced, especially in the
mid-1960s when the government commissioned a number of applique works to
celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Revolution.
A second trend during these decades and beyond was that Mongolians began to
look outside the Soviet Union for influences to Eastern Europe. Their work began
to show more individualism: artists began refusing to use realism, linear
perspectives, and harmonization of colors, and explored other techniques of
painting. However, throughout these decades, the government kept a close eye on
art, and was known to close exhibitions, punish artists with fines, and denounce
abstract work as bourgeois. One banned piece was "The Mother's Love," by O.
Tsevegjav, painted in 1968.
In 1990, Mongolia changed to a multi-party system and market-based economy.
This meant both positive and negative influences on the art world. With the
change in the economy, inflation and supply shortages caused widespread poverty,
and the Socialist system's support of the arts collapsed. But it also meant the
beginning of the revival of Buddhism, and freedom for artists to express
themselves without restrictions on subject matter or style.
Deer carvings on stone slabs are the earliest examples we have of
Mongolian sculpture, dating to around the Bronze age. Thousands of these
stones, most of which are scattered across the Mongolian countryside,
are evidence of the skill and value of sculpture in ancient Mongolia.
One of Mongolia's most famous sculptors, Undur Gegeen Zanabazar, (1635 -
1723) was also a painter, architect, monk, high religious leader, diplomat, and
politician. He created sculptures in gilt bronze of Buddhist deities. There is
not much known about the artistic training of Zanabazar, although he was
ordained in Lhasa, Tibet at the age of fourteen when the Potala Palace was being
built, and no doubt came into contact with many artisans at that time, and when
he returned to Mongolia, he was accompanied by many lamas and craftsmen. His
work also has many characteristics in common with the sculpture of Nepal. Yet he
developed a unique style, and all sculptures by him and from the Zanabazar
School are finely resolved, possess elegant detail, mastery of the human form,
and exude life. Zanabazar laid the foundation for the depiction and praise of
the human form in Mongolian sculpture.
Mongolian contemporary sculpture, like two-dimensional art, has been heavily
influenced by western styles. There are many famous contemporary sculptors,
including S. Choimbol, A. Davaatseren, N. Jambai and L. Dashdeleg. The monument
to D. Sukhbaatar in Sukhbaatar Square by S. Choimbol is a symbol of the People's
Revolution in Mongolia and gives an impression of our country to foreign
visitors. It is a portrait of the revolutionary on horseback, depicted in
Another example of 20th century monumental sculpture is Zaisan, by Ts.
Dorjsuren, located on a hill overlooking Ulaanbaatar. It is a monument to
Russian soldiers and to the friendship between Mongolia and the Soviet Union.
Its composition includes a soldier holding a soaring concrete flag, and an
elevated concrete ring, decorated on the outside with medals and the inside with
a mosaic depicting pertinent revolutions and history of the twentieth century.
In the center of the ring a flame was sometimes lit.
An example of work created since the end of the Socialist era in the early
1990's is L. Bold's "Homage to the Repressed." Its break from realism and social
statement are both possible in the new freedom in which Mongolian artists work.
Also, the the last decade, a few Mongolian artists have begun to venture into
creating installation and land art. One of these artists, S. Dagvadorj, uses
ordinary Mongolian objects such as stones (used as toys), stirrups, and dung
(used for fuel), to create installation pieces that break down barriers between
the viewer and the art.
Mongolian nomads' homes, clothes, weapons , and way of life are
impossible to imagine without Mongolia's unique crafts, patterns, and
embroidery. A special aesthetic has developed from the common things
used in the everyday life of nomads over thousands of years.
The beginning of the decorative arts in Mongolia dates back to
pre-Bronze Age, with cave paintings. These can be found throughout
Mongolia, but the highest concentration of cave paintings are in the
mountains of western Mongolia, in the provinces of Hovd and Bayan Olgii.
The Bronze Age saw the development of molten metal and zooform art. An
example are the "deer stones" one can find dotting the Mongolian countryside:
stone slabs with simplified, stylized deer carved in relief. Fortunetelling
conglomerations of animal figures and animal body parts characterized the art of
the Hunnu and Bronze Age people who lived in Mongolian territory.
These peoples also decorated various cloth with embroidery, developed
applique, and stitched felt art. Hunnu goldsmithing technology developed
rapidly, and since their time, coin design has been paid special attention by
the people of this area. The Hunnu also developed pottery techniques, such as
creating vases by hand or by a turning method with a lock up mechanism. The
Syanbi people made fur clothes and traveling bags with perforated embroidery,
and their women wore tall headgear. The Uhuani peoples' leaders were also their
expert artisans: they were able to make bows and arrows, weapons, embroidery,
woven items, and processed leather. During the Tureg Age, people created silver
plates, golden jugs with floral motifs, and linear animal figures.
The Uighur people were an influential group who lived in the 8th century.
They made gold earrings, horses' bits for the first time decorated by continuous
ornament, and vases with wave motifs. People of the Khyatan state (911-1115)
capably developed all kinds of craft and embroidery art because they viewed art
and culture to be as important as politics and government. They elected wise
leaders who were equally skilled in the making of weapons, saddle, bow and
arrow, etc. Many stone masons lived in this century. Also during this time, a
process of firing pottery in green, yellow, and black porcelain and enamel was
During the time of Chinggis Khaan, traditional craft and embroidery art were
enriched with influences from foreign cultures. Applique art was dedicated to
Buddha and reached a classical degree of development. This art was an extension
of the early folk embroidery in the countryside. To decorate the royal palace,
exaggerated, stylized forms of animals on felt and silk were ornately
embroidered. In the largest cities of Great Mongolia were many beautiful palaces
decorated by such crafts and embroidery.
The 19th and 20th centuries made up an energetic period of development of
craft and decoration. At the end of the 19th century, popular craftspeople,
embroiderers, and artists gathered to create Ganjuur and Danjuur, two books of
about 300 volumes, and Duinhor's Loilon.
Tsam dance, a Buddhist religious dance, flourished in the time leading up to
Communism, and many fine examples of the elaborate constumes used in the dances
can be found in the Fine Art Museum and Choijin Lama's Museum. Mongolian
paintings, sculpture, embroidery, felt art, leather art, bookmaking, Buddhist
prints, and bone, wood, and fossil amber craft work developed powerfully in this
Mongolians revolted to gain independence from China and the Manchurians in
1911, and decided to renew the old monasteries and stations. The People's
Republic of Mongolia was established in 1924 with the help of the Soviets, and
in 1926, by unofficial census, there were 255 crafts people for silver, 297 for
metal, and 85 for embroidery in Mongolia. Soon after, religion was banned in
Mongolia and many monasteries and their inhabitants were destroyed. Mongolian
crafts survived, though, with a new focus on supporting and promoting the
Communist state. Starting intensively in the 1930s, craft art essentially
separated from the herding life style and became an independent section of
Today one can find Mongolian patterns decorating everything from ancient
Mongolia jewelry to Soviet-style apartment buildings. There are 7000 different
kinds of Mongolian patterns. Ancient patterns include "Sulden (emblem) khee"
very widely used in Mongolia, and 'Galan (fire) khee." This is a very important
pattern today because Mongolians honor Fire. Many Mongolian patterns symbolize
the wishes and aims of Mongolians.
The main garment is the del, a long, one-piece gown made from wool or silk.
Most Mongolians have several different dels, appropriate for different seasons,
as well as a more decorative del for special occasions. Winter dels are often
lined with sheep skin. The del has a high collar, is often brightly colored, is
worn with a multipurpose sash, and is worn by men and women year-round. Ethnic
groups are differentiated by the color, decoration, and shape of their del.
The khantaaz is a shorter traditional jacket, often made of silk, which is
also buttoned to the side, and usually worn over the del.
The gutul is a high boot made from thick leather and sometimes decorated
ornately. They are easy to put on - both the left and right boot are the same
shape. There exist many explanations for the curled, upturned toe, but the most
likely one is religious - the upturned end touches less earth and therefore
theoretically kills fewer bugs, in accordance with Buddhist teachings about the
non-taking of life.
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