Thursday, October 8, 2015

5 Days of July: Day 3 - from lus along the Orkhon to a tsam dance at Erdene Zuu

Well, well, I'm still posting about stuff in July and it's already the first week of October - oops!  Now, back to those 5 days of July...

[All photos courtesy of Reade L. and Kenny L. - thank you!]

A brief flashback to our second night: Kenny noticed an unusual-looking ovoo near our campsite.  This ovoo consisted of a base of larger dark stones piled with small light-colored stones near a tipi-like stack of wood and a small circle of white stones.

We puzzled over it in the fading sunlight until we had a chance to ask the nearby family - it was a ritual complex set up for a shaman coming to perform a ceremony the next evening.  In the last year I've seen more ovoo similar to this, with a clear raised base rather than a messy pile of rocks and offerings, and I'll be paying closer attention to this phenomenon from now on.  Shamanism in Mongolia, like any system of practices and beliefs, is changing all the time; this may be a visible and somewhat-public manifestation of recent changes or innovations.

The small circle in the foreground is the protected space in which the shaman will perform the ritual for the lus, the spirit of the river in this area

Our third morning began with the dew from the previous night's rain over our campsite.  It seems that the lus was perfectly happy to host us!

Shaking off the morning dew

Unfortunately the pictures really don't capture the exquisite beauty of this spot - the light, the rush of the wind through the trees in the canyon, the blue-green river, and the endless sky.

Taking a few last minutes to soak in Nature's wonders along the Orkhon canyon

But we had many miles to travel that day!  Backtracking along the Upper Orkhon River delta, we made our way out to Khujirt where paved road began.  Our lunch-time pit-stop included a quick walk through the massive Bronze-Age cemetery just east of the small town.

Gabbing about graves: slab burial at the Bronze-Age cemetery outside of Khujirt
The site extends south along the base of the hill and contains well over 100 slab burials (durvuljin bulsh) and khirigsuur (burial mounds usually with enclosure features) that have mostly been robbed or excavated in the past.

Slab burials and khirigsuur are the two primary mortuary features of Bronze-Age Mongolia.  Received wisdom is that slab burials represent a slightly-later culture originating in the eastern part of Mongolia, whereas the peoples who built the khirigsuur came earlier and share ethnic and cultural affiliations with western archaeological cultures, perhaps including various kurgan-building groups of the vast Eurasian steppe.  The implicit (and sometimes explicit) argument is that the khirigsuur builders were cultural and ethnic descendants of the Karasuk (debatable) and thus European-ish (even more debatable), unlike the later slab-burial culture from the east (which are characterized as racially or ethnically Asian and perhaps the progenitors of the Khunnu/Xiongnu).  The literature indicates a significant divide amongst those working on Bronze-Age Mongolia when it comes to khirigsuur: one camp views them as burial mounds (Russian and Mongolian archaeologists), while the other argues that the paucity of human remains and grave goods indicates that they are not exclusively burials or are ritual features with no mortuary function (American and Western European archaeologists).

However, as we see in the Khujirt cemetery, there is spatial and likely temporal overlap between the slab grave- and khirigsuur-building archaeological cultures of Bronze-Age Mongolia, especially in Central Mongolia. To the best of my knowledge, the working hypotheses requires a much tighter chronology than is currently available.  This is also a very general typology of Bronze-Age mortuary/ritual features that represent the cultures of Mongolia at the time; there are archaeological features (particularly mounds) that do not fit this typology.  It's important to remember that you can only really know what's in a mound, potential burial, or subterranean ritual feature if you excavate it.  An experienced field archaeologist in Mongolia can make a good educated guess from the feature's appearance on the ground (the surface feature) but that assessment should be treated as a working hypothesis until the unit can be excavated.  Without material culture, internal organization (i.e., tomb construction), and dating (ideally carbon-14), you simply don't have enough data to know precisely what you're dealing with.

Alas, poor Yorick: talking about weathering and taphonomy using a modern horse skull in a Bronze Age cemetery outside of Khujirt

Enough musings on archaeological interpretation for one post!

Our destination for the day was Kharkhorin soum center, the county seat at the site of the original Mongol imperial capital city Qara Qorum and home of one of Mongolia's largest Buddhist monasteries, Erdene Zuu.  But we were also drawn to Kharkhorin for the danshig in celebration of Undur Gegeen Zanabazar (380th anniversary, but who's counting) to be celebrated in Erdene Zuu and again about 10km beyond the city limits.

But first, the museum:

Reconstruction of a Mongol imperial-era kiln from Qara Qorum, the capital founded by Chinggis Khan's son and successor, Ugudei, in 1235
The Kharkhorin Museum was only built in 2012 and stands as one of Mongolia's finest museums.  There is a permanent exhibition of archaeological finds from every major period of Mongolian history - although the quality of each period's display varies greatly - and currently a special exhibition of a fabulous shooron bumbugur tomb.  Most of our group's best photos are of the special exhibition; enjoy!

Sculptures from the shooron bumbugur tomb

There have only been two shooron bumbugur tombs excavated in Mongolia; both are located in the Tuul River valley between Dashinchilen (Bulgan Province) and Zaamar (Tuv Province), where archaeologists have identified numerous medieval-era fortress remains, including Chin Tolgoi and the well-known ruins at Khar Bukhyn Balgas.  Unlike any other know tomb types in the rest of Mongolian archaeology, shooron bumbugur tombs are underground passage tombs much more like the Chinese elite constructions during the Tang Dynasty, composed of several underground rooms with 'skylights' or opening to the surface.  The tomb on display at the museum had a number of its fantastical wall paintings still intact when archaeologists began excavation.

Small cavalry soldiers from the shooron bumbugur tomb
The docent at the museum explained that archaeologists are still debating whether the shooron bumbugur tomb dates from the Turk period or the later Uyghur period due to the interesting mix of cosmopolitan material culture found in the tomb.  Perhaps 'interesting' is an understatement!  The figurines range from the historical-yet-mundane humans to the fantastical beasts in the above photo.  The tomb murals - seen in the video introduction to the exhibit onsite - are similarly stunning.

Literal gold treasure from the shooron bumbugur tomb
The textiles, jewelry, and small finds from the tomb evince contacts much further afield than ancient China: coins, designs, and motifs from at least as far as Byzantium (there were knock-off Byzantine coins made into personal accoutrements, if I remember correctly).  I eagerly await an in-depth scholarly publication on this and the other excavated shooron bumbugur tomb from the Tuul River valley!

Unless you read Mongolian, you are not going to get much out of the Kharkhorum Museum's official webpage.  However, the museum has posted a suitable epic short video on the finds and reconstructed materials from the shooron bumbugur tomb at the bottom of this page:

There's also a virtual museum feature here:

As the afternoon wore on, we headed over to Erdene Zuu monastery and the many souvenir shops, game stands, and food vendors lining the entrance and parking lot.  I have been to Erdene Zuu many times and have never seen it even half as crowded as that afternoon; the danshig was clearly a tremendous draw.  We wound our way through a number of shops, picking up some souvenirs and admiring artwork, before getting photos with a golden eagle:

Kenny the burgedchin
The crowd poured through the narrow wooden gates of Erdene Zuu and we were swept inside along with throngs of observant Mongolians (and a handful of other foreigners).  The scene was gorgeous beyond all comparison: glinting golden light tinged rose thanks to the setting sun, luminous clouds changing color each minute, and the brilliant sky stretching endlessly overhead.  Much of the crowd was decked out in their finest deel.  We took a seat in the grass inside the temple complex and waited for the show to begin on stage.

Unfortunately, our party invoked the ire of a very bossy egch, who vehemently objected to one of our party taking photos as the crowd gathered to observe the evening's performances.  I was very surprised by the woman's extremely hostile and aggressive behavior AFTER we had apologized and offered to erase photos that accidentally included her party.  This woman had likely had bad experiences with foreign photographers in the past (and might have been a tad embarrassed about her intoxicated public sleeping it off in the middle of the danshig naadam crowd).  I've definitely seen some very bad behavior from such photographers in Mongolia: not asking permission for portraits, getting in people's way/face, treating human beings like part of the landscape, etc.  So thanks, past jerks, for poisoning the well!

Despite the unpleasant run-in, it was a luminous evening in Erdene Zuu monastery:

Ariuna is having fun evening at Erdene Zuu monastery

Hands-down the most crowded I have ever seen Erdene Zuu monastery.

As the golden light faded and the sky filled with rose and lavender, I witnessed the first tsam dance in all my 10 years working and traveling in Mongolia:

Tsam dance performed inside the Erdene Zuu monastery as part of the danshig celebrating the 380th anniversary of Unduur Geegen Zanabazar

In recent years I had heard a great deal about the tsam: the masks, the ritualized dance, the haunting music.  But the tsam is very rarely performed.  2015 was an unusual year in that multiple tsam dances occurred at several locations in Mongolia, were made open to the general public, and publicized somewhat in advance (including, obviously, the Erdene Zuu tsam dance).

Ty gets up close and personal with the tsam dancers as they exit the stage

According to what I have been told, the tsam dance is one of the more obvious examples of the fusion of Buddhism with indigenous shamanic and animistic traditions that characterizes Mongolian Buddhism.  The music played during the tsam dance is meant to drive away evil spirits (or spirits inhabiting the land before Buddhism gained supremacy, depending on who you ask), as are the masks that give the dance its name (tsam means 'mask' in Mongolian).  The dancers are monks in elaborate ritual costumes who perform a synchronized dance along with the music played by an accompanying 'orchestra' of monks.  The Erdene Zuu ceremony took place on a small stage but the tsam dance traditional occurs in concentric white circles marked out in an open space, which you can see in both 21st century and pre-Socialist-period photos from Mongolia.

Vajrabhairava, I think?
If you wish to see tsam ritual costumes and masks but cannot attend an actual performance, the Zanabazar Fine Arts Museum in Ulaanbaatar has some spectacular costumes on display from before the Socialist period (and purges).

Цагаан Өвгөн, or the Old White Man (of the Mountains)
This tsam dance was rather brief (20-30 minutes) compared to the marathon sessions at Dashinchoilen monastery, Khui Doloo Khudag, and Amarbayasgalant monastery (several hours!) this year.  However, I was very moved by the experience and felt the privilege of attendance at such a significant event.

The performers left the stage as dusk deepened into nightfall with the setting of the summer sun.  We ourselves had to hustle to get to a camping spot before actual darkness set in and we were left pitching tents with flashlights.

Dusk in the impromptu parking lots around Erdene Zuu monastery
While I have no photos to convey the experience, we camped along the Orkhon River in a spot where I camped in 2014 that had been easily accessible from the town of Kharkhorin but not remotely crowded.  This year I did not factor the glut of tourists coming for the danshig naadam into my equation.  The night rang with the songs and laughter of multiple camps around ours, broken by the crunch of tires as vehicles passed near our tents.  The flashes of headlights and then flashlights lit up our tents as passers-by agreed that our site was a good one and promptly crowded up to our little camp all through the night.  A very danshig naadam camping experience!

Note: apologies for the long break between posts.  Within the next week I plan to wrap up the rest of the 5 Days of July set and move on to other business.  Then I'll only be two months behind, instead of three!