I’m receiving many dispatches from folks wishing me a Happy Losar, Tibetan New Year. Right back at ‘em, but ‘round these parts, we’re celebrating Tsagaan Sar, “White Month,” the Mongolian version of the same. For those of you getting a bead of perspiration on your upper lip about the advance of the winter solstice, 2012, fuggedaboudit. According to this calendar, we’re entering 2136, the Year of the Earth Ox (I’m so glad the marketing department revisited their original moniker, the Year of the Dirt Cow).
Tsagaan Sar is about renewal. First, one’s home gets a big ol' scrubdown. Then the household of the eldest in the family cooks up a mighty storm in anticipation of three days of visitors, a ritualized encounter that repairs and strengthens family and other social bonds. According to personal astrological calculations, people also perform certain rituals designed to enhance auspicious conditions for the coming year. According to Asian Gypsy, a group of folks doing so pre-dawn in Zavkhan Province may have misread the directions; they were attacked by a pack of wolves, causing several to enjoy Tsagaan Sar from a hospital bed.
Not only have I managed to avoid assault by large wild canines, but my usual reclusive nature has abated somewhat and I’m really enjoying the round of visits this year. To enhance the enjoyment, please allow me to share some tales and images with you.
My friend Daka was the first to extend me an invitation, so on the first day I accompanied her and her immediate family about 35km out of UB to Ölzit, a typical steppe town of fenced-off khashas, or family compounds. We first paid our respects with three laps around the Horse Ovoo...
...then trundled into Ölzit:
The first thing one does is perform ceremonial greetings, starting with the eldest. The older one puts his or her arms on top of the younger one, and the younger one clasps the elder’s elbows, indicating their support of them, along a kiss on each cheek (elder Mongolians will also make an audible sniff when they kiss you, the other's scent deemed important to the bond) and mutual inquiries about the peacefulness of one’s life. Here is Daka’s aunt, Pujee Eksh, receiving visitors.
Interestingly, she was very careful to don that hat every time she greeted someone. I asked Daka about this, and she said it had to do with the belief that one’s spirit exits the crown of the head at the time of death. Somehow, the encounter with others at this time is said to influence this, and the hat, I think, prevents one’s untimely demise. I didn’t feel like I fully understood, so if one of our Mongol readers could clarify in the comments what that's all about, that’d be much appreciated.
The centerpiece of a Tsagaan Sar visit is food, and Pujee really laid it out:
Toward the back are the traditional whole boiled sheep (don’t go “ew” (Sister Tana points out that I made an inadvertent "ewe" pun here); think of your Thanksgiving turkey, or Easter lamb, or some such), as well as the layered circles of the large, oblong biscuits known as khoviin buuv and other “white food,” the number of layers (always an odd number) indicating the general age of the one setting the table. After one sits, one should eat a little of something white. Then one is served milk tea, and encouraged to dig right in. At this stage, your hosts will not be satisfied until you consume superhuman quantities of buuz, the ubiquitous mutton dumplings. Fortunately, Pujee’s buuz (buuzes?) were scrumptious, so this was not a hardship.
Sheep-as-food is introduced to some Mongolians at a very early age. I’d heard about one facet but never saw it until yesterday. The man and baby are awfully cute together, no?
But if you zoom in a little, you discover that the baby’s pacifier is nothing other than a piece of sheep fat!
Once all the polite snarfing was accomplished, toasts given, etc., we were free to do what I wanted to do since we entered the khasha: go say woodgie-woodgie to all the critters.
The first order of business for anyone entering a countryside khasha is to make friends – or at least peace – with the guard dog. In this case it was a pretty sweet feller named Bhavgai, Mongolian for “bear.” I was warned that the sweetness could be a put-on, and not to try to pet him like the owner was doing here. More about Bhavgai later.
We said “welcome to the world” to the blanketed winter calves (one rebel tough guy sloughed his off)...
...then sauntered over to the sheep and goat pen. As usual, the sheep were dull beyond belief (my sister’s quote from her experience with them in Africa: “Sheep wake up to a new world every day”) but the goats – the source beasts for your cashmere garments – were fascinating and, with those crazy side-slit pupils, quite photogenic.
Some presented as relatively benign...
...with others as borderline malevolent...
...and still others as downright demented:
But really they were all just up on the fence in case we had Tsagaan Sar goodies to share, and young Batchimeg was happy to oblige:
Bhavgai the dog had different, highly entertaining ways of interacting with the livestock just through the fence. He would give the closest ones the once over...
...in order to determine which one needed to be gnawed on, in this case one of the sheep (his friend on the right seems to be getting a kick out of this, as far as you can tell such things with sheep):
The gnawees seemed to just play right along, probably out of gratitude because it was Bhavgai who generally kept the wolves at bay when they were out to pasture.
Human critters joined us, too. Dig this Mongol kid in full get-up, including massive winter fox-fur hat:
And then there was Daka’s nephew, semi-feral on the best of days, who seemed right at home in the sheep pen. I not 100% sure they got him out before we left for home.
The Tsagaan Sar host also always gives some kind of small gift to whoever comes by. I was very touched when I was given a little extra: fresh milk and yoghurt, homemade cookies, and a packet of mutton. It was explained that Pujee felt blessed that a monk had come, and was grateful for the prayers I had chanted for her home, animals, and family. Daka later explained the deeper significance. Part of the pre-Buddhist spirituality of the Mongols involved the honoring of ancestors, and many strains persist. The animals Pujee has today are descendants of the animals that had belonged to her forebears. So she was giving me something connected with her ancestors, a gesture of respect and affection and a perfect cap to the day.
Coming soon: Tsagaan Sar – Cityside