Preserving the Ovoos of Mongolia – The Diplomat
Since its democratization, Mongolia has modernized its methods to preserve traditional ways of life without diminishing economic development. Historically, the long-standing nomadic lifestyle has fostered a strong connection between nature and people in Mongolia. The construction of a ooo, a Mongolian term for a cairn, is among many cultural phenomena celebrated at both state and public levels. Yet, in the age of mining, cultural sites such as ovoos face greater threats, making environmental protection necessary.
An ovoo is a pile of stones, soil and tree branches loaded with gifts and offerings from people to connect with the spirit of the earth. Throughout Mongolia’s history, ovoos have been used as landmarks, border crossing points, meeting places, and gathering places. Similar practices are widely known around the world. For example, Scandinavian countries, including Norway, Scotland and parts of the UK, have retained what is known as a meat (in Scottish Gaelic), a pile of rocks of various sizes and shapes.
Ovoo-based ceremonies are still held nationwide in Mongolia; however, these constructions face environmental challenges. Sacred sites require a coherent and workable environmental protection plan.
The government is responsible for annual state-level mountain and ovoo worship ceremonies. In 2009, Elbegdorj Tsakhia, then President of Mongolia, issued Decree No. 32, “Regulations on State-Sponsored Ovoo Ceremonies in Sacred Mountains”. This order, which is still active, highlights the code of ordinance, which imposes on the state the annual obligation to organize ovoo and sacred mountain ceremonies, to venerate the eight sacred mountains sponsored by the state and empower local governments to prepare annual ceremonies.
State-level ceremonies contribute to the intangible elements of governance, such as the prosperity of the country, the celebration of national history, and respect for long-enduring traditions. The government passes laws and regulations on who should attend and how to worship certain sacred mountains and ovoos, while local governments and religious entities such as Buddhist monasteries will carry out these plans.
According to Mongolian Buddhist Environmental Handbook, most of the ovoos and their surrounding environment are under the responsibility of two important monasteries, Gandan Tegchlen and Dashchoilin. These two monasteries are also responsible for state ovoo ceremonies. There are eight state-protected mountains and ovoos: Mount Bogd Khan Khairkhan (also known as Tsetse Gun), Mount Burkhan Khaldun, Mount Suvraga Khairkhan, Mount Khan Khokhii, Mount Sutai Khairkhan, Mount Altan Khukhii, Mount Otgontenger and Darigangain Dari Ovoo.
The public – free from ceremonial obligations and duty to care for the environment – voluntarily visit and worship ovoo sites across the country. But modern Mongols, especially the younger generation, have been lagging behind in maintaining such an ancient tradition, despite being respectful towards the practice.
An online survey was conducted in 2019, to which 144 Mongolians responded. The aim of the study was to highlight the perspectives of the Mongols on the environmental issues surrounding the ovoo sites. Of the 144 people surveyed, 75% said they believe in ovoo ceremonies. Of those who attend ovoo ceremonies, 75% wish for the general welfare of the country or good luck for themselves and their loved ones. When asked why they believe in ovoo ceremonies, 60% of respondents mentioned ancestral tradition and culture. Finally, 20% of respondents said religious ties such as Boo, Tengerism, Shamanism or Buddhism were part of their belief in the ovoo cult.
In the comment part of the question, 40% of respondents said that materialistic objects destroy ovoos, while 22% said that food and dairy products left as offerings to ovoos cause problems, by giving off a foul smell. and attracting wild animals.
The survey shows that modern Mongols are not only spiritual but have a strong connection to their ancestral traditions. And sometimes, these spiritual and traditional practices come into conflict with the economic activities of the country, in particular mining.
Mongolia, a natural resource hotspot, will continue to face environmental challenges for decades to come. Major mining or infrastructure projects can jeopardize protected environmental areas, including ovoos and sacred mountains. Mongolian decision makers must be vigilant in decision making. Mongolia is in desperate need of foreign investment, but given the global trend towards environmentalism, protecting and maintaining a specific part of Mongolian heritage sites under an international partnership could be helpful.
In Mongolia’s struggle to protect national heritage sites, the international community has not remained inactive. Major international organizations such as UNESCO have supported Mongolia in preserving sacred sites. In 2015, 10 sacred mountains were submitted to UNESCO to protect their historical and traditional significance. This action has contributed significantly to the preservation of Mongolia’s natural environment and wildlife as sacred and pristine. These international efforts and their best practices can be learned and implemented by local governments in maintaining greater environmental protection for ovoo sites.
According to the Asia-Pacific Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) Database, Mongolia, at the national level, has many government agencies and organizations dedicated to the preservation and promotion of traditional properties. In Mongolia today, six leading NGOs are active in the preservation of cultural heritage, such as the Mongolian National Center for Intangible Cultural Heritage, the Society of Researchers and Supporters of Mongolian Traditional Art, and the Mongolian Research Center shamanic.
The efforts of the Mongolian government and the Mongolian people themselves will play a fundamental role in establishing and developing an action-based policy that protects, maintains and preserves cultural sites, such as ovoos and other sacred lands. . It is vital for Mongolia, a mining-dependent economy, to carefully assess the pros and cons of its situation and ensure it leaves a nurturing environment for the next generation.