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  • The Ovoo, A Place of Local Spirits

    A few minutes in the countryside is all that it takes to see your first Ovoo. An Ovoo is a type of shamanistic cairn found in Mongolia, usually made from rocks or from wood other offerings, like vodka bottles and silk scarves, placed on top of a hill or mountain pass in a shamanistic traditional offering to the gods. Ovoos serve mainly as religious sites, used in worship of the mountains and the sky as well as in Buddhist ceremonies, but often are also landmarks.


    They are often just a handful of rocks, but sometimes they are spectacular arrangements with a head of moose or yak, wooden poles and even the odd pair of crutches. Ovoos are sacred, and all digging, hunting and logging nearby is strictly prohibited. Mongolians believe that people who disrespect Ovoo will fall sick and even die. If travelling in a jeep, the driver will probably drive to the left of the Ovoo and often stop at important ones. Mongolians argue about what to do exactly when you come to an Ovoo, but it normally involves walking around it three times in a clockwise direction, making an offering of anything (a rock, vodka, small amounts of money) and making a wish.  If you have Mongolian friends and get lucky you may see an Ovoo worship ceremony. Monks say prayers, people give offerings and afterwards there is a feasting and some traditional sports like horse racing and wrestling. The rituals are held to celebrate the end of winter and pray for good rainfall, plentiful grass for the livestock an abundant fish and animals for hunting.

    The Ovoo is the ubiquitous pile of stones found in the top of the hills and passes. In forested areas they are sometimes made from branches into the shape of domed hut. The building of an Ovoo is an old and widespread custom among all peoples of Central Asia, which existed long before the spread of Buddhism there an even before shamanism.  These cairns were most likely designed as tombstones, and later became shamanistic altars. Their construction seems to have been related to archaic funerary cults and cremation rituals. Consequently, they are closely related to the cult of ancestral spirits. Commemorative rites were held near them in springtime, bringing together various members of the clan. Sacrificial rites were carried out to the souls of the dead to whom food was offered, and a horse sacrificed – its skin tied to pole near the place where the ancestors were buried.  Thus the living, having invited the spirits of the dead, shared out their food with them and informed them of the events which had occurred in the past year.

    A Naadam festival usually followed the Ovoo ceremony, and included the three manly games; a horse race, archery and wrestling. The rituals ended with a large collective feast prepared by the women of the clan, who were kept apart from the most important elements of ritual, just as they were kept apart from the burial rites the tribal elders. In post communist Mongolia, the food offerings to feed the souls of the dead and the Naadam organized near the Ovoo, are held openly. The Mongols’ relationship with the spirits never broke but under the socialist regime all exterior manifestations of it was condemned as suspicious and backward. Ovoo ceremonies are not held regularly, so travelers must inquire with local authorities for details. Each clan has its particular Ovoo. Geographical and spatially, the Ovoo marked the symbolic limits of the clan’s territory. On a sacred level, the rituals held at the Ovoo guaranteed the protection of the spirits on whom that territory depended. This included spirits of the ancestors, spirits of nature, earth and water. 

    The spread of Lamaism brought great changes to the cult of the Ovoo.  The Lamaised Ovoo became a sort of temple built in honor of the protector of the nearest monastery and displaced the ancestral spirit that had been there before. Henceforth, it was built in accordance with Buddhist cosmology. A very elaborated rituals appeared which governed the construction, consecration and benediction of an Ovoo, the presentation of offerings, and the carrying out of prayers. The consecration and acceptance of the Ovoo made the spirits cooperative and kindly.
    The consecration ritual of the Ovoo complete, travelers can cross the pass in less fear, assuming that they treat the spirits with due respect. A spirit can be easily disturbed if the rocks or items on the Ovoo are haphazardly moved, or if people fish and hunt nearby without bowing to the spirit.

    Regardless of past political and religious changes, the Ovoo has maintained its importance. The names of the spirits and details of rituals may vary, the cult of the Ovoo may have lost its original meaning, and many traditional Ovoo may have been destroyed during the years of repression; but the deep motivations that lay behind their emergence have not disappeared.
    When visiting an Ovoo, the circumambulations are made in a clockwise direction. By following the path of the stars and the sun, the Mongolian hopes to imitate the constellations, and join the cosmic process. But perhaps not so cosmic, are the items heaped onto Ovoos, including beer cans, vodka bottles, car parts and crutches. To the Mongol, however, these items are not junk – each was left with some purposes or meaning. 

    Posted by Oyunaa, 15 April, 2009

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