by Oyungerel Tsedevdamba

Even though naadam’s original nickname is “three manly games” meaning wrestling, horse-racing and archery, a fourth game came into the naadam’s official agenda in 1998, mongolian ankle-bone shooting (Shagain Harvaa), another UNESCO registered world heritage. At each naadam, you will find a tent area or building space dedicated to ankle-bone shooting games. Once you are there, you should recall this explanation to understand the game.

Pick any one game first

Ankle-bone shooting is a team game, a sort of minature version of bowling. Instead of bowling pins, there will be ankle bones or other little bones of herd animals. And instead of a bowling ball, there is a ‘bullet’, a amall polished piece of deer horn, that when launched flies straight and true across a carpet toward the targets. And instead of bowling conveyer to bring the ball back to the bowler, there is a line of people sitting on two sides between the shooter and the target returning his or her bullet after a shot. Several ankle-bone games will be in progress at the same time. Pick any one of them. A crowd will be circling and making ‘uukhai’ noise or a long song sounds. In the north end of the “shooting”, you will see a small wooden structure comprised of an Aravch or target bones and bullet catcher, a Zurkhai or Target area, at the opposite end of the carpet from the shooter, with the target bones lined up to be shot.

The more bones that are arrayed on the Target line, the earlier the stage the game is in. If you catch the players having only one to two target bones remaining at the Zurkhai line, then it must be close to the end of the game, the most competitive stage of a particular round. Make sure not to leave that particular game because it will be over soon and dramatic cheers will explode when the last target is hit.

Also, look at the carpet. At the end of the carpet will be two strips of wood on which little bones are arrayed. The better players are on the side that has collected the most ankle-bones. You will find a crowd sitting along opposite sides of the carpet representing the team they support or participate in. Watch the shooters’ age and gender

Each team of ankle-bone shooting has six, seven or eight players. In some naadams, there is a rule that each team must have mixed age groups. In such cases there must be at least two children, two young and middle aged persons and two elderly members. It will be considered a very confident and full team if women are on the team. However, in the other naadams, the entire game is organized separately for each age groups: Children under 17, adults 18-60 and the seniors above 61. When you watch an ankle-bone shooting game where each age group is separately competing rather than having mixed age teams, it will mean that the most competitive game is going on.

Children, and adults are not allowed to use shooting devices and they must shoot a target using only their fingers. However, elderly and the women are allowed to use shooting devices.

The middle finger is the “gun” to shoot an ankle-bone which has been placed on a polished wooden stick with a low siding on one side. The shooter will use of his knees to steady and carefully aim the stick. An accomplished ankle-bone shooter calculates the strength of his finger, the angle he or she will shoot towards the target and the weight of the ankle-bone to precisely knock the target bone off the line. Never utter rude words

When you watch ankle-bone shooting, you’ll notice an unusually friendly atmosphere around that little carpet. The entire game space is a circle with a diameter of 5 meters. In this little space, people are crowded to participate and support one team or the other. You’ll notice that no one is shouting rude words, no one is angry, and even when a shooter misses the target, people will be singing rather than cursing the target. The anckle-bone game’s social role is to teach the younger generation to compete politely, and work as a team. It is a place that teaches people to have a calm team spirit.

Winning team will go to next level

During the state naadam, many teams participate in ankle-bone shooting. At first, each team will be given a chance to compete with equal number (sometimes 4, sometimes 5 and 6) of teams. Then, all the teams will be ranked. The best ranking teams will continue the game and compete with each other, while the teams with many losses will leave the game. The team with the most number of victories will be always selected to the next level of completion. In this way, the best team is determined after 10-12 games that involved 80-100 teams totally. In the state naadam, the best team of every province, every UB city district is eligible to apply to participate. Additionally, the ankle-bone shooting association of Mongolia compiles a list of eligible teams to participate in the naadam. In order to be eligible, the teams must have participated in previous games, and won local ankle-bone games that were organized by the Association’s members and affiliates. There are traditional ankle-bone shooting places called local “shagain toirom”, meaning “ankle-bone circle”. The word ‘circle’ is originated by two things. Firstly, each team competes with all the other participating teams making the entire competition a whole circle. Secondly, the teams camp at the area making a circle. The camping, social circle, and the competition circle all together make the friendly environment for the “shagain toirom” or “ankle-bone circle”. In the past, the khans, lords and religious leaders would identify auspicious spring days to gather the community and their friends at a certain picturesque place, and would remain there for several days watching or playing ankle-bone shooting against opposing teams. Such circles would be places protected from wind, where travelers with just a light tent could stay for days. There was a saying that whatever happens in life, real friends meet at least once a year at the ankle-bone circle. Famous ankle-bone circles called “Khanginakhiin shugui” and “Honhor lake circle” were the places for dignitaries to come together each spring when the Bird Cherry trees blossom. Each year, every province organizes province-wide competitions before the state naadam so that they can send their best teams to the state naadam. In the provinces, every soum (county) is eligible to send one team to the province naadam. In some provinces, some companies and state enterprises can send their teams to the naadam too.

Pay attention to the uukhai song

When a shooter concentrates his attention for his next shot, two different sounds will begin. His supporters will start mellow, helping melodies while his opponent team members will try to distract the shooter by their sharp loud voices. Such a voice battle will not be the case for every shooting, especially in the early stages. However, the closer the race, the closer the end of the round, the more psychological battles go on. Sometimes the teams won’t make sound during the actual concentration, but right after the shooting. Still the sounds are intended to bring success or failure to the shooter’s next shot. The challenge for the shooter is that he or she must remain calm throughout the entire game so as to not to be distracted by the battle of the voices.

Can a tourist try the game? Yes. Any team that left the game is free. It means they can just take their time and play the game without competing against anyone. A tour group can arrange a time and place with such a free team and just play the game. Ankle-bone shooters are team-spirited polite people, if they have time and a space, they will be happy to share their techniques with guests and let the guests play the game. To visit a team (most teams in the countryside would have a tent), it would be a good idea to bring a gift or two which can be shared by the team members. Mongolian communities abroad organize ankle-bone shooting games. Anyone who can find such a game occurring in her or his country, can visit and participate.

Ulaanbaatar, 2014

Copyright 2014 Oyungerel Tsedevdamba

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