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A Tale Of A Tour In Mongolia - Chapter 14

( Originally Published 1920 )

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Each path with robes and various dyes bespread, Seems from afar a moving tulip bed" Tickell

OUR visit to Urga had been most fortunately timed, and we were delighted to hear within a few days of reaching the capital that the great semi-religious, semi-athletic festival of the Ts'am Haren, or sacred dance, was to take place during the second week in July. A more bewilderingly picturesque and fantastic sight than this presented day after day held at intervals it prolonged itself over a fortnight I never expect to see. Proceedings included the presentation of tribute to the Hut'ukt'u, followed by an archery competition, continued with the dance of the gods, a great wrestling tourney, and' wound up with a race meeting.

Reminiscent in some degree of their past glories, the Mongol princes and their banner-men came from distant principalities of the dominion to take part in these feats of strength and skill, and at the same time to present their gifts and to do homage to their spiritual and temporal chief. Bogdo, the Hut'ukt'u (" he who is born again " ), the Living God of Mongolia, is nominally the ruling spirit of these festivities, but although his chair of state was always prominently in position, this mighty ruler, whom his subjects believe to be the richest as well as the most potent monarch in the world (has he not 2000 white ponies and a 1000 white camels ?), did not come to sit in it. On one occasion only did He that can do no wrong " put in an appearance, and that was when lamas and princes assembled to hand over to him the money and presents that had been begged from, and squeezed out of, his subjects throughout the length and breadth of Mongolia. Great were the rejoicings when it became known that Bogdo was to be present in person, to receive with his own fair hands the offerings that had been brought to Urga. Bogdo, the Djibson Dampa Lama (Holy Reverence) Edsen Han, as he is severally styled, the chief of all the H ut' ukt' us, by birth a Tibetan, being son of a steward to the Dalai Lama, is a man of middle age, already decrepit, in appearance bloated, dissipated, uninspiring. The spiritual head of the Mongolian Buddhists, he now lays claim, since Mongolia is no longer subject to Chinese rule, to temporal authority as well. Indeed the position of this lama pontiff is of unusual character, and might almost be said to embrace a dual personality. On the one hand, the celibate ruler of priests, the religious leader of the faith.

On the other, the crowned emperor of the Mongols ; crowned with his wife, and firmly insistent that their ten-year old son should be crowned as his heir, that there should be no room for doubt as to his intentions in regard to the succession to the Mongol throne.

That all actions of the Hut'ukt'u must of necessity be right is ingrained in the minds of his people, and taken quite literally by his adherents. That he, the reincarnation of the sainted historian Taranatha, should openly, and I use the word advisedly, for Mongolia is a wonderful country for winking at things nominally taboo, take unto himself a wife must, even though such action is a violation of all Buddhistic principles, be right, because Bogdo can do no wrong. There are many stories rife as to the iniquities of their ruler, and one that I myself heard on good authority made him responsible for the cruel murder of a well-known Mongol official, whom he is said to have forced into drinking in his presence a cup of poisoned wine.

Into Bogdo's house we did not penetrate. It would have been difficult enough under ordinary circumstances to have obtained an audience, but, as it was, the Hut'ukt'u was in a bad state of health, and moreover it was rumoured that an addition to his family was daily expected. A pleasant ride along the valley of the Tola River brought us to the confines of Bogdo's compound, and we were interested in the queer mixture of styles the house presented. Built of wood, the main part of the structure might have been an English farmhouse, but out of all character with this was the square green tower in the middle of it, and the many little Chinese turrets and pavilions with yellow-tiled roofs. The compound was surrounded by a rough fir tree fence and the place presented an untidy appearance. There was nothing to suggest the immense wealth with which Bogdo is credited, beyond the insignificant fact of a small herd of antelope inside a neighbouring compound. Far more picturesque, at a stone's throw distant, was the residence of the Choi Gin Lama, Bogdo's brother, a well-planted garden surrounding a number of small houses and a temple, all with green roofs and Tibetan in style.

The general arrangements for the Ts'am Haren were carried out with great forethought and method ; the discipline and general order as one event followed another would really rival the management of like festivities in the Western world. Our main difficulty was that we could seldom ascertain within a few hours as to when the performances began, and in consequence of this we were always up to time and had a good deal of waiting about. For the presentations to Bogdo great preparations were made ; the approaches to the temple were well protected by southern soldiers who supplement the body-guard of the Hut'ukt'u, and the barriers around which the little lama boys played " tag," or a Mongolian form of it, fenced off great spaces across which the unwary foreigners might otherwise have cantered their horses in disrespectful light-heartedness.

The Temple of the Gods, situated on the north side of the stony expanse between the Consulate and West Urga was the centre of a brilliant scene.

The body-guard in royal blue silk damask coats with black velvet facings outlined with silver braid, prune coloured waistcoats and pale lemon cummerbunds, formed a valiant looking band enough; their weapons were modern in type, and their clothes apart from being picturesque were, what is far rarer in the extreme East, smart, clean, and in good condition. Quite satisfied with the impression their appearance produced upon me, they showed no little keenness to be photographed.

Inside the barriers the ground was lined on one side with a number of marquees, under which in deep shadow sat the Mongol mandarins, silently contemplative and out of the glare, the richness of the blue-purple and chocolate of their silken garments looking all the richer in the half light.

Opposite them, at a distance of 150 yards or so, the rank and file of the lama community were herded together, squatting on the ground and standing in the back rows, thousands of them, from whom from time to time darted forth some naughty boy with the object of exchanging his seat for a better one. A mass of dull Indian red was the effect they produced, unrelieved but for the wonderful banners that had been erected on great frames of wood opposite the temple entrance.

The mob was kept within bounds by angry lamas who cut at the people if they pressed forward or got out of place with sharp little switches. The faces of these men were quite diabolically hideous ; their expressions evil and cruel. There is some idea, no doubt, that the uglier the face the more alarming it is.

A group of high lamas in gorgeous vestments of orange and scarlet sat enveloped in their loose folds out of the sun beating down upon an archway, their hard gilded hats, in shape reminding one of the tops of raised pies, glittering where the light filtered through the roof with a metallic brilliance. The crowds are moving now, lamas and " black men " are mingled, although it is an essentially lamaistic occasion and the predominating tones range from lemon to vermilion. Final preparations are now being made, yards upon yards of Imperial yellow cloth are stretched in a golden pathway from the yourts hidden away inside an inner compound, 1 through the great p'ailou, under which the priests shelter from the sun, and away and beyond to the main entrance to the Temple of the Gods. The yourts behind the palisade form the robing and efreshment rooms for the Hut'ukt'u, and we note a cart drawn by a magnificent bullock pull up outside in order that the huge pots of mares' milk may be lifted from it. Bogdo is within the gates, and none but prelates and princes have access to the sacred precincts. At the portals high lamas sit, and two tall figures support the great state umbrellas of silken embroidery on either side. The heat is intense, and a row of sleepy dignitaries doze uncomfortably on the long benches under the portico. There is a drowsiness about the day, and the hum of conversation is subdued and soothing.

Suddenly there is a stir, and a thrill of expectation runs through all of us. A crowd of princes and mandarins and their sons hurries forth from the little tents and forms up in lines on either side of the golden pathway. Lama officials come forward and thrust lighted joss-sticks into each of the outstretched hands. Space is left between the long rows for three people to walk abreast. A look of intense eagerness, even of anxiety, spreads over the bronzed faces, for their god is but a sick man. A harsh trumpeting presages the approach of their incarnate deity ; continuous and raucous. Two heralds, each holding what we suppose to be a glorified " hatag " on his upturned wrists but made of leopard's skin stuffed in the form of an elongated sausage, made their appearance. Following them are the trumpeters, first one and then the other producing a long unbroken.

A posse of lamas in robes and the mitred headdress of high ceremony, looking for all the world like a perambulating bed of nasturtiums in full bloom, precede their pontiff, who, fat, pallid, and ponderous, his diseased eyes protected by round black glasses, supported (held up, it seemed to us) by a priest on either side, walks labouringly along the yellow cloth. The bearers of the embroidered umbrellas are close upon his heels, and the crowd of privileged persons, priests, and laity, jostling each other for priority, follow in his train to the Temple of the Gods. Humbler lamas from remote corners of Mongolia stand about in little groups. They are there to watch the passing of their god. The feeling is tense.

Clasped hands stretch forth in expression of profound emotion as the procession winds its way into the temple, up to the tribute throne. There is silence, save for the sound of the heavy footsteps of the central figure as he stumps over the yellow tissue covering the boarded pathway. In an ecstasy of worship the monks prostrate themselves near the threshold of the sanctuary. They have beheld him whom they would fain see : him whom they have travelled footsore and hungry so many miles, for so many weeks, to honour.

They are happy. Their faces are sublime. They have reached the haven of their desire.

Lined up along a wall not far from the great gateway to the temple, waiting with radiantly expectant countenances, and bearing their gifts in their hands, are some hundreds of ragged pilgrims. Fifty men of Bogdo's guard are in attendance here, ready when the time comes to marshal them into the Presence. They have been waiting since dawn, but in a state of supreme exaltation. They have drawn the lucky number amongst their fellows, and carry their offerings on trays and platters little ornaments for the temple altars, sometimes even food have they brought to lay at the feet of their spiritual sovereign. But their turn is not yet. Precedence has been given to the princes and rich men in fine raiment, and these, holding aloft in both hands costly tribute hidden from sight in silken coverings of daffodil yellow, make a wonderful procession as the crowd opens out for them, and they pass from a blaze of sunshine into the dimly mellow light of the great temple interior. A low droning chant rises and falls from the throats of Urga's priests as the doors open and close on the bearers of treasure, gold, frankincense, and myrrh. They are so numerous that they can only be admitted in sections of a hundred or so at a time.

Less stirring perhaps, but every whit as picturesque, was the meeting of the archers held on the great grassy expanse between the sacred mountain and the city. I rode out to it to find a scene which suggested a herbaceous flower-bed in bright autumn sunshine. A background of wooded hills rose up in the distance across the Tola River to some 1500 or 1600 feet. The garments of the crowds the laity were in preponderating forces today were indeed a study in contrasts and harmonies. Pointsettia scarlet vied with pure turquoise and lapis-lazuli blue ; 1lavender and rich violet, sober mouse colour, pale lemon chrome ranging to vivid orange the brilliance of a field of parrot tulips such as brought back to my memory the bulb farms in full bloom which surround Haarlem. Cup day at Ascot would seem pale and anaemic as compared with this Mongolian toxophilite display.

At one end of the ground were half a dozen little marquees, light or dark blue linen appliqué with yellow and white devices. Under them, upon comfortable square cushions, sat the princes and princesses, the mandarins and their wives, with sundry other officials. Surrounding them were the crowds, and again, like a wall beyond, hundreds and hundreds of ponies were tethered, for no one ever dreams of walking in Mongolia.

In front of the tents at the south end of the ground were half a dozen stances for the archers. They shot in pairs, princes and peasants alike, and undistinguished save for the badge of office in - the form of the peacock's feather which protudes horizontal from the crown of the round pork-pie hat with red streamers, and by the richer material of the garments. They had four shots apiece, and their range was about seventy to seventy-five yards distance.

The competitors were in great force, and coming out eight or ten at a time they ranged themselves in couples at the stances, bowed low to the magnates in the marquees, saluted the butts likewise, and let fly their heavy, ivory-tipped arrows not at targets, but at birch-bark rings piled loosely as a child might build a " castle " with his bricks one on top of the other, and making little low walls of perhaps ten or twelve feet in length by eighteen inches high. At the butts were a number of men scoring the hits, and as the arrows flew they flapped their long arms above their heads and chanted a sort of dirge-like incantation, not dissimilar to that with which our sailors accompany the hauling in of anchor cables.

The song rose and fell, crescendo and diminuendo, in harmony with the success or failure of the competitors. A gentle swaying movement of the crowds as their eyes followed the arrows was like a corn-field shivering in waves as the breeze stirs it. The umpires stood right in the line of the hurtling missiles, and little lamas in embryo, bare-footed and bare-limbed, gathered the arrows as they fell, tripping back with them to the archers like sun-kissed amorini with their quivers full. The utmost order prevailed, and this event, as were also the others, was organised to perfection.

The Dance of the Gods which took place in the spacious outer courtyard of the temple was similar in effect to the Devil Dances I had watched with such interest at the lama temple in Peking in the previous spring. The ground was marked out in sections and all operations were directed towards a canopy of yellow silk ornamented with conventional devices in blue, beneath which the throne of the Hut'ukt'u was placed. That he would be present in persona propria nobody expected, but in his absence all honour was paid to the space which should have been occupied by him.

The status of Russia was officially recognised by the erection of a special marquee not far from that of the Bogdo, and under this the Russian Consul sat cross-legged and perspiring, supported by a number of officials, an interpreter, and his handsome Persian valet at his elbow. A large number of Russians also stood and looked on at the weird gyrations of the masked dancers which continued untiringly hour after hour beneath a fierce sun beating mercilessly down upon the thousands of spectators fringing this gritty and treeless expanse. Picturesque and novel though the dancing was, it became monotonous after a while as troop after troop of actors, concealed beneath the most grotesque masks which covered their heads and shoulders, issued forth in turn, and went through what appeared to us to be the same evolutions one after the other. It is very difficult to arrive at any exact interpretation of such religious dances, but the most likely ex- planation is that the scenes gone through are a representation in pantomime of incidents' in the early history of Buddhism. The dancers are masked to represent the gods, mythological animals, and hideous devils, and they prance about the chalked-in area to the strains of Tibetan trumpets and other weird sounds. The gods, whose amiable and pallid countenances very naturally bear strong resemblance to the sublime expression of contemplation admired by the Chinese, overcome the devils in due course, but to our disappointment by the means of peaceful exorcism and not by muscular conflict.

This sort of thing continued for the best part of a day, and it was easy to see that the spectators grew bored, for the majority were as ignorant, we were told, as we ourselves as to what it was all about.

Attendance at the sacred dance may to some extent have been a matter of obligation on the part of a considerable proportion of the audience, but for the subsequent event, the annual wrestling competition, it was a very different story, and the approaches to the ground were thronged by men, women, and children, about whose keenness there was little room for doubt. As far as the arrangement of the ground was concerned, proceedings followed to a large extent those of the previous occasions. The main difference, as far as I was able to observe, seemed to be that all the princesses in Urga (if they were all princesses) were present in order to lend encouragement to their swains. Seated demurely enough in rows, these charming little ladies displayed their wonderful jewels and clothes to vast advantage.

Beneath their hats was to be discerned the gold headdress that is worn only on very special occasions. In shape similar to an inverted finger-bowl and of open-work design, many of them were made of gold and must have been uncomfortably heavy on this hot day. Suspended from the frame were strings of pearls, and a modest estimate of these suggested that some of these grand ladies wore from 300 to 400 pearls, many of them as large as peas and quite perfect in colour. In this great mixed assembly they doubtless felt that their dignity behoved them to present a formal appearance, but the brown eyes and rosy lips looked merry enough, and one caught mocking and seductive glances shooting backwards and forwards in spite of all their primness.

The loose long coats worn habitually by the Mongol men conceal successfully their proportions and claims to physical development, and it was with some interest that we watched the wrestlers prepare for the ring. Their faces, burned alternately by the strong sun and rasped by icy winds, are usually weathered to the colour of old copper, and one is astonished to see when they are stripped that their bodies are as fair as those of the average Englishman. Strong rather than agile in appearance, these braves, lamas and laymen alike, practice from the time they are little boys and train seriously when the opportunity offers ; they are as hard as nails when the time comes for their prowess to be put to the test.

The signal is given, and four pairs of competitors enter the gladiatorial ring, each being arranged at a given point and closely watched by a couple of umpires, who, acting as backers into the bargain, never cease pouring advice and encouragement upon them, occasionally even punctuating their sentiments by administering resounding smacks on the softer portions of their anatomy. Before getting to work, however, convention has prescribed, doubtless from time immemorial, that salutations shall be offered to the gods, or to the presiding deity, be he who he may. Alas for the influence of Western ways !

The feet of the deity who should have presided have developed perhaps just a shade too big even for his Mongol boots, and salutations must be made instead to that empty symbol of sovereignty, the unoccupied throne of the absent Hut'ukt'u.

Moving in single file towards the northern end of the ground, exclaiming as they go, the gladiators advance one by one to the empty chair literally by leaps and bounds. Their prancing action brings the knees up to the stomach with every step, and they present the most ludicrous sight imaginable.

Arrived at the dais, the braves leap in the air, fall on their knees, and touching the ground three times with their foreheads, perform profound obeisance.

The bout began, and to the eyes of the uninitiated it appeared in some instances a trial of brains rather than of muscles. A smart trick would send one man down with lightning celerity, and at once the victor would prance off again to tell that vacant throne that he had won. In other cases a pair would remain in close embrace for several minutes, motionless, and apparently thoughtful.

Here one could only suppose that endurance was playing its part, since for no apparent reason one of the men would suddenly collapse, and the other would fly off to tell the story.

Notwithstanding my lack of technical knowledge, I found this an absorbingly interesting form of entertainment, and rejoiced to hear from the Norwegian, German, Russian, and Englishman that these well-made specimens of humanity were sportsmen in every sense of the word, that they played the game as well as any Westerner. Indeed they may be said in one respect to set an example to the Western world in the total disparity of the reward to the merit that had attained it. A handful of little cakes, the greater part of which were distributed among his friends by the victor, formed the entire " purse " for which he fought. The honour of the thing is good enough for these uncivilised Mongols.

The closing event of the festival of Team was most enjoyable of all, and I feel that I cannot improve upon the description given by Mr. Gull in the paper which he read before the Central Asian Society on his return to England. " The race meeting was held in a beautiful green valley a little east of Urga. We rode out to it in a merry party of Mongols and their wives, who, though in gala array, rode astride. There were thirty entries for a race over flat open country for five miles.

The jockeys were little boys and girls, the youngest eight, the oldest not more than fourteen. The ponies, their riders up and singing in chorus, paraded in a circle between tents coloured light and dark blue. Presently a lama in flowing robes of yellow with a pennon at the end of a lance placed himself at the head of the line, and the slow parade broke into a trot. Four or five times the circle was completed till the trot momentarily quickening became a fast canter. Then the excitement of the ponies worked up to a pitch, the lama gave the signal. With a sweep of his lance he shot off at a gallop the circle behind him uncoiling like a lasso. It spread out towards the plain racing towards a bend in the hills, the actual starting-point. We followed for a little and then dismounting we waited until in straggling file, flanked by those who had gone all the way, the competitors reappeared. The first home was a girl with a sash of orange bound round her jet black hair. A mounted lama caught her bridle and led her up to each of the tents in turn.

Before each he intoned a prayer, and at the last the girl was handed a bowl of milk, and milk was poured over her pony's head. Each of the competitors was then taken up to the tents in turn, and each pony anointed in the same way. At the end of the afternoon the owners and others stripped off their clothes and wrestled until the sun, crowned with a floating splendour of flame sank behind the hills."

The friendliness of the Mongols towards Europeans was on this occasion decidedly marked, and in company with half a dozen Russian officers who had brought over a number of their men to see the sport, we were entertained " at tea " in one of the pale blue tents near the winning-post. We all sat on the ground in a row, cross-legged, and the lamas handed round queer little Chinese cakes and bowls of mares' milk. The latter looked dirty but was really not at all bad to taste.

Our meeting under these strange but pleasant circumstances with the Russian officers led to the establishment of cordial relations between us, in spite of the fact, which surprised us not a little, that one only of their number knew any language other than their own. This great burly fellow, a Captain in a Siberian rifle corps, was hail-felow-well-met directly he saw us, and, coming from the Baltic provinces, spoke German fluently. We took advantage a few days later of his invitation to ride over to his quarters that we might see something of the extensive new barracks which are being built by the Russians. The soldiers are at present mainly housed in barracks which were begun by the Chinese, who in 1910 proposed to keep a small force there. Anyone more hospitable than these gallant Russians I have seldom met, but their notions of entertainment did not run on lines exactly parallel with our own, and it was impossible to persuade them that I really did not like my tea half-and-half with neat brandy, and that in view of a very solitary ride home across dangerous country there were limits to my capacity for drinking vodka.

I fancy that some of these officers, though nominally this Mongolian exile is very distasteful to them, manage to amuse themselves and to take advantage of the great possibilities of sport that this region offers ; they extended to us a variety of inducements such as expeditions after bear, lynx, and wolves, to say nothing of wild-fowl shooting, if we would remain in Urga long enough. There is plenty of bird and animal life both in South and North Mongolia, harrier eagles, vultures, sheldrakes, bustards, geese, ducks, magpies, crows and larks abounding, while in North Mongolia beautiful herons, always seen in couples, were so tame that they allowed one to get within very short range before spreading their wings and sailing away.

A Tour In Mongolia:
A Tale Of A Tour In Mongolia - Chapter 11

A Tale Of A Tour In Mongolia - Chapter 12

A Tale Of A Tour In Mongolia - Chapter 13

A Tale Of A Tour In Mongolia - Chapter 14

A Tale Of A Tour In Mongolia - Chapter 15

A Tale Of A Tour In Mongolia - Chapter 16

A Tale Of A Tour In Mongolia - Chapter 17

A Tale Of A Tour In Mongolia - Chapter 18

Read More Articles About: A Tour In Mongolia

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