Page last updated at 11:44 GMT, Saturday, 31 January 2009

Wrestling and faith in Mongolia

From a growth in Christianity to a revival of Buddhism, Religious Affairs correspondent Robert Pigott reports on how Mongolians are replacing the all-embracing belief system that vanished with the fall of communism.

Mosaic from Marxist-Leninist era in Mongolia
The end of Marxist-Leninism left a void in Mongolia

Ulan Bator's most conspicuous symbol of the atheist socialism Mongolia inherited from Soviet Russia stands on a hill above the city.

It is a wide concrete ring, dominated by a heroic figure with chiselled Slavic features, bearing a flowing concrete banner.

Inside the circle is a mosaic, depicting fraternity between the two nations. A delicate Mongolian woman offers a bowl to a Russian soldier.

A blond, square-jawed cosmonaut is flanked by children and doves.

This stark edifice commemorates Russian and Mongolian soldiers who fought together in two world wars, but it is also a celebration of a shared socialist ideal of equality and scientific advancement.

It represents the Marxist-Leninist manifesto, which rejected religion and promised to build heaven on earth.

It so seduced Mongolia, that the collapse of communism, 18 years ago, created moral as well as economic turmoil. It was a vacuum Christianity was ready to fill.

Power of charity

In the polluted sprawl of Ulan Bator - a communist-era name meaning "red hero" - there are some 200 churches and an estimated 200 more in the mountains, steppes and desert beyond.

Their congregations include many young professional and business people, led in services of swaying and clapping by bands of drums and guitars.

One of their members, Puje Chinggis, says his story is typical.

A confident and calm young man, Puje is now head of Mongolia's only internationally accredited Bible College, in a neighbourhood of Ulan Bator crowded with long wooden barracks, once occupied by Soviet troops.

Mission Aviation Fellowship
The Mission Aviation Fellowship was founded after World War II

But in his youth he adopted communism and, like many others, believed a perfect society would be accomplished in his lifetime.

Puje says many of his disillusioned generation were won over by the practical benefits offered by Christian organisations.

These include charities such as the Mission Aviation Fellowship, which flies missionaries and aid workers over Mongolia's vast distances - it is difficult to travel on the gravel tracks below.

I travelled north to visit one of the mission's schemes, designed to improve the lives of rural herders.

We travelled on for hours over a landscape dotted with the round felt-covered tent-like houses, or gers, the herders carry with them in pursuit of the best grazing.

Eventually we reached the ger of a man named Boldbaatar. (Rural Mongolians see little need for more than one name.)

He arrived, riding a shaggy horse, wearing a high-collared woollen coat against the cold, his face weather-beaten and impassive.

Festive meal

Until recently Boldbaatar kept hardy Mongolian sheep. They are lugubrious-looking animals, sparsely covered with meat, and with wool best suited to making carpets, but they are prepared stoically to give birth at 20 below in a biting January gale.

Ulan Bator

The mission leant him 50 more fragile animals, each yielding almost three times the profit of a Mongolian sheep.

Boldbaatar invited me to share dinner with his family. There was boiled mutton, cooked in the wok-like iron pot lowered into the top of their wood stove, and served with raw onion and dried curds.

This being a festive occasion, he produced a weakly alcoholic liquid made from fermented mare's milk.

Boldbaatar and his neighbours are the descendants of one of the tribes knitted together by Genghis Khan 800 years ago into horse-back armies, which conquered an empire stretching from China to Iran and the Adriatic.

Wrestling match

Mongolian wrestlers
Mongolian wrestling dates back to the time of Genghis Khan
With socialism gone, Mongolia is rebuilding a national identity on its own history and traditions.

Pre-eminent among these traditions is wrestling. On Mongolia's national day I witnessed this sweaty, ritualistic, trial of strength between men wearing boots and tight-fitting briefs.

After a display of flexing muscles, the wrestlers gripped each other in a tense stand-off before a sudden struggle resulted in one of them falling to the ground.

An appreciative crowd roared its approval, and as the national anthem was sung, the event seemed to recall the past greatness of the Mongolian nation.

Path to happiness

Buddhism, imported to Mongolia by its 16th Century rulers, became the national religion.

Before a ruthless communist purge in the 1920s, half the male population were Buddhist monks.

But Puje Chinggis claims the future is Christian. Buddhism told people they must suffer well and earn a better future life.

He said Mongolians, crushed by economic and social chaos, preferred the Christian acceptance of their inherent badness.

Puje insists that hope is the ingredient in greatest demand in Mongolia. Christianity, practical and adaptable as it has proved to be, may be one way of providing it.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 31 January, 2009 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

Why Mongolia wants more neighbours
10 Sep 08 |  Asia-Pacific
Post-communist Mongolia's struggle
11 Jan 07 |  Asia-Pacific


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