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The Ger: Mongolian National Dwelling

Reprinted from Mongol Messenger w/ permission

The ger is ideally suited to the country's sharply continental climate and the people's nomadic way of life. This multi-purpose dwelling can be easily collapsed, transported to another place and put up again fully preserving its original shape. The ger appeared centuries ago, although it is believed that the collapsible ger as we know it today was invented in the not too distant past. Being constantly on the move with flocks of sheep or being on military campaigns compelled the Mongols to build the ger on carts. Old books contain pictures of such gers, temporary abodes in which families of 3 or 4 could spend the night or find shelter. History has preserved information about giant gers built on wheeled platforms. The platform was hauled by 22 oxen. Big gers of this kind were built for the nobility. Soon however they fell out of sue because they were clumsy and couldn't withstand the inevitable very long distances as there was the danger of becoming stuck in the mud or tipping over. During war campaigns nobleman preferred to use big tents of bright and durable cloth. The Mongols' earliest recorded dwelling was called the ëuvsun nembule', a kind of grass shack. It was mentioned in the Secret History of the Mongols that Chinghis Khan's forefather, Bodonchar, lived in such a shack. The development of craft, notably the processing of wool into felt brought forth a new type of dwelling, the ger. The Mongolian ger has 2 key components: the wooden framework and the felt cover. The wooden part of the walls (khana), the long poles (uni), the smoke escape (toono), and its supports (bagana).

Each section of the wall consists of a lattice of 10-15 wooden poles, each about 1.5 meters high, bound together in a way that makes it possible to fold it for transportation, and then unfold it again, like an accordion. The unfolded poles are fastened to the upper part of the walls, with the end passing through the toono hold, the only window and smoke escape in the ger. The toono is propped up by 2 posts, called bagana. All this forms the wooden framework of the ger which resemble an opened umbrella, as one foreigner put it.

The framework thus built is covered with felt. The floor carpeted with felt. Sometimes the felt is laid directly on the ground. The door is always on the southern side facing the sun (providing additional light inside). The number of walls and poles determines the size of the ger. Most of the time herdsmen's gers have 5 walls, giving a living area of 16-18 sq. meters. The gers of noblemen of olden times had 10-12 walls. Today, gers of this size accommodate clubs and libraries in the countryside, as well as cafes and bars in tourist centres. In the center of the ger is the hearth which has a special significance for the Mongols. Apart from its utilitarian purpose, the hearth (golomt) symbolizes ties with the family's ancestors. The Mongols say "Aavyn golomt" (the parental hearth), distilling in these words the respect they have for their forefathers. One is not allowed to stretch one's legs towards the hearth, throw trash into it or bring sharp pointed objects close to the fire. Desecration of the hearth is a sin and an insult to the master of the house. The hearth is mounted on 3 stones which symbolize the host, the hostess and the daughter-in-law (the mother of the heir). The heath is the center of the ger, whose construction begins with its mounting. The hearth divides the ger space into 3 conventional parts, the male and female quarters and the khoimor. The male quarters are on the western side. Here the host keeps the saddle, bridle, and airag bag (a mildly alcoholic drink of fermented mare's milk). The female quarters are on the eastern side to the right of the entrance. The hostess keeps kitchenware and appliances here, as well as her own and her children's belongings. By custom a man entering the ger goes right to its western part and a women to the eastern part. It is believed that the male quarters are under the protection of Heaven and the female quarters are patronized by the Sun. The most honored place is the Khoimor by the northern wall across from the door. Here they keep objects dear to the master of the house, his personal weapons, his ëmorin khuur; (the Mongolian horse fiddle) and his horse's bridle. Pieces of furniture, usually 2 wooden chests of a bright orange color are also placed in the Khoimor. Framed photographs of the host and hostess, their children and relatives are put on the top of the chest for all to see. If the host has some governmental award his is sure to display it in the khoimor. the host usually sits to the east of the khoimor and his guests to the west. The hostess's place is by the hearth, the children are supposed to sit close to her, but nearer to the door. The bed of the host and hostess is in the female quarters: those for guest are on the opposite side. Children sleep at their parent's feet.

Speaking about the ger design, let's dwell at length on the functions of the smoke escape (toono) and its props (baagana). The point is that some of the Mongols' philosophical ideas are closely associated with these features. The toono is the only opening, through which light penetrates the ger (apart from the south facing doorway). An old legend tells of a fair-haired man (half lion/half man) climbing into the ger of Alangua, the Mongols ancestral mother and fathering 3 sons. In the olden days, people could tell the time by the sun's rays falling on the cross pieces of the smoke escape and ton the poles. The Mongols divided the day into twelve horse and each hour into twelve minutes which they called by the names of the lunar calendar animals. A hair rope, (chagtage) is fastened to the smoke escape from which a weight stabilizing the ger is suspended during strong winds. In new gers, they fasten a khada to it, a piece of blue silk in which a handful of grain is wrapped. The meaning of this tradition is conveyed in the saying " May happiness multiply in the new ger like grains of corn and may life be pure and beautiful here". The supports of the smoke hole, bagan, ensure the stability of the ger and that is probably why tradition forbids touching, let alone leaning on them. Moreover they symbolize a link with Heaven, with the past-present-future axis which supposedly passes through them. The hearth heats the ger and serves as a stove for cooking. In wooded areas the hearth is stocked with firewood while in the steppe and the Gobi, dry dung briquettes are used. The ger warms up quickly and retains heat well. In the hot summer months the lower part of the felt cover (the khormoi) is raised to let fresh air in. The ger, round shaped and squat, can withstand harsh winds while the quick drying felt is good protection against the rain and snow. In towns and in the capital, Ulaanbaatar, gers are being ousted by modern high rise housing. Young Mongols now prefer to live in comfortable apartments. In summer, however, city-dwellers often spend their vacations in gers, leaving behind urban conveniences to enjoy the unmatched comfort of the ger.