Mongolia

Monk Revives Traditional Game After Decades of Obscurity

Mongolian monk Batbayar Khasbazar was tired of seeing children glued to their cellphones. He hatched a plan to connect them with an old tradition – and it started with purchasing 36,000 sheep anklebones.

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Monk Revives Traditional Game After Decades of Obscurity

Odonchimeg Batsukh, GPJ Mongolia

Monk Batbayar Khasbazar displays a playing card from his updated version of the game shagai, which he calls “a symbol of Mongolia as a nation.”

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ERDENEBULGAN, ARKHANGAI PROVINCE, MONGOLIA — Dulguun Jugdernavag’s eyes shine with excitement. The boy, 5, sits on his father’s lap, with four pieces of sheep bone in his little hand.

A deck of cards depicting animals sits in front of him, as nine other kindergarten students look on, anxious for their turn.

Like centuries of Mongolian children before him, Dulguun tosses the bones out on the table, taking his turn at shagai, a traditional game whose pieces are made from part of a sheep’s anklebone. The game is resurfacing after decades of cultural obscurity.

Here in Erdenebulgan, 486 kilometers (about 300 miles) from Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital city, thousands of children are learning to play shagai. The game fell out of favor as Mongolians transitioned away from traditional culture in favor of urban lifestyles in the 1950s.

“The game of shagai was used as a symbol of Mongolia as a nation,” says Batbayar Khasbazar, a monk from Arkhangai province. He’s working to repopularize the game with an updated version he invented.

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Odonchimeg Batsukh, GPJ Mongolia

With the anklebones on a pink tray, a group of local children read the playing cards, which feature information about local livestock.

The game, long popular with local monks, represents Mongolians’ important relationship with livestock and the land. Batbayar’s version, he says, not only improves coordination, but also boosts cleverness in children and helps them learn about local livestock.

In the game, the four sides of the off-white, wavy bone represent a horse, sheep, camel and goat. To begin, a player tosses all the bone pieces, then identifies matching animals, or pieces that landed with the same side facing up. Next, the player flicks one bone, attempting to hit a matching bone. If they’re successfully hit, the player picks up the bone. The player who collects the most bones wins. Batbayar’s version, called My Arkhangai, also features playing cards with details about the animals.

In 2008, Batbayar says, he grew tired of seeing local schoolchildren on their mobile phones or playing games rooted in other places, like chess and checkers. So, he sold his car and used the money to buy 36,000 anklebone pieces. He packaged them and now sells the game to connect local children to this Mongolian tradition.

The provincial government here budgeted 8.1 million Mongolian tugriks ($2,909) to promote My Arkhangai, in hopes of reconnecting families to the traditional game, says Oktyabr Munkhtur, culture specialist at the Department of Education, Culture and Art in Arkhangai province.

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Odonchimeg Batsukh, GPJ Mongolia

Local monk Batbayar Khasbazar watches children play his version of the traditional Mongolian game shagai to connect children to the land.

It’s working. Batbayar says he has taught the game to more than 10,000 schoolchildren so far.

Chimgee Purevjav, who works at the Mongolian State University of Education, received the game as a gift from a sibling. Now, they play together as a family.

“The game has many benefits,” Chimgee says. “The children are interested in it and happy to play it with their moms and dads.”

Otgoo Tsedendemberel, GPJ, translated this story from Mongolian.