Tradition and Etiquette
Having been home to the many tribes and cultures of central Asia for millennia a great deal of traditions, superstition, religious significance and custom has built up surrounding the yurt.
To the Mongolian people the ger is more than just a simple dwelling, in its construction the whole universe is represented: The roof represents the sky and the smoke hole the sun. The hearth contains the five basic earth elements of earth, wood, fire, metal, and water (metal in the grate and water in the kettle). For the Buryat Mongols the fire contains the house deity and is therefore sacred, offerings are thrown on every morning. No rubbish is burned on the fire and outsiders should not take a light from it. The two upright roof poles supporting the crown are of symbolic importance rather than a structural necessity.
The Mongolian people are predominantly Buddhist, and a shrine is set up opposite the door, people sleep with their heads towards this altar. In Muslim areas the people sleep in the opposite direction with their heads towards the south facing door, roughly the direction of Mecca.
Setting up home
The family yurt is usually obtained as a gift from the brides parents on a couples marriage. The frame should last a lifetime, but the felt covers need replacing every three to five years. The yurt is set up with the door facing south. When families camp together during the winter the group of yurts or aul are set in a circle with the opening to the south. The roof poles and crown are carried in through the door, it is considered bad luck to pass them over the wall.
The interior furnishings and seating arrangements are always the same. The altar is placed opposite the door at the back of the yurt. The hearth or stove is in the middle of the floor with firewood or other fuel in front and a low table behind. The western side is the domain of the men, male visitors and honoured guests sit this side, where saddles, tools and airag (fermented mares milk) are kept. The women and children use the eastern side, where rugs, bedding, food, cutlery, crockery and water are stored. Servants, poor visitors and any sick or very young animals that need nursing sit near the entrance.
Figure 12. Traditional furnishing and seating in the ger.
Traditionally, anyone stopping outside of a ger is invited in for a meal, a sheep is killed for the feast (more practical on the lonely steppes of Mongolia than in this overcrowded island). When entering the yurt it is considered impolite to step on the threshold or to hold onto the ropes. The traditional greeting offered by the visitor consists of four questions: are you well?, is your family well?, are your cattle/sheep fat?, is the grass good? the answer to each of these questions is yes, whatever the reality. After exchanging greetings the guest is offered tea, followed by airag and then yoghurt. Visitors to a Kalmuk yurt are offered arak, distilled spirit of airag, three glasses must be drunk in rapid succession. Following these formalities men exchange snuff and the party can become more relaxed. At the meal the guest carves and shares the meat.
There are a number of rules which guests should follow. All weapons should be left outside, do not step on the threshold, point your feet at or put rubbish on the fire. Do not sit with your back to the altar, whistle, write in red pen, step over older people or point a knife at anyone. One should take at least a little of any food or drink offered. When offered arak or vodka flick a small amount to the sky, the wind and the earth before drinking.