The Darkhad of Inner Mongolia keep an 800-year vigil of secret rituals at the tomb of their great leader
Silence has once more returned to the Mausoleum of Genghis Khan, now bathed with the golden glow of morning sun. The scene was very different two weeks ago, when close to 100,000 pilgrims from around the world converged here for the week-long annual spring sacrifice of Tsagaansurek.
Govaa, a young woman from the surrounding countryside, steps into the mausoleum’s palace, built to resemble three Mongolian yurts. She removes her stylish sunglasses, takes out a huge piece of roast lamb and two bottles of fine Moutai liquor as offerings , and kneels down in front of the golden statue of the Great Khan.
The palace resounds with a priest’s voice reading an ode to the Mongol warlord.
“There were too many people yesterday and we were stuck outside,” says Govaa, after presenting her offering. “But, I could never miss such an important rite … I have to be responsible to our Emperor Lord, who always lives in my heart.”
Govaa belongs to Darkhad people, descendants of Bo’orchu and Muqali, two renowned Mongol generals who guarded Genghis Khan’s mausoleum after his death in 1227.
Though the true resting place of Khan is a secret lost to history, the mausoleum houses many of his belongings, as well as spear-shaped totems called sulde, which are sacred to all Mongolians.
To guard them, the Darkhad have scrupulously kept an oil lamp burning uninterruptedly for nearly 800 years here as part of their sacred duties.
About 6,000 Darkhad people still live hereabouts, and 30 maintain full-time duties guarding the tomb and hosting dozens of rituals here every year, among which Tsagaansurek is the biggest.
The complicated process of rites for Khan has remained unchanged through centuries and was among the first to be listed as Chinese intangible cultural heritage, in 2006.
During major rituals Darkhad men still sing the “song of heaven”, a long ballad in an as-yet unidentified ancient language accompanied by an instrument called the charig, once used in horse sacrifices.
The only two Darkhad guards able to read the characters of the ritual language are Khasbileg and his father, but they refuse to say much about this strange rite.
Khasbileg’s father claims he cannot speak Mandarin, and his 16-year-old son, who looks energetic on the basketball court outside, suddenly falls silent during our interview.
Both are priests from a leading Darkhad family and, like most other mausoleum attendants, they maintain solemn and mysterious faces before the pilgrims.
However, one of their colleagues, Erdenesunver, is uncommonly approachable.
“Each family has its own duty for a certain part of the rituals,” says the 61-year-old retired priest, a 38th-generation Darkhad. “Each holds the responsibility for a unique tradition, like singing the ‘song of heaven’.
“Our family’s duty is to care for the main ‘palace’,” he continues, although he refuses to reveal more details.
Erdenesunver says that about 500 families safeguarded the mausoleum when Kublai Khan (1215-94) had its eight white “yurt palaces” built and launched the seasonal rituals.
The eight palaces remained until 1939, when the mausoleum was moved westward to escape a threatened Japanese invasion. The mausoleum was moved back in 1954, and the current palace was built two years later.
The rites, says Erdenesunver, have never been committed to script and are instead passed down the Darkhad generations by word of mouth.
A golden book of ancient shamanistic odes and anthems sung during the rituals was lost in the 1960s, he adds. It took Erdenesunver 15 years of rummaging among historical records and priests’ memoirs before he finally pieced together the book’s secrets, in 2007.
Public sacrifices during Lunar New Year and Tsagaansurek have also been revived in recent years, after the tradition had fallen by the wayside.
“It is good to see the Darkhad are attracting public interest in the traditions again after so long,” he says. “I am thrilled to see all the visitors we are now getting from overseas.”
But there are also signs of cultural decline. Erdenesunver notes that the Darkhad phalanx guarding the mausoleum has shrunk in recent years, as people leave to seek better opportunities in China’s booming big cities.
One who refuses to abandon the old ways is Erdenebileg, a 39-year-old man from a Darkhad family whose job for centuries was to raise white horses for the rituals. He attended medical school and ran a clinic in a nearby town for six years before he decided to return to the mausoleum to take care of logistics in 2000.
“It takes a lifetime to learn our own culture,” he explains.
“Why shouldn’t I come back to the place that gave life to me?”