Mongolian horses & horseman

Mongolia’s ancient instrument striking a chord

101 East is a multi award-winning weekly television programme, broadcast by Al Jazeera English, that focuses on current affairs in Asia and the Pacific.

On the following program they interviewed the one of the well-known craftsman of “Morin Khuur” or “Horse Fiddle”-  traditional Mongolian bowed stringed instrument. And, we can see how this evolved from beautiful folk instrument to featuring in Classical Western Music.

It is one of the most important musical instruments of the Mongol people, and is considered a symbol of the Mongolian nation. The morin khuur is one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity identified by UNESCO.

One from many – Legend of  “Morin Khuur”

It is said that a long, long time ago there was a young man named Namjil, who lived in a white felt palace-Ger. One day he decided to discover the mystery of magic. He didn’t know where to look to find it, but the Mongolians say that in order to find something, you must search for it, and in order to learn something, you must be persistent. For so Namjil decided to wonder around this world in hopes of mastering the mysteries of magic.

To do this, however, he first needed a fast and tireless horse. He took his saddle and bridle then came to a herd of horses grazing on the steppe. But though he looked, he didn’t find the good horse that he was looking for. He needed a beautiful stallion that could travel a year’s distance in a month, and a month’s distance in a day. He searches among the thousands of horses on the north sides of mountains and among the thousands of horses on the south side, but still he could not find the one horse he was looking for.

One day, when he sat exhausted on the ground, he heard what sounded like a beautiful ethereal melody coming from nearby. He went to where the sounds were emanating and found on the ground two pieces of horse manure connected by horsehair. The hair vibrated in the breeze blowing across the steppe creating the ethereal sound he had heard. He pondered that if a single hair could create such a beautiful melody, then many hairs could create an even more beautiful one. When he returned home, he took a wooden ladle and covered the top of its base with a piece of dried skin. He then attached two horsehairs to the two ends of the ladle. He took another horsehair and attached it to both ends of a tree branch. This was how the fiddle originated.

Namjil carried his fiddle on his back to the summit of a mountain to look for his horse. As he walked, the breeze vibrated its strings, creating pleasant melodies. These melodies made Tengger (Sky) even bluer and the nearby springs even clearer. They also calmed the horses that pastured on the steppe below. The Mongolians say that “not every man is alike, and not every horse is swift. ” While some of the grazing horses paid no attention to the melodies of the fiddle, others did and neighed in response.

Namjil learned how to play his fiddle by imitating the ways the breezes made the strings vibrate. He practiced his fiddle over and over again. One day he heard the sound of a horse neighing coming from very far away. He moved in the direction of the sound, sat down and began again to play his fiddle. As he moved closer, these distant sounds became clearer. How endless is the steppe, how numberless are the horse herds? He wondered. Namjil continued to move in the direction of these sounds and eventually came into the valley of a blue mountain. Here he sat and again played his fiddle. The valley was filled with grazing herds of horses. From far away a tall bluish-brown horse with a beautifully even back approached him, its four feet pounding the ground as it did. As it came close, an old horse skull lying beside an ovoo startled it.

Namjil took this skull, which had startled the bluish-brown horse, and filled its interior with horse manure in a way that made it appear to come alive. Then he set his fiddle on top of the skull and again began to play it, playing over and over again. On the ovoo was hung much horsehair that appeared to sing as the breezes blew past them. Then the old horse skull itself began to make a sound like a horse’s neigh, which made the many horses in all directions neigh.

Namjil again played his fiddle. He played for three days and three nights. On the third night, just before dawn, the bluish-brown horse suddenly brightened and neighed, the echoes of which bounced off of the surrounding mountain. At that moment a white wing, like that of a swan, emerged from under the horse’s legs and opened and closed. Namjil played again for another three days, and as he did flowers sprouted from the horse’s skull and quickly grew. Again, just as the sun was about to rise, the bluish-brown horse brightened and neighed, its echoes bouncing off of the surrounding mountain. Once again, the white, swan-like wings emerged from under the horse’s legs and opened, but this time the bluish-brown horse flew into the air. Namjil continued to play his fiddle until the bluish-brown horse leapt into the air and flew high above the heads of the horses grazing on the steppe below. It circled three times before returning to the earth.

Namjil wondered how he could capture alive such a wild horse that had never been touched by anything except the stars, moon, and sky, and by the plants and flowers of the steppe. Many fine horse herders gathered in order to capture the bluish-brown horse. But none of them could put even a longest rope around its neck. The young man played his fiddle for three months from a place where he could see the bluish-brown horse from a distance. But then he stopped, stood up at the edge of the horse herd, and decided to go back home.

Namjil carried his fiddle with the old and weathered horse skull over three mountain passes. As he crossed the third, breezes blew over the fiddle’s strings, making what sounded like a horse neigh. He crossed over another three mountain passes, and as he crossed the third one, he heard the head of his fiddle make a horse neigh. When he turned to look back, he saw the bluish-brown horse approaching him in the air, neighing as it landed. Namjil felt that this horse must have been called by his fiddle’s melodies. When he sat on the ground to play his fiddle, the bluish-brown horse came close to sniff the head of the fiddle and again it neighed. The horse then allowed Namjil to caress its beautiful even back and neighed two times.

This was how that young man got the bluish-brown winged horse. This was the horse that shortens the distance of a year to a month, and the distance of a month to a day. Namjil then started herding the thousands of horses on the great steppe of Mongolia by flying with his beloved horse.

But even with such a fast horse, he chose not to continue pursing his dream to wander around the world in search of the mystery of magic. When people questioned him as to why he was ending his search, he replied, “How can one find anything more mysterious and magical than the horse-head fiddle, which has a beautiful melody and magic? Through the sound of my horse-head fiddle, I have captured the wild horse that had never been touched by anything except the Sky Wind. Through the sound of my horse-head fiddle, I created the wings that made my horse fly. If magic exists, then it must be the horse-head fiddle!”

From that time on, every family who lived on the steppe, herding horses and happily ever after, placed their horse-head fiddle on their Ger’s sacred part. Every family carved a fine horsehead on the top of their fiddle, made strings with horsetail hairs, and preserved on their fiddle the sound of their horse’s gallops and neighs. In this way they preserved the memory of their horses. It is said that on the Mongolian steppe, all were fiddle players and all horses became fast. The horse-head fiddle spread throughout the Mongolian steppe. In the melodies of the horse-head fiddle, the horse herds multiplied rapidly like rice and wheat, the scented breezes blew, plentiful rains fell, the springs were full, herbal flowers and plants blossomed, nothing frightened the people, there were no illnesses, and everyone lived happily from that time on…

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on Apr 25, 2018