The Ger and the Sacred Circle

The ger, known to a lot of Westerners as the yurt, is the traditional
dwelling of the Mongols. It is constructed of a framework of poles (uni)
radiating from a center smoke hole ring (tono), which is lashed on top of a
circular latticework wall. It bears a very strong resemblance to the
hooghan of the Navaho of the American Southwest. Also, many Siberian
peoples, including the Tsatang and Urianhai Mongols, live in tepees. In all
cases the orientation and symbolism of the ger is true for all Mongolian
groups. Gers and tepees (uurts) are designed to be easily assembled or
taken down as the nomadic travels of their owners requires, nevertheless,
the imagery and meaning of the ger stays the same no matter where it is
erected.

The ger is not only the center of the universe, but also a microcosm within
it. In fact, it is a map of the universe at large, and the vault of the
heavens is reflected in the arched shape of the interior of the ger roof.
The entrance is always to face the south, since that is the front of the
ger. The north side, called the hoimor, located behind the fire, is the
most honorable spot in the ger. It is here that the sacred objects, ongon
spirit dwellings and other religious images are placed on a table. The
sitting place next to the hoimor is the most honored and is occupied by
elders, chiefs, shamans, or other respected guests. The right, west, side
is the male side, and is the sitting place for men and storage place for
men’s tools, saddles, bows, and guns. The left, east, side is the sitting
place for women, and cooking utensils, cradleboards, and other women’s
objects are placed there. Since the southern side is the least honored
spot, young people are usually seated on the southern part of the left and
right sides.

Movement is “sunwise,” in a clockwise direction. The reason why this is
regarded as the path of the sun becomes readily apparent if one watches the
track traced by the circular patch of sunlight entering through the
smokehole through the day. Whenever moving inside the ger, one must always
move in a sunwise direction. This same movement is also required in
shamanic dances, worship, and ritual.

The center of the ger is the most sacred place of all, the gal golomt, the
place of the fire. It is the dwelling place of the daughter of Father
Heaven, Golomto, and is to be treated with the utmost respect. As the ger
is the center of the world, so the place of the fire the center of the
universe represented by the ger itself. The vertical axis represented by
the column of smoke rising from the gal golomt also represents the World
Tree which shamans ascend to the upper world, the smoke ring (tono)
corresponds to the gateway to the upper world. In some shaman rituals, such
as the initiation of shamans in Buryatia, a tree will actually be erected
extending from beside the gal golomt to beyond the smokehole. As the shaman
ascends the tree in his ecstatic state he describes his journey to the
upper world. Also, even in the absence of the toroo tree, the shaman will
still travel to other worlds after exiting through the smoke hole, often
after his spirit has metamorphosed into a bird.

The ger, therefore, can be seen as a parallel to the Native American
medicine wheel, a physical representation of the sacred circle with a
definite orientation to the four directions and the universe at large. The
circular pattern and alignment to the four directions is also retained in
outdoor shamanist ceremonies, such as the walking and dancing around the
sacred oboo cairns erected to mountain spirits or the yohor dance around a
toroo tree by which the dancers raise a spiral of energy to carry the
shaman to the heavens. Sunwise circular movement is also used in the
dallaga blessing ceremony and in all types of dances by the shaman.

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