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Points of Transition. Ovoo and the Ritual Remaking of Religious, Ecological, and Historical Politics in Inner Asia


Isabelle Charleux et Marissa J. Smith

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1Many Mongolists have encountered the “ovoo phenomenon” in the course of their research and fieldwork. This special issue of EMSCAT takes an interdisciplinary perspective on ovoos, with contributions from historians, anthropologists, environmental scientists, archeologists, Buddhologists, and art historians. This project was made possible thanks to the “Mongolia Initiative”, especially by the Initiative’s director Caverlee Cary, at the Institute of East Asian Studies at UC Berkeley, and the France-Berkeley Fund, allowing us to organize a workshop and a conference in Berkeley in February 2019. The editors also solicited articles from contributors beyond the original conference, making the project grow, in ovoo-fashion.

  • 1 Written in Tibetan lab tse, lab rtse, lab btsas, la btsas, or la rdzas. As noted by Diemberger (200 (...)

2On the one hand, the term ovoo refers to stone or earth heaps, sometimes with a central pole, a tuft, flagpoles or arrows, or tree trunks arranged in conical shape. On the other hand, the term also often refers to features of height on the landscape, “mountains”, both in the geological sense but in the cosmological one which also includes “masters” (Mo. ezed) with whom humans are in active relations. While this issue focuses on ovoos, which are found ubiquitously on the landscape of Mongolia, Inner Mongolia, Buryatia, Kalmykia, Tuva, and Eastern Tibet/Qinghai, the topic is of interest beyond the field of Mongolian Studies. First of all, ovoos are clearly related to Tibetan cairns called lab tse1, but are also related to stupas and often found among, alongside, and hybridized with, monumental structures including stupas. At the same time, cairns and relationships with mountains are present all over the world and ovoos are an interesting focus for comparative regional analyses. Finally, the “transitional” qualities of ovoos that we draw attention to in this issue are of interest to specialists and students of ritual, frontier studies, territorial administration, engagement with landscape, and history as accumulation in any region.

3As expressed by Benedikte Lindskog,

The word ovoo means “heap” or “pile” (Evans & Humphrey 2003, p. 196). Ovooloh means to “heap up” and carries positive connotations linked to central conceptual values among Mongols, that of concentration or centring (tövlöj), “containing” (aguulaj) and the hierarchical superiority of that which is above (deed). The word tarah, meaning “to scatter”, can be seen as the antithesis of obooloh, and is associated with loss and dispersal […]. The “centripetal” (Da Col & Humphrey 2012) ritual process involved during an ovoo offering is manifested through acts wherein “fortune” (hishig) is “tied” to objects and receives its force through accumulation, encircling and centering. (Lindskog 2016)

4Conversely, Humphrey suggests a linguistic link between the word ovoo and ovoohoi, which means refuge, or shelter. According to her, this is because ovoo rituals enact a kind of “closing up and binding in” (Humphrey 1995, p. 148).

5While some ovoos are built in architectural, structured, forms with connections to Buddhist stupas (Mo. suvraga) and mandalas (Mo. mandal), they are also never to be completed. As Tim Ingold writes, “unlike the long forgotten object possibly deposited inside it, the mound is still mounding” (Ingold 2010, p. 258). For Davaa-Ochir, the act of adding stones symbolizes “the participation of worshippers to the continuous creation of the sanctuary dedicated to the master spirits” (Davaa Ochir 2008, p. 53). As also emphasized in a number of contributions to this volume, the act of adding stones is also an act of engagement with the landscape and its denizens, and their proper ordering (see the article by Delaplace and Legrain in this issue for discussion of related practices with this function). As Jessica Madison Pískatá writes, the relationship between ovoos and components of ovoos is “a process of accretion (Smith 2015) by which energy, fortune and value are collected, consolidated, and redistributed via a system of intensifying exchange in which the material is collected (as stones, sand, wood, etc.) and the immaterial is redistributed (as fortune, destiny, energy, value, etc.)”.

6Travelers in Mongolia are generally introduced to and participate in the process of physically adding stones or objects to “roadside ovoos”. But ovoo also refers to many mountains themselves, for example the “Golden Mountain” (Mo. Altan Ovoo) of the Dariganga region of south-east Mongolia, in Sühbaatar Province (Madison Pískatá, this issue), or the “Treasure Mountain” (Mo. Erdenetiin Ovoo) between the Selenge and Orhon Rivers in north central Mongolia (Smith 2015; also Charleux, this issue; Tamirjavyn 2017a, b). Ovoos have a mimetic relationship with the mountain: “the monuments do not break with the natural topography. Basically, it seems that the mounds were built with the twofold purpose of being seen and appearing as natural features in the landscape […], thereby enhancing their symbolic and visual connection with the mountains” (Dal Zovo 2015, p. 140). Ovoos and stupas “were probably intended to incorporate the substance of Mongolian mountains, through the construction materials, the stones, the location pattern and architectonic shape” (ibid., p. 140). But then again, as elaborated on in this issue by Watters, there is also a connection between ovoos and hearths (Mo. otgon) as focal points of sociability.

  • 2 In 2006, China included ovoo worship in its own list of intangible cultural heritage and created th (...)

7The great scalar range on which the ovoo concept operates also relates to the slippage between everyday, individual acts at “roadside ovoos” on the one end of the spectrum, and the highly coordinated “state ovoo” ceremonies (Mo. tahilga) performed by the president of Mongolia that are organized since the beginning of the 1990s on the other. Using de la Cadena’s (2010) concept of “cosmopolitics”, David Sneath highlights the highly political character of collective ovoo rituals that are an occasion for displaying the hierarchical social statuses of the participants and thus reenacting socio-political hierarchies (Sneath 2014). The ovoo has been defined as a “key aspect of traditional culture,” registered on the UNESCO Cultural Heritage list2. An ovoo has even been built in the courtyard of the Mongolian Embassy in France. In accordance with their function of ordering and the political character of such ordering, there are often, ideally at least, restrictions on whom may interact with which ovoos under what conditions, leading some to occasionally claim or attempt to assert that ovoos are categorically only built and otherwise interacted with by persons of particular genders, religions, or ethno-territorial identities. However, intrinsic to their form and nature is that ovoos may potentially be built anywhere, of anything, by anyone, composed of and composing any set of relations (including with other ovoos).

  • 3 As expressed Caroline Humphrey (1995, p. 146), ovoos are a way of saying “We are here”.
  • 4 Classical books on Mongolian architecture such as Maidar ([1970] 1972) present the yurt, Buddhist t (...)
  • 5 Huge amounts of money are “invested” in construction and rituals (see for example Dumont 2017, p. 2 (...)

8But again, “transitioning” between these extremes, there are also more local “cult ovoos”, that are in fact not local so much as scalar, situating their participants in relation to “higher levels” in both territorial-administrative terms as well as cosmological ones. Reasons to build ovoos are many and they carry different meanings: while their main function is to serve as altars to propitiate the master-spirits of the land with seasonal sacrifices, ovoos are also built to appease roaming souls (Hutchins’s article in this issue), to commemorate historical events or historical figures (Dumont, this issue), and also function as landmarks to orientate oneself. In the case discussed by Sam H. Bass, an absence of ovoo ritual correlates with the unusual position of the Erküüt vis-à-vis others in their banner community. Jessica Madison Pískatá writes of the disruption of a local ovoo ceremony due to weather, related to the improper presence of people from the national capital (both too many polluting vehicles from the polluted Ulaanbaatar, and the postponement of national-level ceremonies by the state). Aurore Dumont describes with great ethnographic and historical detail how it has been with local ovoo ceremony that Buryats who migrated from Russia to northeastern China in the 1920s have maintained a distinct group identity in the course of many categorical erasures by the national administration and built ovoos to secure their appropriation of a territory3. Isabelle Charleux’s survey of manuscript maps from the late Qing (1644-1911) shows the variability present among particular documents that were created to adhere to a strict form dictated by the imperial administration – “boundary ovoos” too are highly and multiply “transitional”. Ovoos are not considered as being “architecture”4. They are periodically rebuilt (and were massively rebuilt5, sometimes at different places, after their almost complete destructions in socialist Mongolia, Buryatia and Inner Mongolia). As noted in Valeria Gazizova in this issue, and elsewhere by Tamirjavyn (2017a, b), Charlier (2015, 2016), and Empson (2011), single stones as well as mountains can also move and be moved, at least in the form of ovoos and components of ovoos.

  • 6 Ovoos are not tombs but are not unrelated to ancestors whose tombs are also located near mountain s (...)

9As foci of historical periodization, ovoos are still also omnipresent, often as “transitional”. Ninth century thaumaturgist Padmasambhava is sometimes credited as having performed the first ovoo ritual. Ovoos are nowadays depicted on Mongolian stamps picturing the Xiongnu (3rd century BC to the late 1st century AD) and on the cover of books on the Mongolian empire (such as May 2018). While ovoos are not attested in written sources from the medieval period, mountain cults are attested (see Chinggis Khaan’s propitiation of Burkhan Khaldun in The Secret History of the Mongols). Archaeologist Cecilia Dal Zovo has documented ritual practices at stone cairns and prehistoric mounds of the Bronze and Iron Ages and explored their relation to tombs6. Her article in this collection, along with Valeria Gazizova’s, also describe and analyze contemporary connections made between ovoos and burials (especially the Mo. hirigsüür).

10Given their continuous presence, ovoos unsurprisingly figure prominently in contemporary processes of social and wider environmental upheaval. As expresses K. G. Hutchins in his article, “ovoo worship is tied to a discrete set of social relationships between particular people, mountains, spirits, and animals”. The articles in this special issue take seriously ovoo-related practices that combine Buddhism, shamanism and popular religion, lie between private and public religious practices, are influenced as well by global New Age trends and shamanism, and involve recent reinvention and re-archaization of ovoo rituals (see especially the articles by Gazizova and Hutchins). The volume also attends to the utilization of ovoos in the highly secular and economic: issues of ownership of land, the mining industry, ecological conservation and natural resource management. Rebecca Watters’ article on environmental conservation shows how Mongols have to negotiate the boundaries between foreign expectations linked to an alternative understanding of landscape, and Mongolian ideals.

11While aware of the impossibility of covering all aspects of ovoos and their worship, our objective is rather that of providing a series of insights into a few relevant topics concerning sacred geography and the origin of ovoos, their various meanings and political function, humans’ engagement with ovoos and their relation to the land, environment, and heritage.

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Tamirjavyn, B. 2017a Some remarks on ovoo worship among the Dariganga Mongols, paper presented at the International Conference “Mongolian Buddhism in Practice,” Eötvös Loránd University (ELTE) (May 24th-25th, 2017, Budapest, Hungary).
2017b Some remarks on
ovoo worship among the Dariganga Mongols, Rocznik Orientalistyczny 70(2), pp. 261-273.

Cadena, M. de la 2010. Indigenous cosmopolitics in the Andes. Conceptual reflections beyond ‘politics’’, Cultural Anthropology 25(2), Mo. 334-370.

Charlier, B. 2015 Faces of the Wolf. Managing the Human, Non-human Boundary in Mongolia (Leiden, Brill).
2016 Actions rituelles, mobilité et attachement au “pays natal” parmi des éleveurs nomades de Mongolie, Études mongoles et sibériennes, centrasiatiques et tibétaines 47,

Da Col, G. & C. Humphrey 2012 Introduction. Subjects of luck – contingency, morality, and the anticipation of everyday Life, Social Analysis 56(2), pp. 1-18.

Dal Zovo, C. 2015 Archaeology of a Sacred Mountain. Mounds, Water, Mobility, and Cosmologies of Ikh Bogd Uul, Eastern Altain Mountains, Mongolia. PhD dissertation (Santiago de Compostela, Universidade de Santiago de Compostela).

Davaa-Ochir, G. 2008 Oboo Worship. The Worship of Earth and Water Divinities in Mongolia. M.A. thesis (Oslo, University of Oslo).

Diemberger, H. 2003 Festivals and their leaders. The management of tradition in the Tibetan/Mongolian Borderlands, in U. Bulag & H. Diemberger (eds), The Tibet-Mongolia Interface. Opening New Research Terrains in Inner Asia (Leiden, Brill), pp. 109-134.

Dumont, A. 2017 “Oboo” sacred monuments in Hulun Buir. Their narratives and contemporary worship, Cross Currents: East Asian History and Culture Review 24 [online, URL:, accessed 13 December 2021].

Empson, R. 2011 Harnessing Fortune. Personhood, Memory and Place in Mongolia (Oxford, Clarendon Press).

Evans, C. & C. Humphrey 2003 History, timelessness and the monumental. The oboos of the Mergen environs, Inner Mongolia, Cambridge Archaeological Journal 13(2), pp. 195-211.

Humphrey, C. 1995 Chiefly and shamanist landscapes in Mongolia, in E. Hirsch & M. O’Hanlon (eds), The Anthropology of Landscape. Perspectives on Place and Space (Oxford, Clarendon Press), pp. 135-162.

Ingold, T. 2010 The round mound is not a monument, in J. Leary, T. Darvill & D. Field (eds), Round Mounds and Monumentality in the British Neolithic and Beyond (Oxford, Oxbow Books), pp. 253-260.

Lindskog, B. V. 2016 Ritual offerings to ovoos among nomadic Halh herders of west-central Mongolia, Études mongoles et sibériennes, centrasiatiques et tibétaines 47,

Maidar, D. [1970] 1972 Mongolyn arhitektur ba hot baiguulalt. Toim [Architecture and construction of cities in Mongolia. Overview], translated from Russian (Ulaanbaatar, no editor mentioned).

May, T. M. 2018 The Mongol Empire (Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press).

Smith, M. J. 2015 Treasure Underfoot and Far Away. Mining, Foreignness, and Friendship in Contemporary Mongolia. PhD dissertation (Princeton, Princeton University).

Sneath, D. 2014 Nationalising civilisational resources. Sacred mountains and cosmopolitical ritual in Mongolia, Asian Ethnicity 15(4), pp. 458-472.

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1 Written in Tibetan lab tse, lab rtse, lab btsas, la btsas, or la rdzas. As noted by Diemberger (2003), the equivalence between lab tse and ovoo deserves more study.

2 In 2006, China included ovoo worship in its own list of intangible cultural heritage and created the concept of “ovoo culture” (Ch. aobao wenhua 敖包文化).

3 As expressed Caroline Humphrey (1995, p. 146), ovoos are a way of saying “We are here”.

4 Classical books on Mongolian architecture such as Maidar ([1970] 1972) present the yurt, Buddhist temples and stupas, modern 20th century architecture as well as ruins of cities and deer stone, but not ovoos.

5 Huge amounts of money are “invested” in construction and rituals (see for example Dumont 2017, p. 208).

6 Ovoos are not tombs but are not unrelated to ancestors whose tombs are also located near mountain summits. Though ovoos are generally not places of human burial, they may house relics of ancestors (Evans & Humphrey 2003; Dal Zovo 2015; Dumont 2017).

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Isabelle Charleux et Marissa J. Smith, « Introduction »Études mongoles et sibériennes, centrasiatiques et tibétaines [En ligne], 52 | 2021, mis en ligne le 23 décembre 2021, consulté le 17 janvier 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Isabelle Charleux

Isabelle Charleux is Director of researches at GSRL (National Centre for Scientific Research – Group Societies, Religions, Laicities, EPHE/PSL, Paris). Her research interests focus on Mongolian material culture and religion. She published Nomads on Pilgrimage. Mongols on Wutaishan (China), 1800-1940 (Brill, 2015) and Temples et monastères de Mongolie-Intérieure (INHA/CTHS, 2006).

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Marissa J. Smith

Marissa J. Smith is a sociocultural anthropologist specializing in the anthropology of science and technology, political economy, and postsocialism. In particular, her work is concerned with the cosmopolitan projects people of diverse backgrounds undertake in places remote from metropoles, especially as these combine, on the one hand, science, technology, and engineering and, on the other, knowledge practices framed as local, national, traditional or in other ways particular. Since completing her PhD work in 2015 she has collaborated with the “Mongolia Initiative” at UC-Berkeley and the Emerging Subjects of the New Economy project at University College London.

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