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Points of Transition. Ovoo and the Ritual Remaking of Religious, Ecological, and Historical Politics in Inner Asia
Geography and politics, appropriation of the land, minority groups

“They call out to their dead devils!” Erküüt and the Rejection of Communal Rituals in a Mongol Banner

« Ils ont appelé leurs diables morts ! ». Les Erküüt et le rejet des rituels communautaires dans une bannière mongole
Sam H. Bass


Les définitions et les modèles de structures sociales nomades-pastorales jouent un rôle important dans le domaine des études mongoles : ces modèles sont fondamentaux pour notre compréhension de la dynamique des processus historiques au sein de la société et entre les Mongols et les entités politiques voisines. Récemment, les chercheurs ont critiqué les modèles précédents en apportant de nouveaux modèles anthropologiques et des preuves historiques, et pour la période de l’administration de la Mongolie-Intérieure par les Qing (1636-1911), ont identifié la bannière comme l’unité de base de l’organisation sociale. Cet article contribue à ce domaine d’étude en examinant l’importance de rituels subversifs et alternatifs dans des communautés de petite taille à l’écart des grandes communautés de bannière. Les Erküüt (Erkegüd), une petite communauté des Ordos, ont rejeté la vie religieuse des bannières, y compris le culte des ovoo, et ont donc été exclus et, dans une certaine mesure, stigmatisés au sein de la communauté des bannières. On retrouve également des pratiques religieuses et sociales au caractère exclusif au sein d’autres communautés, par exemple les Qatagin et Darqad des Ordos ; toutefois, ces groupes ont maintenu une signification rituelle au sein de la communauté des bannières, parce qu’ils organisaient des rituels pour le bénéfice de tous les Mongols. L’importance du rituel dans la définition des communautés, en particulier les communautés au sein des bannières, doit être considérée comme une forme alternative de formation et de maintien de la communauté.

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Introduction: banner communities

1In a recent essay on the continuity of administrative structures in Mongol history, Christopher Atwood proposed that the basic unit of social organization in Mongol history since the medieval imperial period has been the appanage community, which he characterizes as:

a defined territory and people assigned to the hereditary jurisdiction of a particular nobleman and his descendants, as a unit of local government [] [comprised of] a group of people who maintain a perpetuity of rights and membership in appanage resources, who limit these privileges to insiders; and who are discouraged from active contact with outsiders. (Atwood 2013, p. 2)

2He also provides for under- or over-sized units that “borrow much of the symbolic equipment of the appanage to mark out a more manageable slice of territory and membership as community” (ibid.). In the period of Qing rule in Inner Mongolia being in 1636 and into the early 20th century, the limit of the Mongol appanage community was the “banner” (qosiγu). Aside from material resource, rituals bound appanage or banner members together, as “religious communities having common banner Buddhist temples and cairns (oboo) where ceremonies were performed in the summer for the luu/dragons , both financed on a subscription basis” (ibid., p. 5). The fiscal responsibilities of banner members included the maintenance of ritual sites as well as providing ritual paraphernalia (Serruys 1972, pp. 602-603). These community sponsored rituals, officiated by lamas, government officials, and representatives of Chinggis Khan’s lineage among the eastern Mongols of the Qing, functioned to create “a very strong sense of connection between the banner land, the banner members, and the Chinggisid ancestors of the banner nobility” (Atwood 2002, p. 30). Thus, material or financial interests intersect with ritual at the banner level, the appanage community with an aristocratic center, through communal support of rituals consecrating land and the people identified with that land.

3The appanage community model is an ideal type, which is to say that it is supposed to align with most cases in the historical Mongol ecumene but not intended to be a totally accurate representation of Mongol social organization in all cases for all time. The appanage community model emerged from questions about the nature of Mongol territorial administration, land inheritance, and how the people that inhabited those territories managed their interests in material resources. It challenges previous scholarship that attributed Mongol socio-political organization to “tribalism” or other ill-defined concepts of descent and lineage and situates aristocracy and their privilege as a central conceit of identity allegiance (cf. also Sneath 2007, passim). Atwood deems sub-banner communities – citing the examples of Mergen vang Banner in Qalqa and the Qatagin in Ordos – exceptions that prove the rule: Mergen vang Banner’s matri-lines were protecting material interests through descent, only through the female instead of the male line, and therefore did not deviate from the model of banner protection of resources (Atwood 2013, p. 12). The matri-line simply replaced the aristocratic line that defined the appanage, while the material interests of the community stayed the same. Put another way, in previous scholarship, anthropologists focusing on kinship, i.e. patrilineal versus matrilineal descent, obscured the underlying logic of the banner community which was rooted in heritable access to and protection of pasture and water resources (cf. Potanski & Szynkiewicz 1993, pp. 97-101). The Qatagin, on the other hand, were a sectarian group defined by themselves and by banner members as internal outsiders; they were known as a cultic group based around the worship of the “Thirteen jealous gods” (arban γurban ataγa tngri), and only initiated others into the group via marriage, bilaterally via sons and daughters in law (Qurčabaγatur 1987, pp. 84-86; Bawden 1977, passim). Atwood argues that their marginalization in Ordos society was due to them forming a society around a secretive religious practice, strict rules of descent, and a legend of migration from outside Ordos. Therefore, the Qatagin’s relatively small community membership – about one hundred households or the size of a smaller sub-banner administrative division, a sumu or baγ – shows that they were exceptions that prove the rule to appanage communities. Atwood adds that these sub-banners were “not recognized juridically and were always liable to reversal by strong banner leadership” (Atwood 2013, p. 12).

4The usefulness of counter-examples that serve as “exceptions that prove a rule” diminishes as more of these counter-examples are explored. My purpose here is not to disprove Atwood’s main thesis about appanage communities, rather it is to suggest that counter-examples – sub-banner, non-normative communities defined by themselves and others as community outsiders and outside the law – are more significant when we consider community inclusion defined through rites instead of by descent. To be clear: Atwood’s goal was to disprove the long-held scholarly assertion that descent and lineage were the central organizing principle of Mongol society by offering a different model that corresponded with what Mongol sources actually say. Ritually defined groups, including the Qatagin but also other groups in Ordos such the Erküüt and Darqad, monastic banners in Qalqa, the ecclesiastical estates of the Jebcündamba qutuγtus and Gobi Noyan qutuγtus, the various groups that rejected Buddhism along the Qing-Russian border, and other non-normative communities, present alternatives of community identity dynamics based on cultic practice, allegiance to a particular figure, direction or scope of ritual intent, and so on. In some cases, such as the Erküüt of Ordos, the community subverts the “symbolic equipment of the appanage” by rejecting Chinggis Khan and Borjigid supremacy and offering blood sacrifices in Buddhist rituals. Atwood’s focus on material interests such as pasture borders, above-ground resources, and taxes is born out of period specific Mongol-language sources, the most richly documented period being the Qing (1644-1911) and more specifically the period after about 1850, for which there is the most variety of accessible primary documents pertaining to details of routine banner administration (Atwood 2013, p. 2). Among those sources and historical ethnographic works about Inner Mongolia more generally, Ordos is disproportionately represented (Bulag 2002, passim; Elverskog 2006b, p. 118, n. 34). Chief among the works on Ordos sources cited in Atwood’s essay are works by the eminent Mongolist Antoine Mostaert, and so it seems appropriate to begin a critique from within Ordos with an ethnographic report written by Mostaert about a sub-banner community – the Erküüt.

The Erküüt of Ordos

  • 1 Mostaert uses his idiosyncratic transcription of Ordos dialect throughout the essay, so I have tran (...)

5In 1934, Mostaert wrote the only detailed account of the Erküüt community in Ordos based on an interview with an Erküüt man Mostaert met in Beijing1. Erküüt people were of particular interest to Antoine Mostaert because he believed they were descendants of a Yuan-era Oriental (probably Syriac) Orthodox community that served the Mongol court, and therefore represented a forgotten Christian past of the region in which Mostaert was a Christian missionary (Mostaert 1934a, p. 3). Later members of the mission maintained interest but conducted no further research into the Erküüt community specifically. Joseph Van Hecken commented, somewhat misleadingly, that Mostaert’s report described a group of Ordos Mongols practicing “Nestorianism, which could have remained alive in Ordos”, taking Mostaert’s Christian hypothesis further than Mostaert himself (Van Hecken 1949, p. 200). Owen Lattimore, in his introduction to Louis Schram’s study of Mongour social history, referred to the Erküüt as “crypto-Christians”, noting the etymological possibility that Erküüt derives from the word for Christian clergy in Mongol, erke’ün (Lattimore 1954, p. 8). He advances a hypothesis that a community he came across in Barköl, Xinjiang also derived their group name from the medieval erke’ün plus the common northwest Chinese diminutive zi to arrive at erhunzi. He asked the locals the meaning of the word and they said it meant “bastards” or “half-breeds”, Lattimore suggests this is an incorrect folk etymology and erhunzi was actually a Sinified form of erke’ün (ibid., pp. 8-9, n. 21). Other scholars have been more circumspect in drawing these conclusions; Altanzaya, for example, concludes that despite superficial similarities between ethnonyms or family names that resemble erke’ün or erke’üd across Mongol and Oirat sources, the names are not related to one another (Altanzaya 2001, p. 6).

6Aside from these inferences about the Erküüt, there are many other instances of scholars finding scattered remains of Christian and seemingly Christian survivals and monuments in Inner Asia, and the Erküüt are little more than a footnote in the history of western scholars’ search for Christianity in Mongolia. In general, discoveries of this kind serve more as a “mirror interpreting the interpreter”, as one scholar put it, and highlight “the importance of understanding the author’s background and, indeed, motivations” (Halbertsma 2015, p. 286). Despite that, Mostaert’s report about the Erküüt is the only such document available for this group, and despite its brevity is invaluable for the study of recent Inner Asian society and history.

7As for Mostaert his credentials as a careful researcher are well established; his publications include several authoritative works in the field, and he spent about twenty years residing in Ordos as a missionary during which time he was also an active scholar of Mongol language, texts, and history. He was and continues to exert an influence in the fields of Mongol history and linguistics and commanded the respect of his colleagues (Rachewiltz 1999, p. 93). From what remains of the interview, it is clear that Mostaert asked his interlocutor, Garma (Γarma) Bansar, several questions about religious symbolism and practices, but he does not overinterpret Garma’s answers in a misleading way. Most importantly to establishing the credibility of his report and ensuring that by the missionizing motive did not distort too much is the inclusion of much information that seems to contradict Mostaert’s own thesis about the Christianity of the Erküüt. By the end of the report, it is only the etymology of the name Erküüt which gives credence to the Christian survival hypothesis; Mostaert concedes that “as a result of their prolonged contact with the shamanists and Lamaists, they seem to have preserved only very vague reminiscences of their ancient Christianity […] the very name they give to their god is […] that of a Lamaist divinity, and many of their religious practices are very close to certain practices found among the Lamaists” (Mostaert 1934a, p. 16).

8The report itself is a brief seventeen pages and based on Mostaert’s interviews with Garma. Garma was an illiterate forty-five-year-old man, and uncle to the banner prince of Üüsin in Ordos. His expertise as a witness is derived from a life spent participating, observing, and administering affairs near Erküüt territory. On the subject of religion, which is what interests Mostaert the most, Garma confesses ignorance because the formal aspects of Erküüt religion are kept secret to all but the clergy (Mostaert 1934a, pp. 6, 16). The report consists primarily of descriptions of life customs, public rituals such as burial and marriage, and some administrative particularities. Mostaert drew out the particular features of Erküüt life which contrasted with other Ordos Mongols. It is in Mostaert’s apparent preoccupation with the community’s religious life and their association with death that his motivation in creating the report is most obvious; it also provides us with a snapshot of a community which maintained a very distinct ritual life from the rest of the banner of which they were a part.

9Mostaert summarizes the main points of difference between the Erküüt and Ordos Mongols by stating what the Erküüt refrain from:

[…] in front of their door, one does not see the raising of the k’ī mori [kei mori] (a pole with banners covered with prayers), they do not visit the temples of lamas […] and have no respect for them; they do not practice divination, ignore the worship of fire, ovoo […] springs, etc. For them, Chinggis is a national hero and nothing more. They do not consecrate livestock […] to the gods, do not worry about auspicious or inauspicious days, do not sacrifice at tombs, and have no fear of the dead. The many impurities and defilements so much feared by the lamaists do not exist for the Erküüt. They do not believe in transmigration. (ibid., p. 6)

10The Erküüt lived in southern Ordos, split into two main groups between the Üüsin and Otoγ Banners. Although they previously lived further to the south, in an adjacent territory within the administration of Shaanxi province, they were pushed into Ordos by the steady encroachment of Chinese agriculturalists into their territory (ibid., p. 4). Mostaert posited that the Erküüt “probably came with the other Mongols who, in the second half of the 15th century, settled in the loop of the Yellow River” and were organized by the Qing empire as Ordos league in the 17th century (ibid., p. 17). This conception of the origins of the Ordos Mongols derives from the importance of the Chinggis Khan cult; the Ordos Mongols – sometimes part and sometimes all – are said to be descended from the group that was appointed as early as the time of Khubilai Khan to preserve the cult, and were told to move to Ordos to protect the cult and its paraphernalia from the ravages of the Qalqa-Oirat wars (Bulag 2010, p. 58). The Qatagin shared in this myth as well, with some people connecting the worship of the thirteen ataγa tngri with the Chinggis Khan cult itself, and others saying that the thirteen ataγa tngri were invited “from the north” (Qurčabaγatur 1987, pp. 84-86, 91, n. 1). Ataγa tngri is an appelation of the heavenly diety or dieties associated with Köke möngke tngri or Eternal Blue Heaven and offered sacrifices for the benefit of cattle herds and protection of horses, especially among Buryats (Heissig 1980, pp. 49-59). The Qatagin included themselves in the myth of ataγa tngri’s migration from the north by retelling their own real or imagined history of immigration, but they and the Erküüt were not non-Mongol, and banner members did not accuse them of being banner outsiders in any legal sense with material repercussions. For example, the banner administration did not charge them the surtaxes that normally accompanied such a status (Atwood 2013, p. 5, 2002, pp. 78-80, 210-211). Instead, their social stigmatization as outsiders was defined by their ritual divergence from the other banner members (cf. Atwood 2013, p. 13).

  • 2 Respectively: sayin sanaγatai kümün Erkegüd-ün dergedü bitegei oyirata, sayin debel-tei kümün kö de (...)

11Mostaert recorded several slanderous phrases uttered by banner Mongols about the Erküüt, but none are related to their relationship to territorial issues of the banner. They include the idiom “an honest person doesn’t approach an Erküüt; a person with a clean deel doesn’t approach soot”, and less poetic turns of phrase such as “bad Erküüt”, “black-boned Erküüt”, and “the heretical Erküüt” (Mostaert 1934a, p. 6)2. The former idiomatic expression was also recorded as “an honest person doesn’t approach a Čaqar” but referred to the Čaqar sub-banner division known in Ordos as qariya (En. subject[ed], in other parts of Mongolia usually called sumu or baγ), which also served as a surname for people from the Čaqar qariya (Mostaert [1941] 1968, pp. 180a, 516b; Mostaert 1934b, p. 24). One group of the Erküüt, moreover, lived in the Čaqar qariya (Mostaert 1934a, p. 4). The Čaqar of Ordos, like most Ordos Mongols, traced their history in the region to the cataclysmic events of the 17th century, when they were pressed westward by the Manchu army and settled as a military unit after the defeat of Ligdan khan, but in their rituals they invoke Aru qangγai and Altan tebsi, connecting them to the general origin myths of Ordos Mongols (Chiodo 1999, pp. 233-234, 241).

  • 3 There is, to my knowledge, no contemporary evidence from historical sources that “black bone” was u (...)

12The phrase “black-boned Erküüt”, on the other hand, could be seen as referencing the proximity of the Erküüt to the Chinese; in Ordos “black-boned” referred specifically to Chinese people, and not Mongol commoners (i.e. non-nobility) per se, although many scholars maintain that black-bonedness marked off base status among Mongols (Mostaert 1968, p. 336b)3. The term qaraču, related to blackness and denoting a common or base status, also did not apply to the Erküüt; Mostaert points out the Erküüt “do not depend on a taiži [tayiǰi] (descendant of Tšingis khan [Chinggis Khan]) like the other ordinary people (xara’tši k’un [qaraču kümün]) among the Ordos. Each group of Erküt has their own priest, whom they call baģši [baγsi] ‘master’” (Mostaert 1934a, p. 5). One consequence of this was not being liable to perform duties (alba) or pay taxes of any kind, in Ordos a privilege usually associated with the officiators of the Chinggis Khan cult, the Darqad (ibid.).

The Qatagin of Ordos

13Erküüt social categories did not match the rest of Ordos – even the commoners were not properly qaraču because allegiance to a noble (tayiǰi) was a non-starter in a community for which “Chinggis is a national hero and nothing more” (ibid., p. 6). The Qatagin, on the other hand, did define themselves as qaraču despite not having nobles in their community, for example in this poem written by the Qatagin Ts. Damdinsürüng:

  • 4 I am not a skilled enough translator to maintain the original rhyme, which reads: Qalqa Mongγol-un (...)

Qalqa Mongol’s shepherd,
Qatagin clan’s nomads,
Damdinsürüng of qaraču roots,
dwelling in a foreign land. (Qurčabaγatur 1987, pp. 95-96)4

  • 5 Specifically, the legend relates that the Qatagin progenitor, Bayanqara, was not awarded noble (tay (...)

14The Qatagin maintained secrecy about their genealogy, allegedly recorded in their Secret teachings (Niγuča sudur), but they did not include nobles among their ranks in Ordos (ibid., pp. 84-96)5. Like the Erküüt, the community leader of the Qatagin was also their religious leader, among the Qatagin called the “black master” (qara baγsi) (ibid., p. 153, n. 1). Thus, neither group was territorially defined by the jurisdiction of hereditary noblemen, the primary feature of an appanage community. Rather, the social authority of both groups was thus based on their ritual or religious practice, and that is what estranged them from banner Mongols; as one slur put it, the Erküüt were heretical. On the other hand, the Qatagin, while they were socially marginalized for their secret religion, obeisance to their black master, and careful maintenance of their lineage, were not called heretical by other banner Mongols (at least it is not recorded in sources known to me).

15The difference lay in the intention of ritual; the Qatagin performed rituals for the benefits of all Mongols, even if those rituals were secretive, while the Erküüt performed rituals for their community alone. The Qatagin rituals invoked the Thirteen ataγa tngri for the benefit of all Mongols, and manuscripts invoking ataγa tngri were circulated far outside the Qatagin community (Bawden 1977; Rintchen 1975, §§26-27). Generally, ataγa tngri was associated with thunder and lightning, and warded off disasters such as famine or devastating weather phenomena (ǰud) for all Mongols, as in the following passage taken from a prayer to the five ataγa tngris, “to Qan Ataγa tngri, highest of all, spreading his dear great voice and spreading his mercies over the whole Mongol people, pacifier of the times, removing snow and starvation” (Bawden 1977, pp. 200-201). A Qatagin offering prayer similarly opens with this stanza:

My ataγa tngri khan,
with your booming voice of thunder,
echoing in the valleys of rocky gorges,
unifier of all Mongols’ apprehension. (Qurčabaγatur 1987, p. 74)

16The Qatagin are associated with the worship of Heaven or the sky (tngri); a tradition connected to pre-Buddhist or supra-Buddhist, pan-Mongol rituals; when other Mongols read prayers for ataγa tngri, they invoked the name Qatagin in them as well (ibid., pp. 1-81; Rintchen 1975, §§26-27).

Red Damǰin and Erküüt rituals

  • 6 Damǰin < Tib. dam can, [the one] bound by an oath.
  • 7 Tib. nag po means “black”, and Damǰin garbanaγbuu is represented as black in iconography whereas Re (...)

17The Erküüt’s offerings, sacrifices, and worship were secret and only the name of the deity to whom they sacrificed, ulaγan Damǰin (Red Damǰin6), was widely known. Though no one saw the statue of Red Damǰin, which remained bound in red cloth at all times, Garma described Red Damǰin as a blacksmith riding a goat who lived in a mountain (Mostaert 1934a, pp. 6-7). Mostaert notes that the Erküüt’s Red Damǰin might have been connected to one of the five protector gods known as Damǰin, who were popular throughout Mongolia. He is almost certainly correct to make this connection; in the Tümed and Köke-qota (modern Höhhot) area of Inner Mongolia, not far from Ordos, there were several temples associated with the primary protector god Nayičung (Tib. Pe har rgyal po), for whom Dorǰi legba (Tib. rDo rje legs pa) was a companion in Mongol iconography. One of Dorǰi legba’s emanations was Damǰin garbanaγbuu (Tib. Dam can mGar ba nag po7), the god of blacksmiths, always portrayed wielding a hammer and riding a goat (Charleux 2018, pp. 210-211, 227-229). The blacksmith protector Damǰin was prominent in the region because of the prevalence of mining and smithing: tin, copper, and iron artifacts are found in the region dating back to the 17th century. This identification of the Erküüt deity could also have doctrinal significance, because Damǰin garbanaγbuu was worshipped primarily by Nyingmapas, and his temple is associated with that school (ibid., 234). The Erküüt were most likely a community of devotees to Damǰin garbanaγbuu, following a Nyingmapa school; to what degree sectarian differences caused friction is unclear though. Visible and practical differences in ritual and custom were more important than theoretical doctrinal discrepancies.

  • 8 Čul čaγan sidü-tei, čolmon γurban nidü-tei.
  • 9 Respectively, Damǰan sakiγusu abura; namayi tabun ǰaγun on tamu-yin orun-ača keltürigül.

18At the commencement of the triannual beckoning fortune ritual (dalalγa), the Erküüt religious specialist or master (baγsi) invoked Red Damǰin by saying “with teeth giant and white, with three eyes (as brilliant as) Venus” (Mostaert 1934a, p. 9)8. It was forbidden for lay Erküüt to memorize or recite the master’s prayers, so Garma only recalled the common phrase uttered in times of danger, “guardian Damǰin, save [us]”, and “free me from hell for 500 years (ibid., pp. 11-15)”9. The sacrifice of the beckoning fortune ritual consisted of goats, their hearts offered to Red Damǰin, and their boiled flesh consumed by the attendees (ibid., pp. 8-9). In the ritual sacrifice and consumption of goat flesh, the Erküüt dalalγa resembled normative banner beckoning fortune rituals, with an important exception. The sacrifice and offering of a goat was not unheard of in Mongol rituals but was generally a replacement for a preferred animal or considered archaic (Chabros 1992, p. 39). Chabros identifies the Erküüt practice of goat sacrifice with Mostaert’s Christian origins hypothesis, arguing that they “were less strongly influenced by Lamaism […] and may have preserved a pre-lamaist custom” (ibid., p. 103). However, offering a heart and consuming flesh in front of the shrouded statue of Red Damǰin also suggests a “red offering” ritual, a controversial practice in Tibetan-rite Buddhism because of its similarity to blood sacrifices, criticized as heterodoxy by contemporaries (Dalton 2011, pp. 149-50). The flesh offering was a subversion of appanage community rituals; the controversial practice distinguished the Erküüt community from the banner and confirmed the Ordos slur that the Erküüt were “heretics”.

19Mongols perform beckoning fortune rituals (dalalγa) on many occasions, but they are associated closely with ovoo ceremonies (Humphrey & Ujeed 2013, p. 194; Chabros 1992, p. 120 et passim). Mongol texts describing ovoo ceremonies include the beckoning fortune ritual followed by ablutions and circumambulations of ovoos, the completion of which was supposed to bring the following benefits:

[…] the extermination of the jedker-demons concerned with life and with pasture land, the blossoming of sons and grandchildren, multiplication of flocks and herds and possessions, eradication of sinister evil portents, relief from all misfortunes; relief from the three hundred and sixty ada-demons, from the four hundred and four diseases, and from the eighty thousand todqar demons which are met with suddenly, likewise the accession of good fortune, and protection on the part of the powerful great local deities who have been rendered happy [and so on…]. (Bawden 1958, pp. 39-40)

20The Erküüt neither erected nor maintained ovoos, so they held the beckoning fortune ritual at the Erküüt temple and buried the remains of the sacrifice next to it. The Erküüt master also performed a new year’s sacrifice which the lay Erküüt could not attend; they knew of it because the master would leave three holes containing the sacrifice of meat, flour, and juniper and trace a swastika in the ground between the holes (Mostaert 1934a, pp. 8-9). The swastika was the symbol of Red Damǰin and was taboo to display or draw; the only other place it appeared was in the bottom of graves prior to interment, and all Erküüt were buried (ibid., pp. 6-8, 14). The Erküüt dalalγa rituals paralleled banner beckoning fortune rituals but did not complement them as the Qatagin rituals did by praying for all Mongols or venerating widely recognized deities. The difference between modelling and subverting rituals thus depends on context and content: the Erküüt rituals were not symbolic models of banner versions of the same ritual, they were distinguished in particular ways that marked off the community members and their territory from the banner, in ways that were contrary to norms and standards of the banner.

The Darqad of Ordos

  • 10 He-ji-tu (or in Wade-Giles Ho-chi-t’u) is certainly the Chinese transcription of a Mongolian topony (...)

21The rites of the Darqad of Ordos – the official keepers of the Chinggis Khan cult who maintained the shrines of the Eight White Tents (čaγan naiman ger) and the rituals associated the worship of Chinggis Khan – is a case of a sub-banner community whose rituals benefited the whole banner in spite of their unique status (Yu 1989, passim). They enjoyed special privileges in Ordos because of that status – unlike banner Mongols they were not obligated to perform duties such as manning post-roads and garrisons, and they did not have to pay taxes. They were not subject to banner authority, did not wear Qing imperial insignia, and had no seal with which to wield political authority or have it removed (Yu 1989; Serruys 1970, pp. 46-47). In these and other ways, the Darqad were like the Erküüt; there priesthood was hereditary and distinct from the Buddhist clergy (Mostaert 1934a, pp. 7-8). Unlike the Erküüt, the Darqad maintained monasteries and Darqad boys could also be monks (Serruys 1970, p. 46). There were many rituals and festivals associated with the Chinggis Khan shrine in Ordos, but the Darqad reportedly saw three of them as the most significant: the annual sacrifices at Eǰen qoyira and Sülde, and the ovoo festival at He-ji-tu in ǰasaγ Banner (Serruys 1970, p. 47)10. In a book of rites directing the Darqad how to officiate the blessing of “the white herd” (čaγan süreg), meaning the family of Chinggis Khan, and the type of rite that they conducted at major festivals, blessings to the state and “all the people” included in it are found throughout, as in the following passage:

Grant happiness to the Lord-qaγan of an impeccable beautiful government, to the qatun, and to all your people […] You have become a support for Ögedei qaγan, you have become a force for the vast Mongol people (Serruys 1984, p. 40 et passim).

  • 11 Ükügsen čidkür-iyer daγudaǰu; ükügsen čidkür-iyer čai budaγa kiǰü bayina.

22When the Darqad conducted rites, even those in secret, the neighboring banner Mongols knew that it was in the service of not only the banner but of all Mongols. Ordos Mongols associate their history in Ordos with the protection of the Chinggis Khan shrine; the Darqad of Ordos were the official keepers of the shrine, but banner members in Ordos shared in the sense of a historical mission to maintain the Chinggis Khan cult as well as other imperial leaders and cultural figures (Bulag 2010, pp. xiii, 58). Rituals which bound present-day people to place through the constant re-constitution of ritual sites maintained the continuity of local history, creating a sense of timelessness in the ritual acts themselves (Humphrey & Evans 2003, p. 206). The Üüsin Banner lama Lubsangčoyiraγ, for example, incorporated the Ordos literatus, author of the “Precious Record” (Erdeni-yin tobči) Saγang sečen, into a hierarchy of protective deities beginning with Chinggis Khan, thus blending together the Chinggis Khan cult with the local fame Saγang sečen in a tantric text (Elverskog 2006a, pp. 157-158; Serruys 1985, pp. 26, 28). Officials in Üüsin Banner would gather at the tomb of Saγang sečen, located in Üüsin Banner near Erküüt territory, to perform sacrifices dedicated to the Saγang sečen and Chinggis Khan (Mostaert 1957, pp. 534, 538). This blending of ancestry brought two banners together as well; the tomb of Saγang sečen was located in Üüsin – near Erküüt territory – but the eight white tents of Chinggis Khan in Eǰen qoriya was located in Vang Banner. The ancestor cults were significant to the ritual life of Ordos League, extending beyond the banner boundaries. The Erküüt, on the hand, did not attach religious significance to Chinggis Khan or any ancestor. They mocked the other Ordos Mongols’ ancestor worship and mourning rituals by saying, “they call out to their dead devils; they serve tea to their dead devils!” (Mostaert 1934a, p. 15)11. The derision was more than just name-calling; the Erküüt maintained an aversion to the Darqad – the hereditary keepers of the Chinggis Khan shrine in Eǰen qoriya whose symbolic dark clothes, round roofed houses, and lack of buttons on their hats symbolized their continuous and eternal mourning for Chinggis Khan – forbidding them to step foot inside an Erküüt dwelling (ibid., p. 6; Serruys 1970, p. 48).

Mourning rituals

23The disdain for the Darqad’s mourning of Chinggis Khan extended to all obligatory mourning rituals. In theory, the number of days people were supposed to mourn was equal to the number of days the deceased person’s essence remained in the state of existence between death and rebirth (bar do) (Mostaert 1957, p. 565). In practice, the number of days of mourning afforded to a person depended on their administrative rank, occupation, and then it varied for individual mourners depending on their relationship with the deceased (Van Oost 1932, p. 131). Qing administrators expected the dependents of nobles (tayiǰi), in some cases, to mourn for a hundred days – the longest mourning period normally reserved for the death of an emperor or a parent (Mostaert 1960, p. 153). Mourning for administrative officials was communal; people wore black or dark clothes, men and women could not wear jewelry, the right shoulder button of clothes was left unfastened, and men would not shave their heads for seven days (Van Oost 1932, p. 130). People made salutations with a silent bow instead of the normal “amur sayin-uu?” (ibid., p. 131; Kler 1936, p. 30). Regulations prohibited entertaining guests during mourning (Van Oost 1932, p. 131; Mostaert 1960, p. 152). Officials had to remove their buttons and insignia that marked their rank, with the notable exception of the border guards (Mostaert 1961, p. 144; Serruys 1977, p. 581). On the special occasion of the Emperor and Empress’ deaths in 1908, the Mongol administration changed the mourning rituals. Imperial decree changed the color of mourning to white, modeled after the mourning customs of the Qalqa Mongols. In Ordos the nobles who were appointed to attend the thirteen major ovoos of Ordos had to go to their respective ovoos simultaneously to mourn (Mostaert 1960, pp. 163, 165). Horses were prohibited from galloping, wind-horses were to be removed from the fronts of dwellings, and monasteries had to be avoided (Van Oost 1932, p. 131).

24These changes in mourning rites in Mongolia were the subject of imperial edicts and local crackdowns. The Erküüt, however, did not participate in the mourning at all. This may have been on religious grounds; they did not believe in transmigration and presumably rejected the idea of bar do and mourning periods related to it. Or it could have been a broader rejection of the legitimacy of the banner. There are reports from Ordos of people fighting over insufficient respect shown to the families of the recently deceased, specifically for not bringing gifts (ibid.). Rejection of banner customs, moreover, was a rejection of the state. Mourning rituals across the Qing empire, including Mongolia, were increasingly bureaucratized beginning from the 17th century in a process of imperial legitimation of Manchu rule (Kutcher 1999, pp. 120-152). The role of Mongols in the shifting mourning policies was assumed to be one of compliance to so-called traditional Manchu conceptions of loyalty – that was obviously not the case considering the number of edicts needed to correct Mongol mourning – so violations of mourning were challenges to imperial authority (ibid., pp. 178-179 et passim). Mourning avoidance therefore amounted a rejection of Qing imperial ritual as well as banner ritual and law.

Judicial distinctiveness

25Even more striking is Garma’s claim that the Erküüt maintained their own judicial system separate from the banner (Mostaert 1934a, p. 5). The legal system of Mongolia, at least up to 1910s, was a nested hierarchy of appeals courts; in principle all banner land – including Erküüt territory – was subject to banner and league judicial authority, and they were subject to the Lifanyuan in Beijing (Bawden 1969, passim). On the other hand, considering “the inextricability of the legal and Buddhist systems of thought and practice in Mongolia prior to the Communist revolution”, the Erküüt’s rejection of Buddhism may have pushed them outside the fold of banner legal operations (Wallace 2014, p. 332). Whatever the reasons, the Erküüt masters judged criminal and civil cases, and the banner prince of Üüsin recognized their decisions. The masters arranged trials, could torture suspects, and mete out punishments. Death sentences were handed out without repercussions from the banner prince; Garma witnessed the executions of two unrepentant repeat-offender thieves. After the execution the master would report to the banner prince the reason for the execution and the method. The method in all cases was live burial, because the Erküüt had a taboo about shedding blood (Mostaert 1934a, p. 5). This detail is particularly surprising because death sentences in Mongol lands all required imperial approval before the execution was carried out – banner princes could not authorize them alone. In matters of administrative jurisdiction and law, there were sub-banner communities that were independent from banner authority or subverted banner authority – symbolically or practically – by exercising their own legal power. In terms of the appanage community model, this means that sub-banner communities were not simply fractal models of larger banners, but they could ignore the banners and develop their own legal models with unique and unorthodox punishments.

  • 12 Ükübesü miqa-tani ulaγan, udabasu yasu-tani čaγan.

26As suggested by the live burial executions, the Erküüt community’s way of dealing with death also ran against banner norms. In Ordos there were three usual ways to deal with corpses: interment, cremation, and exposure. Ideally, a lama would decide which method was appropriate and in the case of interment would select the spot for burial. In southern Ordos, funerals were common and coffins were even used sometimes, but not with a grave marker. Corpses were also left next to sand dunes and the sands would be disturbed to create a trickle of sand that would eventually cover the body (Van Oost 1932, pp. 128-129; Kler 1936, p. 30). Exposure of adult corpses was not practiced by the Erküüt at all, but infant corpses less than one month old were left outside where wild animals would consume them. Garma reported that “a baby under one month is not much of a human being”; similar practices existed elsewhere in Ordos, but usually the corpses of children (under ten years old) were placed in a sack and left on a busy road so that a passerby would open the sack and “give the little one a chance to fly to better worlds” (Mostaert 1934a, p. 14; Kler 1936, p. 31). The Erküüt had a joke about the banner Mongols’ practice of exposing the dead: “when you die, you flesh is red; after a while, your bones are white” (Mostaert 1934a, pp. 6, 14)12.

27The Erküüt only buried their dead in marked graves in graveyards. Prior to the Muslim Rebellion of 1860-1870s, the Erküüt lived south of the Great Wall in a part of Üüsin that Shaanxi later annexed called Brown Millet Hill (Qonoγ-un boro toloγai) where they maintained a large community graveyard. In the graveyard was a millet grinding stone with graves lined up around it, marked with stones inscribed with the deceased’s name and short biographies. According to Garma, the Erküüt abandoned the settlement and rented their land to Chinese agriculturalists and entrusted the cemetery to a Chinese caretaker for “the protection of the bodies of their ancestors” (ibid., pp. 4-5). In Üüsin, the newer Erküüt grave markers were painted red because of red’s auspicious association with Red Damǰin, but red was a prohibited during mourning rituals for the Ordos Mongols (Mostaert 1960, p. 150). The Erküüt did not employ lamas to determine burial method or site; they prohibited divination in the community and the family members were left to decide the burial site (Mostaert 1934a, p. 6). Since the main occupations of lamas included divination and burials rites, these prohibitions effectively kept the Erküüt from several of the most salient features of Buddhist life in Ordos, and Garma reported the Erküüt simply did not respect lamas (ibid.).


28Despite these socially isolating practices of the Erküüt community, they were also strictly exogamous, and parents sought sons- and daughters-in-law from the banner Mongols. Due to the banner Mongols dislike of Erküüt, banner Mongol parents were not eager to marry their daughters to an Erküüt groom and expected a higher bride-wealth in return for their daughters. After marriage, Erküüt families expected new brides from the banner to denounce Buddhism and pledge themselves to Red Damǰin (ibid., pp. 9-11). Banner Mongols, on the other hand, did not require Erküüt brides to renounce their religion when they married into a banner, but they did have to live in the banner. Adopted children had to follow similar rules, for example when an Erküüt family adopted a banner boy, he could marry the daughter of an Erküüt, but they would have to live outside of Erküüt territory (ibid., p. 11). Lawrence Krader described them as “the maximal exogamic unit among the Mongols”, due to their strict bilateral exogamy (Krader 1963, pp. 43-44). The strict exogamy of the Erküüt was not, as Krader intimates, a vestige of medieval Mongol society, it was another feature of a community which distinguished itself from the surrounding banner community through rituals and social organization.

Conclusion: rejection of banner rituals

29The rejection of banner rituals set the Erküüt against the banner by denying participation and imitation of form of the ritual. Banner members both funded and participated in communal ovoo ceremonies, temple fairs, and other rites (Mostaert 1934a, p. 11). There were several groups that were exempt from obligatory duties including subscriptions to rituals, but they either participated in the rituals or, in the case of the Darqad, officiated them. Whether the Buddhist prayer halls of the ecclesiastical estates of incarnate lamas or the divination rites of the Chinggis Khan cult practitioners, the words uttered and actions performed in communal rituals created the reality of space and time for participants and observers. In Mary Douglas’ words:

The sacrifice is a self-referencing enactment. In structuring the community’s self-perception it structures its future behavior […] the version of the world that has been adopted itself affects the world. (Douglas 1992, pp. 250-251)

30Rejection of the symbolic world created by members of the banner included a rejection of the secular order embodied by the banner authority as well – banner officials were often present and even officiated ovoo ritual, for example – and in the Erküüt this is vividly seen in the parallel judicial apparatus of the Erküüt described above (Humphrey & Ujeed 2013, p. 197 et passim; Mostaert 1961, pp. 143-145). Rejection of ritual and subversion of banner officialdom was not a borrowing of appanage community symbols and rites, as Atwood proposed, but in the case of the Erküüt was a separated ritual community at a sub- and trans-banner level of organization.

31The appanage community model is good for thinking about Mongol social organization from the perspective of local material interests and their relation to Inner Asian political structures. It is a necessary intervention in a field which has a history of relying on abstract concepts such as “the way of life of the nomads” or cyclical impact theories to explain the formation of administrative politics. The model is important because it centers Mongol social and political agency in Mongolia simultaneously at the level of the community and local power-holders. However, sub-banner and trans-banner communities such as the Erküüt demonstrate a deficiency of Atwood’s appanage community model. The maintenance of subversive ritual and administrative communities in and between banners means that a theoretical reckoning of Mongol social organization must account for significant variation and alternatives. That point may be obvious, but the significance of certain “outsider” groups outweighs their apparent minority status, particularly communities formed in Buddhist ecclesiastical estates. The potential for this type of study lies not only in understanding the roles of small cultic communities like the Erküüt or the Qatagin in banner life, but also large groups that formed alternative or parallel conceptions of community and authority. Better documented groups like the ecclesiastical estates of the Jebcündamba qutuγtus created a parallel administrative system in the Qing empire whose moral vision of authority based on ritual practices specific both to a Buddhist and Mongol state, and one that eventually supplanted the Qing empire.

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1 Mostaert uses his idiosyncratic transcription of Ordos dialect throughout the essay, so I have transcribed his Ordos dialect renderings into Classical Mongolian.

2 Respectively: sayin sanaγatai kümün Erkegüd-ün dergedü bitegei oyirata, sayin debel-tei kümün kö deregedü bitegei oyirata; maγu Erkegüd; qara yasutai Erkegüd; Erkegüd ters bayina.

3 There is, to my knowledge, no contemporary evidence from historical sources that “black bone” was used to describe commoners in opposition to “white bones”.

4 I am not a skilled enough translator to maintain the original rhyme, which reads: Qalqa Mongγol-un malčin, Qatagin oboγ-un negüdelčin, qaraču iǰaγurtu Damdinsürüng, qari γaǰar saγuqu-daγan.

5 Specifically, the legend relates that the Qatagin progenitor, Bayanqara, was not awarded noble (tayiǰi) status even though it was owed to him.

6 Damǰin < Tib. dam can, [the one] bound by an oath.

7 Tib. nag po means “black”, and Damǰin garbanaγbuu is represented as black in iconography whereas Red Damǰin is red but otherwise identical in appearance.

8 Čul čaγan sidü-tei, čolmon γurban nidü-tei.

9 Respectively, Damǰan sakiγusu abura; namayi tabun ǰaγun on tamu-yin orun-ača keltürigül.

10 He-ji-tu (or in Wade-Giles Ho-chi-t’u) is certainly the Chinese transcription of a Mongolian toponym, but I did not find the corresponding name.

11 Ükügsen čidkür-iyer daγudaǰu; ükügsen čidkür-iyer čai budaγa kiǰü bayina.

12 Ükübesü miqa-tani ulaγan, udabasu yasu-tani čaγan.

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Sam H. Bass, « “They call out to their dead devils!” Erküüt and the Rejection of Communal Rituals in a Mongol Banner »Études mongoles et sibériennes, centrasiatiques et tibétaines [En ligne], 52 | 2021, mis en ligne le 23 décembre 2021, consulté le 28 mars 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Sam H. Bass

Sam H. Bass is a PhD candidate in the Departments of History and Central Eurasian Studies at Indiana University, Bloomington. His research interests include the social history, religions, and cultures of early modern Inner Asia and China. Currently, he is finishing a dissertation about slavery, households, and their relationship to Qing fiscal policies in early modern Mongolia.

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