The earliest art found in Mongolia was cave and rock drawings. It mainly depicted their nomadic lives of the time. Once Buddhism was introduced to the people here, most of the art from that point forward was tied to their religious stories and characters. This pretty much lasted up until the 20th century.
Buddhist art generally fell into a number of mediums. One common art form was the thangka (sometimes spelled a number of other ways). It’s essentially a painting on a piece of cloth, typically of either a deity or some other religious symbol or scene. It wasn’t framed, but rather rolled up like a scroll. Sometimes it’s imprinted like an appliqué. Sculptures were also created in a variety of different sizes and materials. Bronze was typically the most common material used for sculpting Buddhist deities. A spiritual leader by the name of Zanabazar (which I keep reading as Zanzibar) was quite influential in the art of the 17th century.
During the 19th century, art started to change. An artist by the name of Marzan Sharav began to implement more realistic styles of painting. As the country changed its socio-political views and their government adopted communism, socialist realism became the thing. However, many of the thangka-like religious paintings suddenly began being produced as secular paintings. Artists who tried to push modernism were subject to harsh censorship and criticism and were dealt with accordingly. Today, artists enjoy more artistic freedom and delve into a variety of different styles.
The vast majority of literature in Mongolia is written in the Mongolian language. There really isn’t that much literature preserved from the times when the Mongol Empire reigned. However, one notable exception is that of The Secret History of the Mongols. (I suppose it’s not so secret now, is it?) It’s the oldest piece of Mongolian literature there is, that we know of. Even though there are portions of this that contain much older poetry. This work is so significant that it’s not only considered a classic in Mongolian literature but in world literature as well.
A few other portions of poems and literary works have been found from these early centuries, but not very many. Most of it fell into the category of epic poetry, genealogy, and stories of epic heroes. As Buddhism began to spread its way across Mongolia, religious texts also appeared in Mongolian as well. Many of these were also translations of texts from India, China, and Tibet.
As Mongolia aligned with Russia and became a communist nation, important Russian works were translated into Mongolian. Tseveen Jamsrano was a leading Buryat (an ethnic group living in the northern part of Mongolia and Siberia) scholar and politician who was also a writer, journalist, editor, and translator.
Religious theatre has had a presence for several centuries. One popular story line is the character Milarepa, a Tibetan hermit. These plays were especially popular during the 18th and 19th centuries. The oldest one, “Moon Cuckoo” by Danzanravjaa, was written in 1831 (even though it got lost during the early part of the 20th century). Theatre companies started popping up during the 20th century and lasted even during the communist years to today.
Some authors of note to look for include Begziin Yavuukhulan (famous poet), Dashdorjiin Natsagdorj (often considered founder of modern Mongolian literature), Vanchinbalyn Injinash, Byambyn Rinchen, Ayurzana Gun-Aajav, Lodongiin Tudev, Chadraabalyn Lodoidamba, Galsan Tschinag, and Mend-Ooyo Gombojav.
Up next: music and dance