By Louie Lazar
Special to DNAinfo.com New York
CENTRAL PARK — In a scene that could have been straight from the grasslands of Mongolia, two pairs of wrestlers, each bare-chested except for a tight-sleeved vest around his shoulders, engaged in face-to-face battle — hands locked, arms outstretched, in a bid to take down his opponent.
But that scene on Saturday afternoon was instead taking place in a small meadow near Central Park’s Bethesda Fountain.
Nearby, on a long table filled with Mongolian fare, a few men poured vodka from a tall, gold bottle decorated with an image of Genghis Khan, the founder of the Mongol Empire.
“It’s good to get together and keep this tradition alive,” said Jamul Jadamba, 37, who finished second in the wrestling competition, before changing into a T-shirt that said “Yes We Khan.”
The wrestling competition was the highlight of the New York Mongolian community’s Naadam celebration, an annual festival commemorating Mongolia’s independence as well as the nation’s nomadic heritage.
About 75 people, including Od Och, the permanent representative of Mongolia to the United Nations, attended Saturday’s event, which was organized by the Mongolian Heritage Foundation of Flushing, Queens.
Byambakhuu Darinchuluun, president of the Mongol Heritage Foundation, said the goal of the event was to bring unity to the various Mongol peoples of the greater New York area and to promote Mongolian culture to the general population.
Darinchuluun said that in order to best replicate the pastoral environment of his homeland, he selected Central Park as a venue because it’s the “only place [in New York] with trees and grass.”
“It’s a very important occasion — we cannot just pass it over,” he said. “We have to celebrate.”
Naadam, also known as the “Three Games of Men” or the Nomad Olympics — the other sports being archery and horse racing — has its roots in centuries-old Mongol warrior competitions. In 2010, the festival was added to UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Each July 11 and 12 in Mongolia, thousands fill the capital city’s main stadium and welcome a procession of horsemen, athletes, soldiers, and monks during a colorful and joyous Opening Ceremony. Horse races take place across miles of open grasslands, as do hundreds of single elimination wrestling matches in which the winners are given titles such as “falcon,” “elephant,” and “lion.”
Landlocked between China and Russia, Mongolia has one of the lowest population densities of any nation on earth. But there are several hundred Mongolians living in the New York City area, according to Morris Rossabi, a professor of Mongolian History at Columbia University.
The greater New York area is also home to a sizable Kalmyk population, people of Mongol descent who are from Kalmykia, a Russian Republic on the Caspian Sea, he said.
Several of Saturday’s attendees dressed in traditional Mongolian costumes, and the top outfits were rewarded with prizes. The best wrestlers were given framed pictures of Mongolian calligraphy and were handed wads of cash.
Attached to a nearby rocky hill was the flag of Kalmykia, and at its base, a horse-headed fiddle — a long, double-stringed musical instrument that is a national symbol of Mongolia, rested against a picnic table. The Mongolian flag was staked almost precisely in the center of the meadow, and waved in the hot air.
Tsenguun Chinbat, 27, a teacher who is from Ulan Bator, the capital of Mongolia, said she attended the festivities to connect and socialize with fellow Mongolians.
“I wanted to get a feel for home,” she said.