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Khalkha Saddle
Wood, leather, wool, silver, and iron
20th century
L: 58 1/4 in. (148.0 cm.) W: 13 3/8 in. (34.0 cm.)

Museum of Mongolian History

Mongolian life would be impossible without the horse, and the Mongol language reflects their abiding concern for the sex, age, conformation, color, and disposition of each animal in their care. Horse trappings received similar attention and solicitude; they even engendered prayers for their protection to the shamanist spirit Jayagagchi tngri, the tngri of Fate. (1)

The Mongolian saddle, with its often elaborate fittings and ornaments, varies from tribe to tribe and signals the status and origin of the rider. These three saddles, all twentieth century in date, were made for three very different uses. The first (cat. no. 1) is a type that was used by Khalkha men and women of central Outer Mongolia. Constructed over a split wooden frame, its side skirts are covered with pigmented and applique&Engrave;d leather and its seat with heavy striped Tibetan wool stamped with crosses. The edges of the high pommel and cantle are finished with strips of repousse Engrave; silver. Bosses of silver, the two near the back in the shape of locks, decorate the frame and seat. The Khalkha customarily evaluated saddles on the basis of their silver ornaments, called "whites." Thus a saddle could be an eight-whites saddle, a ten-whites saddle, or, as here, a twelve-whites saddle, the highest category. The long yellow leather pad fitted to this saddle is also elaborately decorated with strips of black and green applique&Engrave;d leather. Leather straps (ganzaga) hang down from silver bosses on either side of the rider's leg; they were used to hold equipment or to secure game after the hunt. These eight straps had a meaning beyond mere utility for Mongol horsemen, who customarily said an incantation over them before setting out, following a tradition initiated by Chinggis Khan himself. The Mongol folklorist B. Rinchen wrote that "it is passed down by tradition that Holy Chinggis Khan once made an offering to the straps of his golden saddle...this is the reason why today the saddle and the bridle of the lord of gifts will be purified, the eight saddle-straps spoken over and a blessing recited."(2)

Even the highest members of Outer Mongolia's ecclesiastical aristocracy rode on horseback, despite the fact that the Manchu emperors of China, their overlords, awarded some the privilege of being carried in litters or carriages. The second saddle shown here (cat. no. 2) was intended specifically for a high lama. Its pommel and cantle are both enameled yellow, decorated with designs in brown enamel, and edged with chestnut and green Russian leather. All the fittings are silver and the long straps that hang down on either side of the rider's leg are tightly woven, tasseled cords of silk. Sumptuous yellow brocaded silk woven in a dragon-rondel pattern covers the seat, side skirts, stirrup pads, and long fringed underpad. The use of silk of this color and weave was bestowed by the Manchu emperors only as a mark of the highest favor.

The third saddle (cat. no. 3) is a Buriat design, made by the descendants of ancient Mongol clans that nomadized around Lake Baikal. The Buriats still live north of the lake in what is now Russia and along the northern and eastern borders of Outer Mongolia. Their saddles and many of their other traditional artifacts are distinctive. This saddle's seat and side skirts of heavy black Russian leather are both heavily embossed with silver-plated copper fittings. The saddle pad is a tough, textured hide. - P.B.

All images and text copyright The Asian Art Museum; not to be reproduced without permission.


1. Walther Heissig, The Religions of Mongolia, p. 54. back

2. Ibid, pp. 67-8. Heissig translates B. Rinchen, MatÈriaux pour l'Ètude du shamanisme mongol, pp. 47-8. back

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