Name in Original Language
Area Where Played
Mongolians have created many entertaining games and toys , in accordance to their livelihood and lifestyles during their long history of nomadic existence. Such games and toys have then been successfully passed on from generation to generation for centuries. Shagai is one of those popular games among Mongolians, played by people of all ages. Metaphorically, it is called the game of “small pieces with respectful names” and the golden and silver shagai are the respectful names referred to in many riddles and word puzzles known.
Many archeological findings discovered from the territories of Mongolia have indicated the use of certain animal bones, including sheep anklebones, for sacred rituals and funerals, in relations to the rich cultural traditions of nomadic livestock breeding. For instance, anklebones discovered from the third satellite burial of aristocrats tombs from the Hunnu period excavated at Balgas steppe, Undor-Ulaan soum of Arkhangai aimag, had various tribal seal symbols and images inscribed on them. Twenty-two sheep anklebones were also found from the second square burial excavated at the Bayanzurkh mountain, Khutag-Undor soum of Bulgan aimag. They are considered rare archeological findings, in which 12 of them were laid in line in the ‘horse’ position, indicating the use of animal bones for funerals and games. Historically, these archeological findings suggest that animal bones were used very early on in Mongolian territories.
According to the “Secret History of Mongols:” Jamukh had given an anklebone of one roebuck to Temujin, and Temujin had given one poured shagai to Jamukh, and they became friends by playing with shagai on the ice of Onon river. Shagai game on ice has been an old traditional game among Mongolians, and this story indicates that shagai had been played by Mongols during as early as the 13th century. Historical records indicate that Mongolians had been playing as many as 60, 108, 200 different games using the shagai or anklebones of domestic animals. It is a renowned task for the current generation to discover, register and study these ancestral games, to pass on the legacy to future generations.
In accordance to traditions, when Mongolians finish eating the shank bone of animals, the anklebone is separated and properly cleaned. After of which, it is tossed for luck, before being added to the family collection of anklebones. If the anklebone lands in the ‘horse’ position, household members cherish it as a sign of luck and goodness for their herd number to increase, thus enhancing their household wealth. Each nomadic household used to have their own collection of anklebones, called assets, herds or wealth, depending on the region. Anklebones are kept in felt or suede bags and hung from gher wall heads or placed between bed heads and gher avdar or trunks. Most households keep two shagai collections in two separate bags- one for the shagai ‘snatching’ game and the other for playing other games with anklebones. Some households decorate their felt shagai bags by triming them with red cloth that wraps a rope loop to hang the bag from the gher wooden plank wall head.
“Ancient sutra records indicate that 200 different games could be played with anklebones and in accordance with my investigation, about 60 different games were explained based on interviews and talks held with the elderly...” (Ts. Uderpil, 1978, p.10) Also B. Sarantuya, and V.Tumenulzii have written about 60-80 different types of games played with shagai. The main instrument of the shagai game is the anklebone. People can easily accumulate a sufficient amount of anklebones in their household collections, without any associated costs. Mongolians never throw away anklebones and are keen to contribute anklebones to young families, who wish to raise their livestock and enhance their wealth.
After being cleaned, anklebones are mostly colored into red, which is considered as the color of respect and growth. J.Luvsandorj, an experience educator, stated that, “the anatomical names of four different sides of an anklebone are alts, taa, bug and tseg, however, these were named deliberately with the teaching purpose as horse, camel, sheep and goat, to trigger kid’s attraction to games and playing and make them fond of animals and breeding practices.”
Mongolian shagai games do not require dedicated space, trainers, or much time to play. Traditionally, it is played by households to educate children. Shagai games are played, in terms of season, in between the last thunder storm of the given year until the first thunder storm of the next year. The unique requirement for playing shagai games is to start the game while in a comfortable sitting posture. Inside the ger (traditional accommodation of nomadic Mongolians), the northern end of the ger, or the area directly opposite to the entranceway, is considered the most honorable area of the room. Thus players choose to play the game in this area, and the person sitting in the north-most part of the ger starts the game, while other players take turns playing in a clockwise direction.
Traditional Mongolian shagai games have significant educational importance and value. This valuable game was created by ancestors, and is a part of Mongolian cultural heritage that provides an opportunity for kids and youths to learn about different objects and processes, about nature and the environment, and their intrinsic relations and dependencies. During the game, kids learn the important skills of teamwork, leadership, patience, inquisitiveness, attentiveness; they also learn how to be goal-oriented and showcase their talents and skills. Each shagai game has its own rules and procedures. These rules and procedures have are useful in helping kids to learn self-control, attain concentration, hold one’s emotions, allocate resources wisely, and enhance kinesthetic learning. During talks held with elderly representatives from almost all aimags or provinces, there is common concern about how modern families are becoming reluctant to collect anklebones, and how there is an absence of shagai games during family time as oppose to that of their childhoods.
Different areas and locations use slightly different number of anklebones, to play the Multicolored turtle game. In most cases however, the game is played in two versions- the simple version and the honor version. The honor version of the Multicolored Turtle game is played by the whole family on the first day of the Lunar New Yea. The Multicolored Turtle has to be laid overnight on the last day of the passing year, on a special rug in front of the household prayer item. During the game, kids learn to the skills of teamwork, leadership, patience, inquisitiveness, and attentiveness; they also learn to be goal-oriented and showcase their talents and skill.
Long standing tradition exists in regards to playing ‘Alag Melkhii’ or “Multicolored Turtle”.To play this game, different areas and locations use slightly different number of anklebones to play, but in most cases it is played in two versions: the simple version and the honor version. Long standing tradition exists in regards to playing ‘Alag Melkhii’ or “Multicolored Turtle”.To play this game, different areas and locations use slightly different number of anklebones to play, but in most cases it is played in two versions: the simple version and the honor version.
The simple game is played with 92 anklebones laid out in the shape of a turtle, and can be played anytime by any number of players. The “spine” of the turtle is laid with a total of 36 anklebones in 6 layers or rows in each direction. At each corner of the “spine,” “four legs” composed of 4 shagai each are laid out, with a total of 16 anklebones. At the lower end of each “leg,” each one of the four “feet” consists of 5 pieces, and altogether 20 anklebones make up the four “legs.” At the top of the “spine,” a turtle “neck” is laid out with 6 anklebones in two rows. At the top of the “neck,” a “head” is laid out with 3 pieces, and at either side of the “head” a pair of anklebones are laid as “eyes” and “ears.” At the bottom part of the “spine,” 3 pieces are laid as the turtle’s “tail.” The top of the turtle’s “spine” consist of 36 pieces, with 2 anklebones that represent “kindneys,” and the another 2 anklebones that represent the “heart” and the “bladder.” The “kidneys,” “heart” and “bladder” are laid using bright colored bones.
After laying out the turtle, players agree on the sequence of their turns and one player starts the game by throwing a dice. Depending on the number shown on the dice, the player has to take the same number of pieces from the turtle’s body by naming those body parts. For instance, if the dice lands on one, the player could choose to pick up the “heart” or the “bladder” of the turtle; or if the dice lands on 6, then the “neck” or “spine” pieces should be collected. Then the game continues in the clockwise direction. If the turtle organ that matches the number thrown on the dice is absent or the pieces are already picked out, the player has to put back the corresponding number of anklebones back onto the turtle’s body. The game continues until the anklebones that make up the turtle’s body is completed collected by the players, and the person who collects the most anklebones wins the game.
In the next round of the game, the person sitting in the direct clockwise direction of the player who previously started the game will start the game. This time, the players have to reconstruct the body of the turtle with their collected anklebones, as oppose to the first round when the body was deselected. In this round, the winner is the player who runs out of anklebones first, and the player who collects the least number of anklebones in the first round tend to become the winner.
The Honor version of the Multicolored Turtle game is played by the whole family, on the first day of the Lunar New Year, when the greeting ceremony is over. The Multicolored Turtle has to be laid out overnight on the last day of the passing year, on a special rug in front of the household prayer item.
The rules and procedures for playing this version is basically the same as that of the simple version, however, this version is played with a total of 108 pieces. Four red-colored anklebones, which symbolize “fire”, are put in a round position next to the “head” of turtle; 5 blue-colored anklebones, which symbolizes “tree,” are put on the left side of the turtle in the shape of an arrow; 3 white colored anklebones , which symbolizes a “metal,” are laid in the shape of an arrow head on the right side of the turtle; an anklebone is placed on top of each of the 4 legs of the turtle to symbolize “space,” “mountain,” “earth” and “wind.”
On the first day of the New Year, the person who whose zodiac sign matches that of the year’s would start the game. For instance, if the new year is the year of dragon, then the player who was born in the year of the dragon will start the game. If no player meets the above qualification, then the person who has the compatible or favoured zodiac animal to the corresponding zodiac animal of the new year starts the game, and the game continues in clockwise direction. If the dice lands on one, then the player has to pick one piece that symbolizes the “earth,” “wind,” “space” or “mountain,” or the organs the “heart” or “bladder;” if the dice lands on a 2, then a pair of “eyes,” “ears” or “kindneys” are picked out; if dice lands on a 3, then the “head,” “tail” or “metal,” which consists of 3 pieces, is picked out; if the dice lands on 4, then either one of the 4 “legs” is picked out; if the dice lands on a 5, then either one of 4 “feet” is picked out; and if dice lands on a 6, then either the “neck” or part of “spine” is picked out. However, if the dice lands on a number that matches that of the organs that have already picked out, then a player has to put back the corresponding number of bones to reconstruct the turtle body. The game continues in this manner until all the pieces are picked out. The winner of the game is the player who has collected the most number of pieces. The winner of this game played on the first day of the new year, is considered to have the luckiest and spirited year ahead. The anklebone or shagai game teaches a young soul the virtue of discipline, helps one to improve one’s eyesight, and develop one’s concentration and attentiveness.