The Ger

Traditional Dwelling of the Buryats

In Buryat Mongolian ger simply means “home.” In Russian it is known as a yurta, hence it is more commonly known in English as a “yurt.” The ger is not only the traditional dwelling of the Buryats, but of all Mongolian peoples as well as of the Kazakh, Kirghiz, Tuvans, Tatars, Yakuts, and other Central Asian and Siberian peoples. The most commonly known kind of ger is the nomads’ ger, which is used by almost all Central Asian nomads, including Mongols and some of the Buryats.
This kind of ger is easily assembled and disassembled, and its components can be loaded on a couple of camels or on a yak cart(a Russian truck is more commonly used today). It is made of a wooden framework covered by large pieces of felt. A decorative cloth covering may be laid over the felt, as seen in these two gers. The ropes which go around the ger, called bus (belts), are usually made of braided horse mane and tail hair. The wooden framework consists of collapsible walls hana, topped by poles (un’) radiating from a central smokehole ring (,i>tono). The pictures of ger interiors below show this framework quite clearly.
The picture below shows a nomadic Buryat ger erected in the Siberian mountain forest. Beside the ger you can see a serge (tethering pole) for the horses. The serge is typically Buryat and is not used by other Mongols, and also has great significance in shamanism (see the Shamanism page for the article on sacred trees for information about the ceremonial serge). This drawing is by the famous Buryat artist Sampilov.

The wooden ger is a permanent structure and is more commonly found in Siberia in areas where the inhabitants do not nomadize as often. Many Buryat families would keep one ger for the winter and another for the summer in better grazing areas. Wooden gers are rare in Central Asia except in parts of Mongolia and Inner Mongolia inhabited by Buryats. Wooden gers are always eight sided and many resemble the hooghan of the Navajo. While the ones pictured here have simple wooden roofs it is not unusual for the roof to have a layer of earth on top of it for insulation. Unfortunately in all areas of Siberia the wooden ger is disappearing in favor of the Russian log cabin. They are still fairly common in the Sayan Mountains region, in Aga, Ust-Orda, and in Buryat areas in Mongolia.

Here are a couple of pictures showing gers. To the right is a view looking from east to west, from the women’s side to the men’s side. By tradition the ger always faces south, with the eastern side being the women’s and the western side being the men’s side. This applies to sitting arrangements and arrangements of household goods. This is a reflection of the Mongolian cosmology, which is described in the shamanism page. In the center you can see the gulamta, place of the fire, with the tulga, three rings supported on legs which is the framework for holding pots and roasting spits. On the far wall is the goatskin bag for making airag, also known as kumiss, an alcoholic drink made from mares’ milk. The handle sticking out is used for churning the milk while it ferments. Behind it the wooden framework of the ger is clearly visible.

Below is the interior of a Buryat ger looking north. The woman is making milk tea, the traditional Mongolian tea, while her daughter churns milk. On the north side, slightly to the left in this picture, one can see the hoimor, home shrine, where all of the family sacred objects are kept. The shrine is always located at the north side or slightly to the northwest, for the north side of the ger is considered to be the most honorable part. Here again you can see the framework of the ger from the inside.

Below is a sketch of typical wooden Buryat gers from the Eastern Sayan Mountains, Tunhen Aimag. Here you can see a simple brush roofed shelter and a cross section of the ger showing its framework.

Ursa: Siberian Tepees

In Siberia and some parts of Mongolia an alternative shelter to the ger is the ursa, also known as a chum in other languages. Like the ger it has both a permanent and nomadic form. The nomads’ ursa is made of poles overlaid with caribou hides, such as those pictured above and to the right used by herdsmen in the Sayan Mountains. They are designed to be easily taken down and transported from place to place. This kind of shelter is used not only in Buryatia and Mongolia, but are also used by the Samoyed, Evenks, Chukchi, and several other nationalities, even those living in the high arctic in places like the Yamal peninsula.

Another type of ursa is not portable, and is made of wood and bark. Some, such as the fisherman’s shelter pictured below, are temporary and are set up as needed. Such simple ursa may be made simply of branches and brush. The wooden ursa may be used as a permanent shelter by those who are too poor to afford to construct a ger.
An example of an ursa used as a home by a poor family can be found in the Geser epic, from which the picture to the left is taken. It is said that Sengelen Noyon and Naran Goohon were very poor, having no livestock but simply living off of fish and small game they caught in the forest, such as the rabbits hanging from the pole. This kind of ursa is overlaid with sheets of bark that provide good insulation even in the winter as well as being waterproof. Wooden ursa are also used by other nationalities besides the Buryats, especially the Evenk who live in the northern part of Buryatia.

Below is the interior of an ursa, illustrating the boyhood home of Geser. The sheets of bark are clearly visible in the walls. In accord with Buryat custom there are three rocks in the hearth for supporting the pot; it is traditional that at the time of a nomadic move that the stone pointing in the direction of the new campsite is moved first to break the circle. The baby Geser is lying in an urgii, traditional cradle. These cradles are usually hung from the overhead beams so that they can be rocked. The bone handing from the cradle is not a toy, rather it is an ongon, an amulet for a shamanic spirit protecting the baby.

Here is another view taken in the 1920’s in the Tunhen region of the Sayan Mountains, showing a cradle being hung from the overhanging poles. The bag hanging over the baby’s head is an ongon of the bear spirit, a powerful protector of the child.