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The bulk of my fieldwork in rural Mongolia have taken place among the Darhads, a Mongolian speaking group of some 20.000 pastoralists, hunters and villagers, who inhabit the geographically and partly culturally isolated Shishged Depression located in the NW-corner of the Hövsgöl Province, 1000 km from Ulaanbaatar.
The Darhads originate from a complex mix of clans only some of which were Mongolian in cultural and linguistic terms, the rest being Tuvan, Turkic and Tungus. Today, these clans a largely defunct, but Darhads still make reference to them in shamanic worship and rituals, where they play a crucial role.
The Darhads also have a long Buddhist tradition. For nearly two hundred years, the Shishged was home to the Darhad Shav’, an ecclesiastical estate belonging to Jebtsundamba Khutuktu, the leading reincarnation of pre-socialist Mongolia’s Buddhist church.
Following Mongolia’s revolution in 1921, the Shishged was made subject to socialist reforms. In 1938, its monasteries were demolished, and many lamas (and shamans) were killed or imprisoned. From 1956 to 1992, all Darhads were organized into collective farms, which organise all formal aspects of cultural, political and economic life.
After the collapse of state-socialism and the introduction of liberal democracy and capitalism in the 1990s, all livestock were privatised; and, faced with economic crisis and deteriorating infrastructure, most Darhads households made a living from nomadic pastoralism, as well as on a variety of supplementary economic activities like hunting and berry foraging, and, most recently, tourism and artisanal gold mining.
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