The Nomadic Tsaatan Reindeer Tribes of Mongolia

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Secreted away in a quiet corner of Northern Mongolia, canvas tents dot the sprawling extents of the tundra. You dismount your horse, exhausted from having travelled long hours and endless miles into the Taiga. Everywhere you look, enormous grey and white reindeer stand grazing, wandering, tied to trees and sticking their noses into tents that resemble tepees. You are invited into one, where a smiling woman greets you warmly with a cup of reindeer milk tea. Join photographer Vijesh Kumar Raju and friend Navak Gupta as they chronicle their experience visiting the Tsaatan Reindeer Tribes of Mongolia through the lens of Vijesh’s Sony A6500 camera.

Munich-based photographer Vijesh Kumar Raju, along with his friend Navak Gupta visited the Tsaatan people as part of a personal project to connect with the few remaining reindeer tribes of the world- a number which stands today at approximately 20 tribes. Being a largely nomadic people, reindeer tribes such as the Tsaatan people are separated from their counterparts in other regions. Fascinated by this, Vijesh decided to build a connection between these people, who led similar lives on opposite sides of the world, through the medium of photography.

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Pictures speak a thousand words, and are a powerful form of communication- there is no barrier of language or technology when it comes to physical pictures,” Vijesh says. With this goal in mind, Vijesh and Navak began compiling photographs from their encounters with reindeer tribes for distribution amongst members of the next tribe. In this manner, the two travel-enthusiasts hoped to bridge the gap between these communities of people, who lived by the same ethos, but had never seen or heard of one another.

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The Darhad Depression in Northern Mongolia is one of three parallel rift valleys born from the Baikal Rift System. Home to the vast region of Tsagaan Nuur, which comprises of vast expanses of open steppe land and heavily forested hills, this region houses the world’s southern-most indigenous reindeer population.

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The Tsaatan people are a nomadic tribe of reindeer herders with a deep reverence for shamanic practices and belief. The Tsataan believe in nature worship, and even have a certain treatise designed to call or banish the rain. The people revere and worship their shaman leader, and hold faith in the belief that their ancestors are reincarnated in the form of forest animals, who may appear to guide the living in times of need. Though the community ethnically identifies as ‘Dukha’ their strong kinship with their animals has earned them the Mongolian title of Tsataan, which means roughly “those who have reindeer”. The Tsaatan people are of the belief that if the reindeer disappear, so will their life and culture.

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Mongolia’s smallest ethnic community, the Tsaatan people consider their animals to be members of their families and rely on them for a number of basic needs, such as transport and meat. Preserved reindeer milk cheese and curd are common staple food items and reindeer milk tea is consumed as a much-beloved beverage, while reindeer skins and antlers make for invaluable materials for tools, clothing and medicinal use. The Tsaatan people live off of the land, harvesting berries, mushrooms and nuts from the surrounding forest areas. Early mornings are spent on the backs of reindeer, riding into the woodlands in search of wood for fires, or tending to the animals as they graze upon lichen, sedges, grasses and moss found in these northern latitudes.

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Originally hailing from the Tuva region of Southern Russia, members of the tribe crossed the border into Mongolia to settle amidst the remote Taiga region as early as 1938. Today, Tsaatan camps exist in both the West and East Taiga regions. Living primarily in settlements of tepee-like structures known as ortz, the Tsaatan typically migrate between seasons, moving between the same summer, autumn, winter and spring camps ever year. Canvas ortz make for easy transport on reindeer-back, along with basic furnishings and belongings while structural wooden poles and animal-pelt beds are left behind to be re-discovered in the following year.

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During the winter, some families with children will retire their canvas-made homes for more permanent wooden settlements in the Tsagaan Nuur district, where the young ones attend daily schooling lessons. Families without children remain in the Taiga and carry on with their reindeer-tending activities. The winter months in the region can be long and cold, and animal-hide made clothing makes for warm outerwear to outlast the season. It is highly uncommon for the reindeer, who are considered valuable members of the tribes, to be killed for food or hide, though this does occur on rare occasion.

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One of the few remaining reindeer tribes of the world, the Tsaatan lead a life which remains bound by neither materialistic need nor ambition, where community and family are of utmost importance.

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All the images used in this article are courtesy of Vijesh Kumar Raju and Navak Gupta

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