By Julian Dierkes and Munkh-Erdene G
If you’ve ever visited or live in Mongolia, you regularly encounter bright turquoise and orange floors. These are very prevalent in all older public buildings, but also in temples (well, the orange anyway) with the turquoise generally reserved for walls (though not exclusively) and the orange for (wooden) floors.
Here are examples I photographed on recent trips:
Where did these colours, possibly literally the paints, come from, when did they show up and why are they so common? Answers have not been very satisfying (to us).
Sure, orange and turquoise are cheerful colours, but even granting that there may be culturally-specific and institutionalized preferences for and associations with different colours, we cannot imagine that these two colours dominate the cheer sweepstakes to the extent ob being ubiquitous. Also, relative absence of these two colours in private and newer buildings suggest that a cultural preference can’t be the only factor at work.
Some acquaintances suggested that the origins of this colour scheme lie in the state-socialist era. That would likely change explanations around, perhaps focusing on chemical make-up of paints, or a (single?) source for these paints within in Comecon (Mongolia was a member since 1962)?
We have even heard explanations that reach back further, pointing to left-over camouflage green colour pigments from World War II production stockpiles as an element in the initial formulation of the turquoise colour.
Given central planning’s strong push to standardize, this colour scheme may have then be applied almost universally with post hoc claims at the cheerfulness of the particular hue.
We have yet to have any luck in identifying some popular terminology for these colours or jokes related to them, but would be very eager to hear any if you know of them.
Countering this Soviet-origin story of the orange paint at least, is the prevalence of this tone of orange in religious buildings associated with Tibetan Buddhism. From saffron robes to wooden elements at temples, the colour is common throughout Buddhist structures, so the adoption of a similar colour as a Soviet standard seems to be surprising.
The predominant colour of a Mongolian man’s silk belt, often referred to as “дурдан бүс” is commonly orange rather than pure yellow. This color is widely considered as symbolic of the sun and wisdom. It serves as a representation of the owner’s “хийморь” a term that directly translates to “wind horse,” signifying fortune and spirit. Traditionally, the belt is always kept in an elevated position, not the ground, showing respect, and sometimes is kept away from contact with women, external influences, and is not to be stepped over.
In Mongolian tradition, women do not traditionally wear this type of belt, which is why they are referred to as “бүсгүй” meaning “beltless” or “without a belt.” This practice further underscores the cultural significance of the belt as a gender-specific emblem. However, now the usage of a belt is not gendered.
Again, this suggests that this colour resonates well in Mongolia, but it is unlikely to explain the Soviet origins.
The interior of a Mongolian traditional yurt, known as a ger (гэр), mostly orange. This vibrant hue can be observed in various elements of the yurt’s design, including the sky window, pillars, poles, and even some pieces of furniture such as the chest of drawers (авдар), wardrobe, table, chairs, door, and kitchen cabinetry. Some scholars suggest that the circular design of the ger holds symbolic significance, often representing the universe and the interconnection among all living beings. In this context, the sky window can be interpreted as a representation of the sun, while the supporting poles mimic the rays of sunlight. The choice of the color orange within this cosmic framework may be seen as a homage to the profound influence of the sun, symbolizing its cosmic power and its essential role in nurturing and preserving life.
Similar answers also noted the possible association between turquoise and copper given the colour of oxidized copper. That would explain prevalence at Erdenet to some extent, perhaps, as well as parallel association of copper and turquoise hill in Oyu Tolgoi. This was also the origin of my attempt at a pun in referring to turquoise halls, as Oyu Tolgoi’s logo includes the same colour scheme, of course.
We are no colour chemist, but quick searches at least have not revealed any use of copper in the production of turquoise pigments.
We suspect that there is some Soviet-era origin of the paint that extends beyond Mongolia as recent conversations in Kyrgyzstan suggest that the colour scheme had been common there at one time as well, though restricted to rural and older hospital buildings now, apparently. This may have not been a single origin, but perhaps it was. Apparently, the colours have not acquired any kind of status as pop-cultural icons.
Despite the origins, the colour scheme clearly resonates in Mongolia with religious meanings and copper mining serving as some of the elements of this resonance.
About Munkh-Erdene Gantulga
G Munkherdene is a Senior Lecturer, the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology the National University of Mongolia, and an Executive Secretary of the Mongolian Anthropological Association. His research interest focuses on the social life of ninja miners (artisanal gold miners), nationalism, cultural heritage, globalization, capitalism, development, and mining in Mongolia.