The Mongolian Snuff Bottle Explained

The Mongolian snuff bottle is an essential part of local culture, used in everyday greetings and for special occasions. I explain its history, what it’s made from, how to accept it from your host, and more.

When you visit Mongolia and enter a ger (known more commonly as a yurt), you’ll notice that one of the most common greetings between hosts and guests is exchanging a snuff bottle. This is done almost immediately as a way for the host to welcome you into their home. I’ll explain more on the Mongolian snuff bottle, what’s inside, and how to properly accept it from the host below.

When entering a ger, if you’re male, you enter and walk to your right. If you’re female, you enter and walk to the left before sitting down. If you’re a foreign guest visiting a nomadic family’s home for the first time, you’ll enter and walk to the left, no matter your gender.

The host will sit by the “crown” of the ger, which is opposite to the door and is considered the most respected part of the ger.

It’s here where you can also see the family’s Buddhist shrine, family photos, and horse-racing or herding medals. These are usually placed on the wooden chest alongside all of the family’s most prized possessions.

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Mongolian Hello: Properly Accepting the Snuff Bottle

Instead of shaking your hand, the host will offer you a small, shiny bottle made of a beautiful and precious stone topped with a red cap.

This bottle, called “khoorog” in local Mongolian language, contains powdered tobacco.

The host will offer the snuff with their right hand while holding their elbow with their left hand as a sign of respect. Mongolians always give and receive with their right hand. You should do the same, reaching out to receive the khoorog with your right hand while holding your right elbow with your left hand. If this sounds confusing, just watch your host and copy what he does.

With the snuff bottle in hand, raise the cap halfway and take a sniff slowly and respectfully into both nostrils. If you’re really interested in experiencing powdered tobacco, it’s also acceptable to use the little spoon attached to the cap and scoop out the tobacco to sniff. Be prepared for your eyes to water or to start sneezing uncontrollably, both are a good sign you’ve done it right! Not only will this whiff clear out your sinuses, it will give you and your host a good laugh!

History of Mongolian Snuff Bottles

The Portuguese introduced tobacco to The Qing dynasty in the late 16th century. Later on, The Qing dynasty brought the concept of a snuff bottle to Mongolia in the 17th century. Mongolians quickly adapted it and came up with their design.

The design of the Mongolian snuff bottle consists of a “main body,” the bottle, which is made from a precious stone. This differs from the Chinese who use glass or clay for their snuff bottles.

The bottles are designed with ornate carvings of animals, scenery, or other elements that represent Mongolian culture.

In China, the value of a snuff bottle depends on the artistry of the paintings inside the bottle and the artisan who makes it. For Mongolians, the value and price of a snuff bottle depends on the stone used for the main body, as well as the cap, which Mongolians call “the head.”

In the 17th century, khoorog was an accessory for high monks and aristocrats. The value would reach great prices depending on who owned the khoorog previously. Later, during the Stalinist repression, along with the burning down of Buddhist Monasteries and Temples and the killing of monks, the overall value and significance of the khoorog dropped significantly. Communists were even known to smash khoorogs and use the pieces of broken stone.

After Mongolia declared their democratic revolution in 1991, the local people’s historical and cultural awakening brought back the khoorog! Only this time, it wasn’t just for high monks and aristocrats to use, but also for the “herder of 1,000” (a herder who owns 1,000 animals), state officials, and anyone who could afford it. During this time men and women would sit down and exchange their khoorogs every chance they had, even if it was just to catch up with friends they see often.

Snuff Bottle Mongolia

What are Mongolian Snuff Bottles made of?

Today, while other cultures flaunt their fancy cars or designer clothes, Mongolians show off their khoorogs.

Mongolian snuff bottles are made in three sizes. The size you choose depends on the size of your hands.

A person can also have three khoorogs, for three different occasions. The occasions are:

  • A small sized snuff bottle you always have with you, no matter where you are.
  • One that is always sitting at home on the table inside the ger.
  • A fancy khoorog reserved for official occasions.

There are four parts to the khoorog: head, collar, spoon, and body.

The head is usually made of coral and the collar (the rim attached to the head that holds the spoon) and the spoon are typically made of gold, silver, copper, or animal bone.

Depending on the owner’s wants and needs, the main body can be made of different gemstones. Mongolians believe in the healing powers of stones and you choose your stone depending on whether you get heartburn from time to time, for your left knee that aches when it rains, or some other health reason.

Here are a few of the most famous stones Mongolian snuff bottles are made out of and the powers it’s believed they have:

  • Jasper helps you calm down and let go of your anger. It is believed that whoever carries a jasper khoorog has a pure soul, like the lotus flower.
  • Agate keeps the peace at home. It also has the power to help with spasms.
  • Red coral stone rids you of your jealousy and vengeance.
  • White coral stone helps during difficult labor.
  • Turquoise is a stone of happiness. We believe it protects us from harm and unwanted disputes. It also helps with various skin conditions.

What’s inside a Mongolian Snuff Bottle?

The powdered tobacco inside a Mongolian snuff bottle is often imported from India, Germany, or China.

It contains nicotine. If you try to avoid nicotine, simply take the khoorog when the host offers it to you, get it close to your nose, and simply act like you’re sniffing it. In our culture, refusing anything the host offers you is considered rude. However, we don’t mind you pretending. It is not deceitful, it is instead polite. Don’t worry, we all do it here!

How much does a Mongolian Snuff Bottle cost?

Prices for Mongolian Snuff Bottles can range from $30 to $100 and up to $3,000, depending on the precious stone used.

They also come in beautiful hand-crafted silk bags. The embroidery on the snuff bottle bags is a marvel on its own. It takes months to embroider one bag using a unique Mongolian embroidery technique called Needle-round stitch, passed down by generations of artisan women.

If you’d like to have your own khoorog to take back home with you, we recommend visiting Mungun Zawya market in Ulaanbaatar.

Snuff Bottle Ulaanbaatar

Author: Aagie Batjargal

Hi! My name is Aagie, I’m a tour guide for Meanwhile in Mongolia. I will be giving you insights and perspectives of a local on exploring our beautiful country, as well as joining you on the trips and experiences we host!

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Jan Bullock
Jan Bullock
1 month ago

Hi Aagie!. Great information! I have been to Mongolia twice and plan on coming back in 2025. Last year I spent 6 weeks there and in 2022 I spent a month. I ride horses and wanted to immerse myself in the culture. I hope we can keep in touch. I will subscribe. Jan