Archery in Bhutan
Just a few hundred meters from my house is a modest looking park, where archers gather to compete. Within sight of the Paro Dzong they gather here in the national dress to spend hours in competition, and sharing their friendships. The sport is about hitting a target across a 145m field, but the camaraderie and merrymaking is what makes it special.
Back in the 1970s, when I was a child, most Bhutanese parents would make toys for their children and my parents were no exception to this art of improvisation. One of the first toys that my father crafted for me was a bow and arrow, he made these with bamboo from the nearby forest, some twine from my mothers weaving kit and some feathers from our chicken coop. Archery was, and still is, the favourite pastime in my village and is enjoyed equally by grownups and children.
Archery is woven into the social fabric of our culture and it is hard to imagine a national holiday or even a local holiday, or any festive occasion, without an archery contest. Archery is now the national sport of Bhutan after evolving from the medieval times when it was primarily a matter of defending the country. Murals in temples often depict celestial beings depicted holding the bow and arrow, symbolic of its significance in the Buddhist mythology.
An archery team comprises of eleven players each and the two targets are placed 145m apart. The wooden painted targets are 30cm in width and 120cm in height. A player is allowed to shoot two arrows alternately. A hit on the bulls eye secures three points, two points for any other part of the target and one point if the arrow strikes the ground an arrow length within the target. The first team to score twenty five points clinches the game.
Once the technology used for archery was very basic, but our best teams today employ the best technology as well. Modern materials haven't changed the basic design of the arrow very much, but the bow itself has been transformed from low tech wood to high tech compound bows, employing cams and metals to achieve maximum power with excellent stability. Regardless of the equipment used, the skill remains in the hands of the archer.
National Archery tournaments are still one of the most awaited events in the sporting calendar in Bhutan, and it is very common to see the range teeming with huge crowds of people. For village tournaments wagers are often set in terms of feast and cash. During important tournaments the teams still consult local astrologers, make offerings to the local deities and engage in various esoteric rituals to seek the support of the divinities. Each team has its cheer leaders consisting of women dancing and singing extolling the positives of their team and jeering the opponents with a barrage of lewd remarks to disrupt the focus of the opposing archers.
When someone hits the target, the players burst into dancing and also sing a few triumphant verses.
The sport of archery continues to survive and flourish despite many other modern sports having made a breakthrough in our small country. This in a way is symbolic of our people holding on to their proud tradition and treading in the footsteps of our ancestors.