Bhutan’s Great Game

Bhutan is a Buddhist nation, and one of the central precepts of Buddhism is a reverence for all life. So it seems somewhat incongruous that the nation’s favourite game involves a hunting instrument or weapon of war. But in Bhutan, the bow and arrow can only be used for play. In fact, when making arrows, one can only use feathers that were found on the ground; to kill a bird to obtain its feathers would be considered wrong.

Each village has its own archery range, making them as common as football pitches in English villages. All the archers and most of the women wear a national dress for the occasion. Although modern, high-tech equipment is making some headway, most competitors use traditional, hand-carved bamboo bows.

bhutanese-archery-competitionVillage teams compete against each other in rowdy, elaborate, multi-day tournaments that are as much about spectacle as they are about hitting a target. Archers can use almost any means at their disposal to distract or demoralize their opponents, including dancing in front of the targets. A major part of the sport goes on behind the scenes, as teams conspire to throw off their opponents’ game. It is this subtle intrigue that gives Bhutanese archery such popularity. The arrow firing is purely for the men, but the women join in with their singing and dancing.

There is a difference between Bhutanese and Olympic archery. For a start, the arrows are fired at a 145-metre range, twice the distance of the Olympic game. The traditional bows are made of bamboo, with giant stinging nettle sinews for the drawstring. Two teams take part in each match, and there are points to be won, not only for hitting the small target, but for a bewildering range of other reasons arbitrated by the umpire. Starting with a league, then a series of knock-out matches, an entire tournament could last for two or three days.

During a competition, each archery range has two teams competing. Usually, each team has 12 to 13 players and each player gets to shoot a pair of arrows in each direction. Once everyone completes shooting, then they go to the other end of the range and shoot in the opposite direction. Each hit is worth 2 points, or 1 point when the arrow sticks firmly in the ground within the length of the target. The team that gets the first 25 points win the game. Usually, it is the best of three games (25 points each).

The target is a piece of wood, approximately 1 metre high and 30 centimetres wide. It is of softwood and is about 5 centimetres thick. There is a circular set of rings on the top half of the target, the smallest being about 5 centimetres in diameter. The force of the arrows can make it difficult to extract them after a round, the occasional one breaking off.

archery-targetThe target is stuck into the ground, with a bank of dried mud and a wall behind it. On each side of the targets is a wooden wall, behind which the teams at the receiving end hide when a firer draws his bow. Team members also indicate with a series of gesticulations to indicate where the last arrow struck. Opposition members will make all kinds of disparaging signs when an arrow has missed. When a firer hits the target he shows deliberate indifference, indicating that was his intention anyway.

Modern, technical bows, which are expensive and available only to those with a disposable income, are coming into regular use, but the traditional, hand-made bamboo bows are well in the majority in village matches. The modern bows are imported from the United States, and can cost several hundreds of dollars. In order to have an effect on the archery in the Rio Olympics, selected young teenagers have been trained in the use of the latest equipment, so that they are perfectly ready to compete. They are prevented from entering the local competitions, so that they use their skills only with the equipment to be used in the Olympics.

So, whether on a trek through a village or touring in town when an archery competition is going on, take the time to try and absorb some of the spirit of the occasion, and, even more so, look at a target at the 150 metre range and wonder just how they manage any hits at all.