Bows and Arrows


The bamboo that grows in India
Is growing behind your calves!
How can you hit the target?*


In Bhutan, this is the Year of the Water Dragon. Yet it wasn’t the sound of the thundering dragon, but rather the war cries of our village archers that ushered the New Year into my village on February 22nd. The archers were shooting against a neighboring village’s team.

Prayers and rituals had already been performed in the temple to invoke the deities’ blessings for victory. Now, the archers (dressed in their best) were warming up to a fierce two-day battle. In the past, the archers would have prepared by sleeping in the temple with their equipment, to be imbued with the power of the gods and to stay pure from any pollution - especially from that of women.

Since childhood, I have known that my role in archery was limited to dancing, singing and cheering our men. Although the number of women playing Olympic style archery has grown since female archers participated in the 1984 Olympics, traditional Bhutanese archery remains the exclusive domain of men.

In the village archery range, two wooden targets face each other at 140 meters apart. Standing at one target, each archer shoots two arrows at the opposite target. These men go back and forth between the targets hundreds of times over the next 48 hours, counting the hits and deciphering the distance between the arrow hits and the targets to count points.

I enjoy sitting on the sides of the archery ground with the audience, women with babies at their breasts and kids playing around. We comment on the archers, their styles and performance, their good looks or lack thereof, and we offer meals and drinks (including alcohol) to them. Women sing praise and encourage their team while teasing and taunting the rivals. But when an arrow hits, the excited hollering and the triumphant dances of the archers around the targets draws our attention and drowns out the singing of the women.

At New Year’s competition, my 12-year old nephew and his friends were engrossed with stringing their bamboo bows and making bamboo arrows. They imitate the older men, but they have yet to master the subtleties of our national sport, which originates from real wars in the past. Archery only became a recreational sport only about 100 years ago. During a battle in 1865, the British noted our devastating marksmanship, “The arrows are sharp, and pointed and fly with great precision, having penetration enough to go through a man’s body.”

The spirit of battle remains in the sport. Today urban archers invest heavily in the latest imported compound bows, while their country cousins innovate and develop carpentry skills in order to copy the imported ones. Most men play the game for love of the sport, but recently, attractive prizes have become a powerful motivator. Every year, more than 200 teams compete in major tournaments in Thimphu, organized by the Bhutan Archery Federation. But I prefer the traditional archery played in the villages to these modern tournaments.


*traditional Bhutanese archer's insult