On Target in Bhutan

The field is longer than one and a half football fields…

The target is smaller a baseball strike zone…

Onlookers talk loudly and dance…

Yet these skilled archers hit the bulls-eye regularly!

Welcome to Bhutanese Archery – the national sport of this peaceful Buddhist Kingdom. During the first week of our two-week journey through beautiful Bhutan, we’ve had the privilege of watching two archery matches. (We joined the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge at another match during the second week ... but more on that one in another post!)

In Thimpu, the capital city, we stumbled upon a local match being played near the National Olympic Center.

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The match was at Changlimithang Stadium, one of the Kingdom's most prominent archery fields. Using traditional bamboo bows these skilled marksmen aim and release their arrows towards a target 145 -150 meters (about 476 feet) away. The targets are approximately three foot high by one foot wide with a circle in the middle is about nine inch diameter. Yet despite gusty breezes these amazing athletes manage to hit the target regularly.

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Team size can vary, but in Thimpu, each team had ten players – five at each end. The teams took turns aiming and shooting at the target. The scoring was three points for a bulls-eye, two points for hitting the surrounding wood, and one point for landing within an arrows-length from the target.

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Since this is the national sport, players take time off from work for a match – no questions asked. Our guide, Kunzang, explained that these players were middle-class taxi drivers and shop keepers, since they were using the traditional bamboo bows and arrows. Wealthier archers use carbon-fiber bows. Tradition dictates that the players wear the national dress (the “Gho”) and communicate only in Dzongkha, the native tongue, despite the fact that virtually everyone below age 40 in Bhutan speaks English.

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When a team member hits the target, the fun begins; team members on both ends break into dance while singing traditional Bhutanese songs. Our guide explained that sometimes the songs are prescribed and sometimes the players randomly select them. If a marksman hits the target on the first arrow a rough translation for the prescribed song is: “Praying for blessings on this match”. And, when one player hits the target directly after an opponent hits the target the song is something like, “Hooray, my shot just nullified your previous shot!”. (Pardon to Dzongkha purists for these loose translations.)

Since the target is so far away, the players use colored banners to communicate with their teammates from the other end. For example, they will wave the white banner to the right of the target if the arrow lands to the right. And, they loudly yell suggestions to their teammates on how to improve their shot the next time.

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Archery takes incredible upper body strength and accuracy. A single centimeter adjustment in the release results in a meter difference by the time an arrow hits the target. These men have been playing since childhood and their enthusiasm for the game radiates.

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As the archers take their turns, teammates and rivals stand talking around them, talking and sometimes checking email on their mobile phones. The atmosphere is congenial; today’s teammate may be tomorrow’s rival. Onlookers watch from the sidelines. When archers use bamboo bows, teammates on the other end stand close to the target and only move aside if the oncoming arrow is coming directly at them; with carbon bows, teammates stand further away since the arrow arrives quicker and with greater force.

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Archery is the only sport where Bhutan fields an Olympic team. But the Olympic field is only 70 meters long and the competitors use carbon bows. So, Bhutan hasn’t won a medal yet; however, if the field were 145 meters, the Bhutanese would take home Gold every time!

In Bumtang, a city about 180 miles from Thimpu, we watched our second match. This time it was the championship match of a local tournament where competitors used carbon bows and arrows. (Ironically, the carbon bows are made in the USA and cost between $1000 and $1600. In the USA, these bows are used for hunting, but the Bhutanese people abhor killing.)

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Since the equipment is so expensive, the players in the Bumtang match were wealthier than the players in Thimpu. Despite the expense, we were told the archery tournament played an important social role in the community bringing together men of many walks of life who would not normally socialize.

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The tournament started with 150 players, and this was the final round. As a championship match, it was much more elaborate, complete with flags, prizes, and a viewing box for the Governor and Head Monk of the district. There were three teams with five players each. Members of the three teams wore identifying sashes – blue, yellow, red – with numbers specifying their order of play. There was even a master of ceremonies who enthusiastically announced each player over a loud speaker. Each time a player hit the target, he received a colored sash for his belt.

For this tournament, the match was 17 rounds long, and took a complete morning. (We only watched two rounds – one from each end.) Sometimes in the villages, people play all day long – from 9 to 5.  Carbon bows are very elaborate; it takes a lot of strength, concentration and coordination to pull, aim and release the arrow. And the arrow reaches the target area in the blink of an eye.

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The Governor alternated between his roles as a team member and public official; between turns he sat in the viewing box alongside the Head Monk from the district. Monks don’t play archery, but they enjoy watching.

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A group of local women sang and danced in a circle in front of the viewing box. Meanwhile dogs lay in the center of the archery field, oblivious to arrows flying overhead.

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The head referee meticulously recorded the box scores on the official score sheet.

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The manager of the Kaila guesthouse where we stayed was the captain of the yellow team. He exhibited Zen-like concentration and was rewarded with numerous bulls-eyes.

Since these were the top 15 players in the tournament, all received prizes.

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Later at dinner we heard that Kaila’s team won the tournament and Kaila, himself, was the individual who scored the most points so he was able to bring home the trophy. We celebrated (with a Red Panda beer) like proud relatives.

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Since we were so intrigued with Bhutanese Archery, we decided to don traditional garb and give it a try.  At the risk of appearing ridiculous, we had to celebrate our bulls-eye (even if it wasn't from 145 meters.)

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One thought on “On Target in Bhutan

  1. Hey guys...
    It's Keith from Lotay's aunt's place in Thimphu, where we dined so well on great cooking and drank local red wine. I love your blog, and admire your spirit of adventure. Your writing is outstanding! As I suppose it would be if you teach for Stanford, eh? And your photos...awesome. Where are you now? I'm still considering Cuba for summer.
    You can find me here: https://badfish2.wordpress.com/
    Keith

    Reply

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