Archery: Bhutan’s National Sport

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Archery, the national sport of Bhutan

The Bhutanese are very passionate about Archery (called Datse) and indeed this is their national sport and favorite pastime. There is an archery range even in the smallest of villages (or wherever there is some space), much like football fields in South America or Cricket pitches in India or ice rinks in Canada.

↑ Archery range

Traditional Bhutanese archery is a social event and competitions are organized between villages, towns, and amateur teams. There are usually plenty of food and drink complete with singing and dancing. Attempts to distract an opponent include standing around the target and making fun of the shooter’s ability. The archery range in Thimphu and Paro got very busy during the weekends, and several people simply sat around to watch the game.

The archery range is a long strip of land (about 140m long) and the opposing teams stand near the targets at the end of the field. The archers perform ceremonial dance which could include praises for themselves. Its a slow dance and nicely coordinated.

↑ Archers performing ceremonial dance

Archery was declared as the national sport in 1971, and the game has roots in Bhutanese identity itself. There are several legends describing how bows and arrows were used as primary weapons to destroy anti-dharmic forces of evil. The fact that Gods in both their wrathful and serene forms are depicted holding the bow and arrow is seen as a reason to consider as an auspicious sport with a divine mandate.

↑ Archer in action

Bows and arrows made from bamboo have traditionally been used but are not getting replaced by imported equipment. I was talking to a guy in a bar some day and he said that Archery is rapidly turning elitist since few people can afford to use mechanised equipment. He also said that it is very easy to learn archery on the imported bows and arrows and I can see why. Also, one must learn to use the hand-crafted natural bamboo tools before switching to new ‘machines’ since going other way is impossible. Kinda sounds like learning to play acoustic guitar before switching to an electric one.

Archers from opposite teams challenge each other and if you miss hitting the target, you get mocked on your ability (or the lack of it). However if you win the challenge, you get to tuck a colorful scarf under your belt and your team mates will sing songs praising you. The yelling, singing, laughing etc. can sometimes get quite intense. I loved this game!

↑ Archers in Thimphu, with traditional bows

There are many other strange practices that have become deeply entrenched into the game. These have become almost matter-of-fact. For instance, all members of a team have to momentarily renounce the worldly comforts of home, wife included. During the course of tournament, all members of the team must shack up together, whether they like it or not. The stars, or astrological charts are consulted. They dictate time and direction, often culminating in a team very casually strolling into the field, sideways or merely going AWOL until the eleventh hour. Divine intervention, albeit forbidden by the National Archery Federation of Bhutan now, is still much solicited (wow really!).

↑ Archery range. Busy on weekends

I used to make bows and arrows when I was small and on seeing this game I felt a renewed interest to learn it. 😛 Watching the arrow being released from the bow or an arrow swooping in from the trajectory to hit the target is quite an experience. Its quite scary actually! A traditional Bhutanese proverb says, “The Divine Arrow can be seen only when it hits, not when it is shot.”