Archery in Bhutan
Here Phil Bowen, friend of Panoramic Journeys, writes about learning 'dha', or Bhutanese archery, the hard way…
We stare down the 140 metre bhacho (archery range) straining to focus on the small wooden target propped up in the dust, wondering whether we heard a faint ‘tock’ over the sound of fluttering prayer flags. All of a sudden a tiny figure darts out towards the target from behind a protective wall, hopping from foot to foot in a jaunty dance. It’s my arrow caddie and good luck talisman, five year old Samden, celebrating my kharey (hit) in age-old Bhutanese fashion.
Archery, or dha is Bhutan’s national sport. In times gone by, the Drukpa or Bhutanese archers repelled the Tibetan invaders on a number of occasions with their bamboo longbows and arrows. The sport continues to enjoy mass appeal, due in part to the fact that His Majesty is a keen archer – and it’s just great fun!
The archery tournament provides a riotous and colourful insight into Bhutanese culture and serves as a fun day out for the whole family. It is a real spectacle – everyone dresses up in their very best traditional outfits. Amidst feasting and drinking, the ‘jeerleaders’ from the opposing team make fun of each archer in an attempt to put him off, while the bowmen sing and dance to celebrate each hit.
You rarely see ladies playing, however, the Bhutanese Olympic team, which consists entirely of archers, boasts a few ‘bow-women’. Bhutan has never won a medal as the Bhutanese and Olympic parameters of the game are so dissimilar – distance 60 meters versus the typical Bhutanese 140 meters, the types of bows used and the target size. Perhaps also the teetotal Olympics doesn’t suit the Bhutanese style, as in the Kingdom day-long matches are frequently fuelled by copious amounts of ara – the local performance enhancing hooch!
The skill and artistry of the many traditional archers is perhaps even more amazing if one considers they are so accurate with primitive equipment. Their split bamboo bows are called zhu and have twisted stinging nettle strings, and lead-tipped bamboo or reed arrows, topped off with bird feather fletches. With such bows and arrows, they manage an impressive hit rate over the full 140-meter distance. However, the modern bow of choice in the Kingdom is the hi-tech and deadly hunting bow designed for taking down big game in the wilds like bear and moose. They are used in Buddhist Bhutan for harmless fun and competition.
The tournament is not risk-free – the archers and spectators sometimes stand so close that while admiring their bravado, you fear for their safety. Accidents do happen, people get shot from time to time but a more common injury is sustained once the arrow has found the target. Many an archer has stabbed himself with the wrong end of the arrow as he attempted to jerk it free from the wooden target.
My first attempt at archery was embarrassing and painful – having struggled valiantly to draw the bow in front of an expectant crowd of locals, my friend standing by to record the momentous occasion with his camera, I took aim and tried to stop shaking. I loosed and experienced a sudden shooting pain in my right forearm. Everyone’s gaze swung down the range to the tiny target to see where my arrow might land, when with a clatter it fell at my feet. Everyone burst out laughing at this silly chillip’s (foreigner’s) pathetic effort as I clutched my reddening and rapidly swelling forearm which had been whipped by the bowstring as I fired.
Undaunted, over the next few years I persevered and have made some good friends and business associates at the bhacho, however, spectators still take two steps back when they see this chillip take aim. My friend Singay Wangchuk thinks I am finally ready to play for his team in a real tournament which is coming up soon. My concern is not to make a fool of myself or indeed to kill anyone. I am more worried about having to wear a gho (the national dress) and not letting my little buddy Samden down.