Drawing the bowstring back, the archer inhales, grunts and then releases. The arrow flies from its tautly stretched string and disappears into the clear sky, reappearing 145 meters away on the target (or the ground nearby). Amazingly, most Bhutanese stand casually by the target, seemingly unaffected by the succession of potentially lethal arrows whizzing past them. Now, if the arrow hits the target, the archer’s teammates erupt into cheers. If the arrow flies long, the opposing team leaps in front of the target to jeer at the failed archer for his poor accuracy. Either way, both teams greet each shot with equal enthusiasm and occasionally a swig of liquor — “To gain confidence,” as one competitor says.
Archery, or “Da” as it’s called in Dzongkha (the official language of Bhutan), became Bhutan’s national sport in 1971. In that year, the Buddhist kingdom also became a member of the United Nations. For this small country, nestled between India and China, archery dates back far beyond the sport’s official recognition. It is deeply entrenched within the fabric of Bhutanese culture. Its origins, however, are a far cry from the gaiety prevalent in today’s practice. Archery began as an essential tool for hunting and fighting wars, most notably against invading Tibetans and the British in 1864-65. As bows and arrows later became obsolete in warfare and hunting, archery evolved into a social game played by kings, their court and eventually local villagers.
Today, royals and locals alike compete in archery festivals and tournaments. Yangphel Archery hosts one of the largest of such events, the Yangphel Open Archery Tournament. With the later rounds held during August’s monsoon season in the capital city of Thimphu, the competition rages on rain or shine. With 260 participating teams, the three-month long event is epic in scale — especially for this tiny country, with a population of just over 700,000 in an area half the size of Indiana.
Dasho Ugyen Rinzin, chairman of Yangphel and president of the Bhutan Archery Federation established the tournament in 1997. The rules follow guidelines practiced throughout the country. Teams alternate shooting two arrows at a time in each direction. The first to score 25 points wins. However, what makes Yangphel unique is the pace of the game. Normally, just one game takes days to complete. The complicated scoring system and frequent interludes of songs and social revelry are mostly to blame, causing the momentum of the game to move at a snail’s pace. To allow for more archers to compete, especially those who work full-time jobs, Yangphel has structured a fast-paced style of play where all games end within the day.
Players choose their own teams, with only one regulation — the best seeded archers may not compete on the same team (that would be, well, unfair). A player is given the ‘seeded’ title if they score 22 kareys or direct hits within 45 rounds. These seeded players are usually veteran archers with some sort of fan following.
Karma Lotey, the CEO of Yangphel Private Limited, describes one of the teams he follows as “the seniors,” aged 60-75, who are “die-hard archers.” Another crowd favorite is the Phoja (a Dzongkha word that loosely translates to “men”). Led by His Royal Highness Prince Jigyel Ugyen Wangchuck, the team started playing together in 2008. They lost their first tournament but came back to win in 2009 and 2013.
Prince Wangchuck began as most boys in Bhutan do, playing with bows and arrows at a young age. While traditional bows and arrows are fashioned from bamboo, many modern archers use compound bows. However, compound bows are still new to Bhutan; Prince Wangchuck did not pick one up until 2008 when he visited Washington, D.C.
Today, the tournament organizers such as the Bhutan Olympic Committee (BOC), encourage archers to use compound bows so they are eligible for international tournaments. Modern accessories that were previously banned in earlier tournaments are now advisable. The BOC also supports the Bhutan Archery Federation, which provides classes to train the next generation of archers.
Though Prince Wangchuck knows firsthand the high level of skill of Bhutanese archers combined with the efforts of the organizers to develop internationally ranked archers, he does not foresee Bhutan receiving medals in large archery tournaments such as the Olympics. He instead asserts that the social elements of archery are what makes the sport so special for him and his fellow Bhutanese. An attitude of playfulness, exemplified in light-hearted bets and banter, and bonding with teammates — these aspects, HRH likes best. In one humorous instance, HRH and a teammate played a match where the winner had to give up his boots. HRH won. The joyful exchanges between laughing archers dressed in the traditional Bhutanese clothing display the the familiar Bhutanese way of approaching sports with camaraderie and good cheer.
“It is an experience I will never give up,” Mr. Lotey of Yangphel Private Limited said, “as long as I can pull my bow and shoot an arrow.”