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Bhutan: On target in the Himalayas

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A Bhutanese archery tournament in full swing. Photo / Jill Worrall
A Bhutanese archery tournament in full swing. Photo / Jill Worrall

In Bhutan, where democracy is just a few years old but stories of lamas on flying tigers, yak-snatching yetis and gurus with magical phalluses have been woven into the country's consciousness for centuries, it's entirely appropriate that the national sport should be a little unexpected.

Here, in the eastern Himalayas, sandwiched between India and China, archery is not only the national sport but an obsession.

Bows and arrows twang and thud their way through Bhutanese stories of the life of Buddha and the ancient gods, but the sport of archery first moved beyond this spiritual realm during the early 20th century and the reign of Bhutan's first king.

Today, Bhutan's thousands of archers are almost always equipped with US-made compound bows costing upwards of NZ$2000 rather than the traditional bamboo models. Even the arrows are high-tech and cost about NZ$30 each.

Archery is so popular in modern-day Bhutan that every village, no matter how perilously perched on a mountainside, will have its own archery range. It is primarily a sport for men, although ironically Bhutan's only Olympic representative this year is a young woman archer.

True to fashion in a country that likes to do things differently, archery in the Himalayas is played very differently compared with everywhere else.

Which brings us to a slightly boggy meadow dotted with purple drumstick primula in the valley of Probjika, nearly 3000 metres above sea level.

Probjika is famed as the winter home of the endangered black-necked crane. However, on this day the only flying objects (it being months before the cranes would make their arrival) were arrows fired by Sonam Tsering and Jurmin Dorje.

Last year Sonam was ranked among Bhutan's top 15 archers, so even though this is just a demonstration session there's a good chance he'll be on target. Jurmin too is a top competitor.

Bhutanese archery is a team, not an individual, sport. Archers fire at targets set 145 metres apart. Each target is just 31cm wide and 82cm high, with a bull's eye 25cm in diameter.

To one untrained in archery, it can be hard to even spot the bull's eye from the other end of the range, let alone contemplate hitting it.

Today's compound bows fire the arrows towards the target at a speed of at least 100 metres per second (some calculations put it at three times as fast). The speed depends in part on the draw weight, which in Bhutan is about 70lbs. What this means to the layperson is that the arrow is travelling so fast you can't see it.

Sonam and Jurmin unzip their glossy, expensive bows from special carry bags and select their arrows. Both began archery when they were about 16 years old and each, like every archer, has developed subtle variations of technique.

There is the slow, fluid tilting of the bow skyward, then the realigning, with the bow string itself almost against mouth and nose. After a final pause of complete stillness, concentration and an intense stare at the target, the bow is eased back and the string released. Sights, trigger releases and other gadgets are not permitted in Bhutanese archery.

Arrows are dispatched with a "twang" followed by a split-second of silence before there is either a satisfying "thwack" as they hit the target or a cloud of dust indicating the arrows have fallen short or gone wide.

Twice, the arrows pierced the wooden target so deeply it had to be lain flat in the ground and both Sonam and Jurmin had to apply considerable force to extract them.

At one point a cow ambles past behind one of the targets and the guys joke about a beef barbecue; a joke it is because both are Buddhist and wouldn't dream of deliberately killing an animal.

In more than 10 years of attending Bhutanese archery tournaments and demonstrations I've never seen a misfire, but apparently they are not uncommon.

Accidents, sometimes deadly ones, do happen.

To understand why, let's shift to a friendly tournament taking place in Jakar, Central Bhutan.

It's a cold afternoon; thunderclouds are jostling around the snow-covered Himalayan peaks to the north. There are two teams of six players each and everyone is dressed in the traditional Bhutanese men's go, a below knee-length kilted tunic worn with socks and shoes (thermal leggings have become a popular addition for winter; gos can be notoriously draughty).

Every time a player hits a bull's eye they receive a brightly coloured scarf to thread through their belt.

Each player has two shots at the target per round and the first team to reach 25 points wins. (There are three points if you hit the bull's eye, two for hitting the target). Each team will ensure that at least a few of its players stay down at the target end and as the round progresses almost all the players will be gathered there.

After a shot is fired they will either perform a short celebratory dance if it is one of their team members who has hit the target, or shout directions along the lines of "a bit more to the right next time".

Traditionally these team members would stand only two or three metres away from the target; some as on this Jakar range still do. Other ranges now have wooden walls beside the targets. Players are supposed to stand behind these while waiting for the arrows to be fired. At these friendly games though there are no rope barriers to keep ordinary spectators back, so people stand or sit wherever they feel comfortable.

The rise in the popularity of archery has also led to an increase in accidents but as archery is a tourist attraction no one seems to be too willing to divulge the number of casualties.

There are a couple of additional factors that add to the slight frisson of danger.

The first is that opposing team members often attempt to distract an archer as they prepare to fire by sledging.

The second is that most Bhutanese archers believe that a certain level of alcohol consumption aids performance. Beer and ara (a spirit distilled from grain) can be quaffed throughout the game.

Women do not take part in archery tournaments but they do have a part to play. During important games each team will have their own women cheerleaders whose job it is to encourage their own side and distract the opposition.

Also in national dress, in their case a full-length dress with co-ordinating blouse and cropped jacket, the women gather beside the halfway point of the archery range, form a circle and perform traditional dances.

Teams will consult astrologers before a match to determine the team order (if it's an especially auspicious day for someone born in a particular year, for example the year of the tiger, that player might well take the crucial last-to-shoot spot). Prayers will be said, offerings made to local deities and windhorses erected. The latter are long narrow prayer flags attached to bamboo poles three or more metres tall.

As well as sending prayers into the ether with every flutter they serve a more practical purpose as wind speed and direction indicators.

We left the Jakar archers, thankfully with no-one skewered by an arrow, to the sound of players singing a song of triumph as another arrow thumped into the target and the windhorses thrummed restlessly against their poles.

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