Archery, which has been a part of Bhutan’s culture for centuries, is the Kingdom’s official national sport. Archery is not only a sport but also a pastime that brings people of all ages together. It is seen as a cultural staple that serves as a form of recreation, art, and culture. It is also one of few activities that provide Bhutanese people the opportunity to socialize both within and across class barriers. The excitement of friendly competition attracts spectators, making it a form of entertainment. Archery has long been a sport practiced by the local people. This is evident since every town and village has its own full-length archery field.
As a martial art, archery has been practiced for centuries as a way for the people to defend their kingdom. The bow and arrow have had a long history as the predominant survival tool in Bhutan. Most kids in Bhutan start archery training around the age of six or seven. They learn from their elders, who pass down the skills and techniques that have been used for generations.
Archery became popular as a sport in the 1920s as the king at the time was an avid archer. Bhutanese archers start training at a young age and compete in local and national tournaments. Archery was Nominated to be the National Sport in 1971, by the 3rd Druk Gyalpo (Dragon King), Jigme Dorji Wangchuck,
It was officially declared the national sport of the Kingdom in 1971 upon its entry into the United Nations. The nation began competing in the Olympics in 1984. However, up to the point of this writing, the team has not brought any Olympic medals back to the kingdom yet.
Archery has government funding and is a part of the nation’s social fabric. The government’s support of archery is important to maintaining this cultural tradition. Funding provides training and equipment so that Bhutanese people can participate in this pastime.
In researching for this article, I came across quite a few videos showing men in what appears to be friendly competition with traditional bamboo bows. The mood is generally festive and louder than what would be acceptable on most Olympic-style archery fields. Men can be seen standing right next to the target as their friends shoot arrows, sometimes moving away when shots go wide. This would be a huge no-no in any range I’ve visited. Yet it is seen as a part of the fun in Bhutan. Another notable difference is that the local game is played on a 140-meter range, in contrast to the 70-meter Olympic range. There are also gatherings and festivals which attract locals and tourists alike. Unlike Olympic-style archery where spectators are silent as the archer stands on the shooting line, spectators and competitors sing songs, dance, cheer and jeer the shooter as he lines up for his shot as well as after the target is hit or missed. In some cases, this can get emotionally charged, as competition can become intense. The singing, bragging, dancing, and celebrations make Bhutanese archery competitions rather unique. The witty words and phrases launched at the competitors are seen as an important part of “the game” in the kingdom.
An example of such an expression might be hollered by a shooter before releasing his arrow might be:
/Gong do mang bee bjew chu ru chi gi cheg kay/
These scores of eggs, shall one single pebble break.
Alcohol also sometimes comes into play, reminiscent of a local softball game in North America. In general, archery competitions are male-heavy events. Wives of archers take part in cheering on their favorites and jeering opponents of the husbands, fathers, or sons they come to support. In international competition, some female archers have become prominent, notably Dorji Dema and Tshering Chhoden, two Bhutanese women.
Traditional arrows are made from bamboo reeds that are cut, then heated under a moderate flame, and manually straightened. The preferred type of bamboo for arrows grows only in certain parts of the country. people often take sprouts of the wild bamboo and grow them in their own yards. Traditionally, feathers of monal pheasants are used in arrows as fletchings. But due to conservation reasons, cello tape is used as a better alternative.
Like the arrows, bows are also made of bamboo. It is made from a specific type of bamboo called Zho Shing, which only grows in the warmer parts of the country. Bamboo specifically from the Samtse District is most preferred because of its uniformity. Cut bamboo is dried for approximately 75 days or dried over an earthen stove to increase its strength and durability. The bamboo stem is cut in half and joined in the middle. The middle of the bow, where the riser would appear on a takedown bow, is where the 2 bamboo stalks overlap, making the center the thickest part of the bow. The bowstring is hand-spun using a type of wild vine.
In some local competitions, more modern bows are used. I observed many games where compound bows were used.
In conclusion, archery is an important part of Bhutanese society. The sport has been a part of the country’s culture for centuries and is the national sport of Bhutan. Archery is not only a sport but also a pastime that brings people of all ages together. The government provides funding for training and equipment so that Bhutanese can participate in this important part of their culture. Senior citizens are also involved in archery, making it a sport for all ages.
(Top) featured image: Young Archers by Arnis Dzedins