Archery (མདའ་རྩེད་) is widely considered the national game of Bhutan, with an overwhelming number of men participating in the sport on various levels. Though there are some female archers in the country, a few of whom compete at the Olympic level, women are generally discouraged from publicly playing archery due to lingering cultural conceptions of purity and propriety.
While it is difficult to date exactly when archery as a sport became widespread, bows and arrows were almost certainly used as hunting tools and weapons in war since Bhutan’s earliest times. According to some oral accounts, arrows were mainly used as weapons until the 17th century, when the 12th Desi Ngawang Gyaltshen (r. 1739-1744) adapted them to be used in sport; in particular, the previous v-shaped metal head that helped the arrow to remain stuck in its target is said to have been changed to a rounded tip that is easier to pull out of a target.
In modern Bhutan, hunting is generally banned, and as battles are no longer fought using bows and arrows, they are now essentially used only for sport. A traditional bow is made from a large and thick species of bamboo called pagshing. There are two types of traditional bow for archery: the changzhu, or stretched bow and tapzhu, or folded bow. Changzhu are made from a single long piece of bamboo, about one arm’s length. Tapzhu are made up of two pieces of bamboo overlapped at the centre of the grip. Bowstrings are made from nettle fibre or other such materials that are strong and durable yet not stretchable.
Arrows are made from a species of lightweight bamboo that has a straight stem and also generally of a narrow and uniform girth. The bamboo is dried and its outer area made very smooth. The arrow head is made from iron and is fixed to the bamboo shaft using lac wax. The arrow is normally fletched with a pheasant’s feather. Just above the fletching and below the nock, the shaft is held stably with several rounds of strong thread of different colours to give it a pleasing aesthetic. The same is done below the fletching as part of the crest. Traditional arrows are roughly two feet long and each players uses a pair of arrows.
The target is normally a wooden board about three feet tall and one foot wide. It is erected firmly in the ground at a slight slant. The target is painted white with decorative motifs in different colours on the upper and lower ends. The bull’s eye is surrounded by brightly coloured concentric circles. The target is set within a post, which is less than a foot higher and a few feet wider than the target. The post is decorated with scarves and branches. The area around the post is elevated to form a graded slope to catch errant arrows and better protect passersby. Decorative flags are hoisted in front of the posts along the side of the elevated area. The target is set at about 50-60 yards or some 150 metres for a normal adult range. The range is shorter for young boys, who use simpler bamboo bows and arrows until they reach maturity.
Archery in Bhutan is normally played between two teams, with each member playing a pair of arrows. The teams are allocated a target each and a player from the team affiliated with the target starts shooting. The archers then shoot alternately in pairs until all the players have had a turn; then, both teams move to the opposite end. Points are calculated based on direct hits on the target (two points) and hits within an arrow’s length from the target (one point). The archers normally shoot from within the enclosure in front of the target and a line may be drawn to mark the point from where to shoot. Matches may be set at odd points such as 21, 23 or 25. Whoever acquires the total points first wins the game. Matches often are played in sets of three or five. When a player hits the target, his colleagues often celebrate it with a dance at both ends of the range within the target enclosure. Those who hit the target are often recognized by giving them a piece of scarf to be worn to mark their hit. The person who scores the final point is also often celebrated. When a team scores its final point and the opposing team cannot respond in kind, the team circles the target, throwing some dust in the air crying, “Choe!”, which literally means, “I make an offering”.
Bhutanese play archery during public holidays and festivals by forming two groups. While men play archery, the women perform dances and bring picnic lunches. Bets are often set, with the stakes being a shared feast that evening. After the match, the losers would be required to sponsor the expensive dishes while the winners make lesser contributions. During festive occasions such as new year, the players and dancers often go from house to house drinking before they settle in a specific household chosen to be their host for the feast. Those players who did hit the target even once are considered to ‘have not broken their jar’ and thus ‘fined’ a jar of alcohol.
In the past, the most popular archery matches were those played between villages and communities. Known as chogda (ཕྱོགས་མདའ་) or ‘archery of sides’, rival villages and communities would often have such an annual match. They would often dress up in military gear with scarves, helmets, and boots, and approach the archery ground on the chosen day and time from a specific direction as recommended by an astrologer. The players may have slept in temples the night before or undergone rituals to bring luck. Various tutelary deities would have been invoked to help boost the morale and concentration of the players. The bows and arrows may have been blessed by priests. The match is taken up with all seriousness of a competition but outwardly in good spirits.
During the game, archers would often chant da-shed or poetic verses and proverbs before they shoot although this tradition is now in serious decline. Women would perform dacham, or archery songs and dances, that both encourage one’s own team and also ridicule, taunt, distract and humiliate the opposing players. When a player from one’s team shoots, one or two colleagues will help him hone his aim by calling out some standard phrases and terminologies from across the field. However, players are not allowed to distract the opponents. Archery in Bhutan is a sport that incorporates rich and diverse accompaniments in the form of oral traditions, religious rituals, social contracts, manners and behaviours, as well as its standard rules and regulations. As a festive event, archery is also accompanied by a lot of food, music and drinks, including alcohol which is commonly served during the games.
Today, archery is widely played in Bhutan using imported compound bows and steel arrows. These lethal weapons have partially deprived the sport of the usual merriment and have also caused numerous serious injuries and even casualties. Matches are also held among different teams with a score board in the fashion of modern league and knockout tournaments. While archery remains a very popular sport among Bhutanese adult men, its charm as a festive culture is diminishing as oral, culinary and social cultures associated with traditional archery matches are being dropped. There is also a concerted effort on the part of the state to promote Olympic style archery in Bhutan as it is for this one sport that Bhutan is qualified to take part in the Olympics.