Archery Gives Bhutan Its Sporting Chance

THIMPHU, Bhutan — By the final round Saturday, the baby-face prince and his team of ringers had an almost insurmountable lead in this reclusive kingdom’s national archery tournament, but a fierce fight broke out for second place.

Much depended on whether Gem Tshering, known as the Bull in a country of fairly small people, could keep hitting the target with arrows launched from 140 meters; whether Jigme Norbu, the tournament’s top-ranked shooter, could continue his late surge; and whether someone would be struck with an arrow and hauled away, which is always a risk in Bhutanese archery.

“We need a cushion!” Dorji, a one-name deadeye, screamed at his teammate Dechen Tshering.

Suddenly, an arrow seemed to drop from the sky. Smack! It was a direct hit, or karey.

Dorji whooped and joined his teammates in the required celebratory singing and dancing. A sudden-death shootout loomed.

The archers must wear traditional robes and knee-high dark socks. Kuni Takahashi for The New York Times
The archers must wear traditional robes and knee-high dark socks.
Kuni Takahashi for The New York Times

Archery is the national sport of Bhutan, a tiny Himalayan nation squeezed between India and China. Its national championship, the Yangphel archery tournament, is held here on an archery pitch, which is centuries old, just as the monsoon season ends.

For the last 17 years, archers in the tournament have been allowed to use metal compound bows imported from the United States in place of traditional bamboo ones. But in a classic Bhutanese compromise, modern sights and trigger releases are not permitted.

The archers must wear traditional robes and knee-high dark socks, but Prince Jigyel Ugyen Wangchuck wore black Adidas running shoes, and several other archers wore Nikes. None had sponsorship deals.

The match started at 8 a.m. and ended about 4 p.m., with a break for lunch. One reason for the duration was that each time the target was struck (which happened 118 times Saturday), the archers sang and danced. The songs were about love, enlightenment and karma, and the steps were a simple back-and-forth shuffle.

Because compound bows are more accurate than bamboo ones, the improvement has increased the time needed for these traditional celebrations.

The prince’s team, whose name (Phoja) can loosely be translated as “stud” or “manly,” was the heavy favorite. Tournament rules allow each team to include one archer with top results from the previous year. The prince has gotten around this rule by fielding a team every other year, winning in 2009 and 2011.

The prince being the prince, he could ignore the rule altogether and no one would dare disqualify him, tournament officials said privately. But to his credit, Prince Jigyel Ugyen is a stickler for skirting the rules legally. And other teams have tried that strategy.

Three teams competed Saturday, with Druk Shopping Complex and Pelden Group of Companies, last year’s winner, joining the prince’s team at the stadium. Each team had six archers. The final match Saturday had 15 rounds, with each competitor shooting twice in each round: metal-tipped arrows launched at a wooden target about the size of a fire hydrant and set in the ground more than 450 feet away.

Probably the most surprising part of the tournament was how casually everyone — archers, spectators, dancers and even stray dogs — carried themselves around lethal arrows being flung the length of one and a half football fields with varying degrees of accuracy. Dancers wandered onto the pitch throughout the match, arrows whistling yards over their heads. Archers stood feet from the target while their teammates aimed almost directly at them.

“People have confidence in our archers,” Prince Jigyel Ugyen said during a break in the action. “I’m not sure that’s a good thing.”

Archery injuries are among the most common reasons for hospital admissions in Bhutan, officials said. One possible reason is that drinking is encouraged during tournaments, as is the competitors’ near-constant chewing of pan, a mild narcotic that stains their teeth red. Taunting opponents is common, and on rare occasions, archers stand in front of the target and get shot rather than allow a competitor to win crucial points, though that has become even less common with the more powerful and accurate compound bows.

A Buddhist fatalism may also play a role. Archery and Buddhism have long been linked.

“Buddhism is about emptying your mind, and so is archery,” Prince Jigyel Ugyen said. “Once you pull the bow, you forget about everything else and find complete bliss. And if you can hold that mentality for 24 hours and 365 days, that’s enlightenment.”

The prince seemed to reach that place in the seventh round when he hit the target with both of his arrows for a dobjey, or double-hit. Those arrows were crucial in securing his team a second set, which all but assured victory.

Cheki Lengkong, one of the prince’s teammates, was voted the match’s most valuable player after he hit the target 15 times in 30 tries, more than any other archer. Lengkong is a civil engineer who last year was transferred to Paro, west of the capital, just after the city put lights on its archery pitch.

That allowed Lengkong to practice after work. But he said his job is likely to be even more demanding next year, which will mean no more archery, he said.

“Our country is at such a basic level that we need our engineers to work hard,” Lengkong said. “I need to look after our social needs now, not archery.”

Lengkong’s attitude is dispiriting for Bhutanese archery officials, who are hoping the country’s traditional embrace of archery will someday lead to victory in an international tournament.

“We don’t have a sporting culture in Bhutan,” Sonam Karma Tshering, secretary general of Bhutan’s Olympic committee, said mournfully. Bhutan has never won an Olympic medal.

The real drama of Saturday’s match came during the shootout for second place between the Druk and Pelden teams. Druk’s Dorji was the first to shoot. The sound of his arrow striking wood echoed from 140 meters away. Bull’s-eye.

Dorji went screaming onto the pitch, his team having garnered three points.

Next up was Pelden’s Nidup, who raised his arms in triumph after he let fly, but he soon lowered them. Miss.

Jigme Norbu went next. Miss. Then Pelden’s Nidup Tshering hit the target but walked grimly away. His arrow had landed outside the bull’s-eye, so his team was still trailing by a point. The other archers all missed until the final two.

Nima Dorji stood ready as Druk’s last chance, and the crowd — which had swollen into the hundreds — cheered and laughed. When archers hit the target during a match, they are given a colorful sash to put in their belt. But Nima Dorji’s belt was sashless — he had not hit all day. So the crowd laughed at him. He let fly. Miss.

The crowd laughed louder.

Finally, Tshewang Dorji of Pelden stood up, his team’s last chance. Miss! Druk Shopping Complex had won second place.

The prizes included washing machines, refrigerators and microwaves. Bhutan is a matriarchal society — property is passed from mother to daughter — so tournament awards are intended for archers’ wives or mothers, an official said.

Pelden’s third-place finish was a bitter defeat in part because the team had 10 more kareys than Druk, but the match’s scoring system — something akin to shuffleboard’s — shut them out.

Tshering Phuntsho, the match’s chief umpire, had a simple explanation for what seemed an unjust result: “It’s karma.”

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