Bhutanese archery

A version of this article, translated into nearly a dozen languages, was published in Le Monde d’Hermès in Autumn 2013


The journey to Bhutan follows the line of the Himalayas, with the cloud-shrouded peak of Mt. Everest seemingly within arm’s reach beyond the airplane window.  Then, suddenly, a sharp left turn between the mountains, the plane’s wings appearing to skim the trees, and we have touched down in the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon.

The Buddhist monasteries perched high in cliff-top crevices and imposing dzongs (fortresses) at the center of the towns suggest a land lost in time, but Bhutan is not that; or, perhaps, not only that.   Unusually progressive, the small nation has set aside vast tracts of nature as wildlife preserves for endangered species like the black-necked crane, organic farming is widespread, and smoking is prohibited almost everywhere.  Being Buddhist, hunting, too, is forbidden, yet archery is the national sport and on arrival I make my way to the Changlimithang archery grounds to watch.

The competitors, all men, stand in two clusters 145 meters apart — a distance much greater than regulation play elsewhere in the world — beside small wooden targets that are painted with a dual-ringed bull’s eye and propped in the ground like informal grave markers in a potter’s field.  They wear the traditional dress, called gho, which is a long dark or patterned robe hitched up and belted to crest knee high; some wear a small pin on the fold across their chests to honor the king and his new queen.  Incongruously, they carry high-tech carbon-composite bows made by a handful of firms in Salt Lake City but local rules prohibit the use of artificial sights so the bows remain at the mercy of the natural limits of the men who wield them.

I am invited to stand with a group of archers at one end as the other archers fire towards them. I steal glances around the low, protective wall but from this distance the target is practically invisible to me. The winds gain speed as they channel through Bhutan’s steep-sloped valleys, causing the flags by the sidelines of the archery grounds to whip furiously and adding another variable to the archers’ calculations.  I deduce from the archers’ gestures at the other end that the arrow has been fired, but I see nothing of the arrow itself as it speeds towards me; then, too late, I catch a flash of movement in the air twenty meters out but by the time I’ve registered it the arrow has already hit target with a deep, satisfying thunk or skipped past kicking up a small plume of dust to mark its entry to the earth.  The archers see it all differently: they stand unprotected by the target and the instant the arrow is fired they know whether it will be close, moving slightly to give space to an errant flight path.

The spectators, some well drunk, cheer lustily from the sidelines and offer ribald comments to throw off the archers’ concentration at crucial moments; in village competitions, the women will form a chorus to jeer their husbands’ rivals.  Among the competitors, too, the atmosphere is surprisingly boisterous for a sport played with weaponry.  The archers joke, tease, coach or encourage as the situation requires, their mouths blood red from chewing doma, a mildly stimulating areca nut, betel leaf and lime concoction.  Then, when a teammate hits target, they join arms in front of the successful wood-lodged arrow, twirling and dancing as they chant a folk song in commemoration.  And it is this camaraderie, I am told, that accounts for the sport’s special status in this small, hidden land: on the archery grounds all are equal, the aristocrat and the farmer, their destinies entwined by the shared, humbling challenge of trying to map the trajectory of an arrow in flight that will lead to a target that can barely be seen.


Click here to see all of Sean’s blog posts about India and South Asia.  Or here to see others in this Hermès series from India, including an unusual puppeteer in Kerala and a veena player in Chennai.


Sean also shot the photographs for this article. Click images below to view the tear sheets.