Archery: Bhutan's Cultural Identity

why is archery the national sport of bhutan

Archery is the national sport of Bhutan, but it wasn't declared as such until 1971 when the country became a member of the United Nations. Archery in Bhutan is a significant part of the country's culture and history, and it is an extremely popular sport among the locals.

Archery in Bhutan is quite different from the international version of the sport. It is a social event that involves singing, dancing, cheering, and even insulting the opposing team. It is also a dangerous sport, with arrows flying at high speeds just past spectators.

The sport has its roots in ancient warfare and hunting, but it has evolved into a beloved pastime for the Bhutanese people.


Archery's role in Bhutanese mythology

Archery has played a significant role in Bhutanese mythology, with the bow and arrow featuring prominently in ancient legends and folklore. Here is an exploration of archery's role in the mythical and spiritual traditions of Bhutan.

The Bow and Arrow in Bhutanese Mythology

Archery holds a special place in Bhutan's mythical and spiritual traditions. The bow and arrow are often depicted in the hands of gods and divine beings, symbolising strength, power, and protection. This association is deeply rooted in Bhutan's cultural and spiritual identity.

Legends and Folklore

Bhutanese mythology is rich in legends and folklore that feature the bow and arrow as powerful tools. One notable legend involves the Buddhist monk, Lhalung Pelgi Dorji (or Lhalung Pelgyi Dorje), who assassinated the Tibetan King Langdarma in the 10th century. During a performance of the Black Hat Dance, Lhalung Pelgi Dorji drew a hidden bow and arrow and shot the king, who had persecuted Buddhism. This legend symbolises the victory of Buddhist faith over persecution.

Another mythical tale involves the Buddhist mystic Drukpa Kunley from the 15th century. He is said to have launched an arrow from Tibet with a prayer for his descendants' prosperity. When the arrow landed in Bhutan, he followed it and is believed to have endowed the country with a reverence for archery.

Symbolic and Religious Significance

The bow and arrow hold symbolic and religious significance in Bhutanese mythology. They are often associated with Buddhist teachings and practices, serving as tools for spiritual growth and transformation. In Buddhist iconography, deities and bodhisattvas are often depicted with bows and arrows, symbolising protection and spiritual power.

Guardians and Protectors

In Bhutanese mythology, the bow and arrow are also associated with divine guardians and protectors. The Garuda, a semi-divine bird-like creature, is considered a guardian of hidden treasures and an enemy of snakes. The Takin, a sacred animal with the head of a goat and the body of a cow, is believed to be the creation of a revered mad saint, solidifying its status as Bhutan's national animal.

Connection to Spiritual and Secular Life

The importance of archery in Bhutanese mythology extends beyond spiritual beliefs and is deeply intertwined with secular life. Bows and arrows are used in religious ceremonies, rituals, and blessings, as well as in everyday life. They are seen as tools for survival, hunting, and defence against animal attacks. Archery is also a favourite pastime of the royalty, who have promoted it as a sport and a means of socialisation across the kingdom.

In conclusion, archery plays a significant role in Bhutanese mythology, with the bow and arrow serving as powerful symbols, tools, and divine instruments. The deep-rooted association of archery with Bhutan's mythical and spiritual traditions has contributed to its enduring popularity as the kingdom's national sport.

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The sport's evolution from a tool for hunting and warfare

Archery, or the use of a bow and arrow, has played a significant role in the history of humanity, dating back to the Paleolithic period, approximately 70,000 years ago. It was a vital tool for hunting and warfare, with the earliest evidence of its use found in South African sites such as Sibudu Cave, dating back around 72,000–60,000 years. Small stone points from the Grotte Mandrin in Southern France, used about 54,000 years ago, also indicate the use of archery as a weapon.

The development of archery can be traced across various regions, with distinctive styles of equipment and techniques emerging. In Asia, for instance, shorter composite bows became popular due to warriors often fighting on horseback. On the other hand, longbows made of yew were a powerful weapon for the English during the Middle Ages.

The skill of archery was instrumental in defending Bhutan against invasions by the British and Tibetans. It was also a significant means of survival during hunts and wars in the highlands. The sport is deeply rooted in Bhutanese culture and is featured in many myths and legends. Archery competitions are held during religious and secular holidays, local festivals, and between different regions and departments.

Over time, archery evolved from a tool for hunting and warfare into a recreational and competitive sport. The first-known organised archery competition took place in Finsbury, England, in 1583, with 3000 participants. Archery was also included in the modern Olympic Games, first appearing in 1900 and then again in 1972 after a hiatus.

The evolution of archery from a tool for hunting and warfare to a sport reflects the changing needs and interests of societies. While its practical applications in warfare and hunting may have diminished, archery continues to be a source of competition, recreation, and cultural significance in many parts of the world, including Bhutan, where it remains an integral part of their national identity.

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How archery is celebrated in modern Bhutan

Archery is deeply ingrained in Bhutan's culture and is more than just a sport; it is a way of life. Archery is celebrated in modern Bhutan in several ways, including tournaments, social gatherings, and religious rituals. Here is how archery is celebrated in modern Bhutan:

Archery Tournaments

Archery tournaments and competitions are held throughout the country and have become a significant point of interest for tourists. Every village has an archery field, and Changlimithang Stadium in Thimphu is one of the kingdom's most prominent archery venues. The major archery competitions include the Coronation National Archery Tournament and the Yangphel Tournament. These tournaments are social events played between teams, villages, or towns and are full of festivities, including dancing, singing, and cheering. The tournaments are also slow-paced, lasting several days or even a month in traditional matches.

Social Gatherings

Archery in Bhutan is a way of socialisation and communication, bringing people together from different social strata. It is an enjoyable and exciting sport that evokes strong emotions and creates a unique ambiance. Archery matches are often accompanied by singing, dancing, and the consumption of alcohol. Each team typically has its singers and dancers, who support their team and distract their opponents by crowding around the target and mocking the archer's abilities. The winning team often erupts in traditional songs and dances to celebrate their victory.

Religious and Cultural Significance

Archery has religious and cultural significance in Bhutan. It is featured in many myths and legends, and arrows are left as offerings to local gods. Archery has been used in warfare and hunting, and deities are commonly depicted with bows and arrows in both peaceful and wrathful forms. Archery is played during religious and secular public holidays, local festivals, and other cultural events.

Olympic Participation

Bhutan has an Olympic archery team and has been sending archers to the Olympic Games since 1984. While traditional Bhutanese archery differs significantly from the international game, with longer ranges and different equipment, the country's participation in the Olympics showcases its commitment to the sport and its desire to compete on the world stage.

Modern Equipment

While many villages still use traditional handcrafted bamboo bows, modern equipment, such as compound bows, is used in tournaments. However, to maintain the tradition, the compound bows do not have high-tech sights, and the ranges remain long, equivalent to the traditional ranges.

Women's Participation

Although traditionally dominated by men, women are increasingly encouraged to participate in archery. While they may not compete as archers, women play a crucial role in supporting their families and teams by preparing food and drinks, cheering, and singing. Women like Dorji Dema, a Bhutanese female archer who competed in the Olympics while pregnant, are challenging gender norms and working to increase female participation in the sport.

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The rules of the game

Archery is the national sport of Bhutan, and it involves a unique set of rules that differ from the international standard. Here is a detailed overview of the rules of the game:

Team Composition and Match Format

Each team in a traditional Bhutanese archery match typically comprises 13 players, with two substitutes, making a total of 15 archers per team. The teams take turns shooting, with each archer shooting a pair of arrows at a time. The archers shoot in one direction and then walk approximately 145 metres to shoot in the opposite direction. This back-and-forth format continues until a team reaches the required score to win the match.

Scoring System

The scoring system in Bhutanese archery is quite intricate. A score of one point is awarded if an archer's arrow lands within an arrow's length from the target. Hitting the target itself earns the archer two points. The ultimate goal, however, is to strike the bull's eye, which results in three points. It is important to note that a bull's eye can also erase the previous archer's score, adding a layer of complexity to the game. The first team to accumulate 25 points wins the match.

Equipment and Range

The traditional bows used in Bhutanese archery are crafted from bamboo, while the arrows are made from bamboo or reeds, fletched with feather vanes. The targets are relatively small, made of wood, and brightly painted. They usually stand about 3 feet (91 cm) tall and 11 inches (28 cm) wide. The distance to the target is approximately 145 metres, which is significantly longer than the range used in Olympic archery.

Social and Cultural Aspects

Bhutanese archery is more than just a sport; it is deeply intertwined with the country's culture and social life. Matches are often accompanied by singing, dancing, and cheering. Family members, including women, actively participate by preparing food and drinks, cheering for their team, and even mocking the opposing team with gestures and humorous insults. Archery competitions in Bhutan are festive events that bring people together and foster community bonding.

Preparations and Superstitions

The preparations for archery matches in Bhutan differ from other sports. Competitors are advised to spend the night before the competition away from their wives to achieve better concentration. Superstitions also play a role, with teams consulting astrologers to select team members, seeking favourable performances and even casting curses against opposing archers.


The social significance of archery

Archery is deeply ingrained in Bhutanese culture and is considered a way of life. It is a social leveller, enjoyed by people from different social strata. It is also a means of socialisation, communication, and relationship development. Archery competitions are held during religious and secular public holidays, local festivals, and between public ministries and departments.

Archery is a multiplayer game performed by rulers, their subordinates, and local villagers. Each village has its own archery field, and competitions are a significant point of interest for tourism. The sport is also a source of national pride, with Bhutan maintaining an Olympic archery team.

Archery competitions in Bhutan are lively events with singing, dancing, and cheering. Family members join in, making it a social gathering. Each team typically has its singers and dancers, who support their team and distract their opponents by singing, dancing, and mocking the archer's abilities. The losing team leaps in front of the target to mock the archer, while the winning team erupts in cheers.

Archery in Bhutan is not just about the competition but also the social experience it offers. It brings people together, fosters camaraderie, and provides a unique glimpse into Bhutan's rich culture and traditions.

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