Take Two Steps Back for the Chilip
By Phil Bowen


– Did you hear anything Singay, was that a hit?
– Not sure la but it looked close.
We stare down the 140 metre bhacho (archery range) straining to focus on the tiny wooden target propped up in the dust, wondering whether we just heard a faint “tock” over the sound of fluttering flags.

MR  Phil Bowen

Appeared in TASHI DELEK
The Druk Air Inflight magazine

All of a sudden a tiny figure darts out towards the target from behind a protective wall hopping from foot to foot in a jaunty dance. It’s my arrow caddie and good luck talisman, 5 year-old Samden, celebrating my kharey (hit) in age-old Bhutanese fashion. Archery, or Dha is Bhutan’s national sport and for good reason, in times gone by the Bhutanese (Drukpa) archers repelled the Tibetan invaders on a number of occasions with their bamboo longbows and arrows but the sport’s continued mass appeal must also owe something to the fact that His Majesty is a keen sharpshooter and that it’s just great fun.

The pageantry of a tournament provides a riotous and colourful insight into Bhutanese culture and serves as a fun day out for the whole family – a real spectacle mostly held at weekends. All the merry feasting and drinking, the “jeerleaders” from the opposing team making fun of each archer in an attempt to put them off, while the bowmen sing and dance to celebrate each hit and everyone dresses up in their very best traditional outfits.

My friend Singay Wangchuk thinks I am finally ready to play for his team in a real tournament which is coming up soon and while I am concerned about not making a fool of myself or indeed killing any body as a chillip (foreigner) I am more worried about having to wear a gho (the national dress) and not letting my little buddy Samden down. You rarely see ladies playing, however the Bhutanese Olympic team, which consists entirely of archers, boasts a few “bow-women”. Bhutan has never won a medal as the disciplines are so dissimilar – distance 60 metres versus the typical Bhutanese 140 metres, the different types of bows used, target size etc.

F Dancing archers

Perhaps the teetotal Olympics doesn’t suit the Bhutanese style as in the Kingdom day-long matches are frequently fueled by copious amounts of ara – the local performance enhancing hooch. In terms of hardware, for some reason the modern bow of choice in the Kingdom is the powerful and deadly hunting bow rather than updated versions of their old bamboo longbows which, with many bolt-on aids, are the Olympic standard.

These hi-tech, hunting bows, designed for taking down big game in the wilds like bear and moose are used in Buddhist Bhutan for harmless fun and competition – yet another illustration of the Bhutanese talent for taking ideas and practices from the West and giving them their own unique twist. When I say harmless the archers and spectators sometimes stand so close you fear for their safety while admiring their bravado or at least keen eyesight but perhaps they are just relying on another Buddhist belief, that of reincarnation. Yes accidents do happen, people do get shot from time to time but a more common injury is actually sustained once the arrow has found the target. Many a sharpshooter has stabbed himself with the wrong end of an arrow as he attempts to jerk it free from the wooden target.

“The skill and artistry of the many traditional archers is perhaps more amazing as these marksmen are so accurate with such primitive equipment.”

The skill and artistry of the many traditional archers is perhaps more amazing as these marksmen are so accurate with such primitive equipment – split bamboo bows (zhu) with twisted stinging nettle strings and lead tipped bamboo or reed arrows topped off with bird feather fletches – they still manage an impressive hit rate over the full 140-metre distance. Archery in Bhutan shares so many similarities with the game of golf – just like golf the action is over in an instant after the swing or loose, there then follows a long walk, both sports require cool paraphernalia the terms for which sound cool too and are steeped in history (“nock” the notch at the rear end of an arrow, “fletch” the stabilizing fins or vanes of an arrow and of course irons, woods and birdies etc), the frustrations of a near miss or the joys of a great shot, like golf many business deals are struck and furious networking goes on.

Everyone is also a self-confessed expert of course but then comes that famous Bhutanese twist again – up here in the Himalayas you have to take into account the spirits (tsips) and your karmic balance. Above all both pastimes demand a great deal of walking and at times a lot of hunting for lost balls and arrows. Lucky I have my buddy Samden to help me when he’s not at school but I wish our dog Fred would learn how to hunt for arrows. My first attempt at archery was embarrassing and painful – having struggled valiantly to draw the bow in front of an expectant crowd of locals, my friend standing by to record the momentous occasion with his camera, I took aim and tried to stop shaking.

I loosed and a sudden shooting pain in my forearm signaled that all was not well, everyone’s gaze swung down the range to the tiny target to see where my arrow had fallen when with a rattle it landed at my feet – everyone burst out laughing at this silly chillip’s pathetic effort as I clutched my reddening and rapidly swelling forearm which had been whipped by the bowstring as I fired. Undaunted, over the next few years I persevered and have made some good friends and business associates at the bhacho, however spectators still take two steps back when they see this blonde chillip take aim.


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