The End of
an Archery Tradition
in South India
republished with permission of
Like most living things, archery has many personalities. Soft and gentle, ferocious, ruthless, beautiful, ugly, cruel--these, and many other terms, can find a place in the stories of bows and arrows whispered over time. Often, the ways the stories are told depend upon the characters involved, and more importantly, on how we want to see them. Savage becomes noble with a shift of perspective; "primitive," once scorned, is now hailed. These shifts mark our changing times and our changing fashions. Today it may be the individual uncontaminated by corruptions of civilization, but what was it that was celebrated in the past?
is one such theme, and just as the idea of warrior is highly romanticized in
contemporary North America, so also in past, at least in places with highly
developed warrior traditions. One
such place where warriorship was highly celebrated was India, notwithstanding
the ideas and images we hold of India today.
In traditional India, warriorship was associated with kingship and that
in turn went hand-in-hand with demonstrated prowess in the arts of warfare.
Of all of these arts, archery was pre-eminent.
No matter what else, a king was trained in archery.
of the richest sources of information about archery as a royal tradition comes
from the great epics tales of India. Both
the Mahabharata and the Ramayana,
two massive sagas of royal lineages, are filled with passages that describe
the techniques of archery, and the attitudes and customs surrounding its
practice. Both these texts make it very clear that archery was a king's
domain. Public demonstration of
skill in archery was demanded of anyone who claimed the title of raja, or
king, and there were many ways in which this skill was measured.
One of the
most celebrated sections of the Mahabharata
describes how success in an archery competition secured a marriage, and
through that, an alliance between two kingdoms.
Set in a long and complex tale of a struggle over sovereignty, this
passage highlights the characteristics necessary in a royal figure: strength,
discipline, fortitude, composure, dignity, cunning, and a good archer.
Put another way, it suggests that all the traits that make a good
archer also make a good king.
one of the heroes of the Mahabharata, proves himself to be all of these and
more in the competition. Disguised
as a mendicant priest and mocked by the other princes in attendance because he
appeared to be such an unworthy candidate, Arjuna first succeeded in stringing
the bow. This act alone brought
murmurs through the crowd, as no one else could string that bow.
The bow in question in this epic may well have been a composite bow,
because of the emphasis placed on the difficulty of stringing it.
after Arjuna strung the bow, he took aim and hit the target.
No small feat, here either, as the target was the eye of a glittering
fish revolving on a wheel fixed on a post reaching high up into the sky.
The dictates of the competition required the archer to take aim by
looking at the reflection of the fish in a bowl of oil set on the ground.
In one shot, Arjuna hit bull's eye--or the fish's eye in this case--and
was garlanded by the daughter of the king who convened the competition.
That gesture marked her acceptance of him as her husband, and her
father's alliance with his royal household.
saga doesn't end here, but goes on and on, to end in a great battle where the
abilities of Arjuna and his kinsmen dominate.
This story is matched by many others with the same message equating
kingship and archery, and the histories of royal dynasties, whether of Hindu
or Muslim families, are full of images of archery. Even much of the Hindu temple art sponsored by royal
dynasties features gods and goddesses restoring righteousness to the world
through the use of a bow.
continued to be practiced in the Indian palaces up through the end of the
nineteenth century. Portraits of
Indian kings often show them wearing a thumb ring on their right hand, in an
emblematic display of their status as an archer.
Hunting was likewise a royal pastime and there are records of public
demonstrations and royal competitions like those described in the Mahabharata.
though, by middle of this century times had changed and today this custom of
archery has virtually died. There
are, however, some individuals still alive who received the traditional and
highly ritualistic training in archery. In
January 1995 I had an opportunity to speak with one such person, His Highness
Thulajendra Raja P. Bhonsle Chatrapathy, the senior member of the royal line
of Maratha kings who once ruled in Tanjavur, in Tamilnadu, India.
the help of Professor R. Vivekanandagopal, a scholar attached to the Tamil
University of Tanjavur, I spoke with the raja for several hours in his palace.
Even at 78 he was quite a lively figure who attributed his robust
health to his earlier martial discipline.
Our discussion had a certain poignancy about the skill he acquired in
archery some sixty years earlier, for he was the last of his line to have
received traditional training. By
the time he was fifteen or so a fascination with European customs helped
foster an indifference to traditional Indian sports.
As the raja put it, they cast their bows aside for tennis rackets.
raja described the bows he trained with as shorter recurved bows, made out of
metal. He recalled a tradition
that the bow should be as tall as the individual, but he remembered his bows
as shorter, maybe 36" when braced. A
couple of examples of these short metal recurve bows are on display in the
Government Museum of Madras. Both
steel and brass bows were used by members of royal families in competition
during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
bows have a long history in India, as very early texts make mention of steel
bows. By the time of the Mughal
period (beginning mid-1500s), steel bows that were highly decorated, sometimes
with gold and silver inlay, were fixtures in royal households.
Though there is evidence that steel bows were earlier used in warfare,
by the end of the seventeenth century of so, they may have become weapons for
royal display. Several sources
maintain that the range of a steel bow was limited in comparison with the
composite bows of India. However,
Robert P. Elmer, in his classic work, Target Archery, notes an advantage of a steel bow.
Being of metal, it "never needed to be unstrung and so it could be
kept at hand in the house as a weapon for instant defense."
Tanjavur raja stated he trained with a bow made out of brass, a metal that
many archery aficionados whom I have since spoken with have questioned.
But the king was emphatic: his bow was brass.
He may have meant bronze, as in India, the two terms are used
king described his bow as short, rounded, both in the grip and along its body,
and decorated with a floral motif etched in the back. The ears of the bow were highly articulated, curling towards
the back of the bow. He also drew
a picture of what he called the kalasam
(see figure 1), a tear-drop shaped plate projecting out from the back of the
bow above the grip that served to fix the aiming point when shooting.
He recalled the strength drawing the bow required of him, noting that
the extent to which a bow was drawn depended upon an individual's ability.
He remembered the bow string being made out of animal--perhaps
raja said he has no idea what happened to the bows he remembers in the palace.
Simply lost is how he put it. He
did remember one bow that represented the royal line when his father held
public audiences, or durbar as it is known in India.
He had an idea that the bow might be found in a local goddess temple
where it was routinely kept, as a number of royal rituals centred around the
power derived from and associated with the goddess tradition.
important annual ritual known as Dasara
comes at the end of the autumn Navaratra
goddess festival also called Durgapuja.
In part the Navaratra festival celebrates the goddess's association
with military success as there are several mythic accounts of the goddess
Durga slaying a demon to restore order in the world.
The festival is also associated with an episode from the Ramayana
that exemplifies royal military success.
on Vijayadasami, the tenth day of
Navaratri, Dasara likewise has
overtones of a victory celebration, recalling victories of the past and
ensuring continued success in the future.
It is marked by the worship of the royal weapons, today symbolized by
two swords. In the past royal
bows were also consecrated in this ceremony.
This rite which pays homage to the emblems of kingship is rooted in an
understanding of the relationship between the goddess and sovereign power.
In this rite, the royal weapons are understood to be empowered by the
the seventeenth century Marathi military leader who founded the Tanjavur royal
line, is said to have received his sword from the goddess Bhavani, his line's
tutelary deity. According to one
account, he kept the sword on the goddess's altar when not in use; likewise
the present raja thought the bow that represented his line was kept in, and
might still be found in the goddess temple.
He also noted that the Dasara celebration is still undertaken in
Tanjavur, though the victory now invoked is conquest of evil rather
than military success.
addition to the consecration of royal weapons on the day of Vijayadasami, the
Maratha kings of Tanjavur demonstrated their archery skills in a pavilion in
front of the goddess temple. That
pavilion is called the seemollanghan
chavadi, a name that translated to mean the site representing the imperial
power, or ability to cross borders (seema=border;
ullanghan=to cross; chavadi=building).
in an event that echoes the scene in the Mahabharata
that I have described above, the king would take aim and shoot at an specified
object to symbolize his prowess as well as his ability to overcome any
adversary, whether human or in the form of a malevolent force.
The demonstration was a statement of the king's sovereignty and the
extension of his protection over his domain.
Likewise, because of its auspiciousness, the day of Vijayadasami was
when princes were introduced to martial arts, including archery.
The day marked the beginning of their formal training under an eminent
present raja was initiated into archery at the age of 13, the age of puberty,
with a formal ceremony. In this
initiation, he was ritually bound both his teacher and to his bow, before he
was allowed to draw it. The rite
was undertaken at the proper astrological moment, the avittam nakshatra, an asterism identified with Mahisa, a form of the
goddess, that occurs during the Tamil month of Avani.
The initiation ceremony was done in accordance with South Indian ritual
procedure; the young prince was tied to his guru with a yellow thread fastened
around his wrist as a priest chanted mantras that fortified the bond.
The preceptor then handed the prince the bow he was to use during his
training, whereupon he was instructed in the ritual process that followed. First he was to place flowers on the bow and arrows--in
effect to invoke and honour the force of the goddess present in the
weapon--and to recognize the divine presence in that bow by consecrating it
with kumkum, a red powder used on
temple images. After anointing
the bow with kunkum, the prince then
worshipped that presence in the bow by drawing an oil lamp before it. This action, known as arati,
follows the ritual practices undertaken throughout South India in both
domestic and temple worship.
effect of this act here is to consecrate the relationship between the youth
and the bow, by directing attention not just to the weapon but to what is
understood to be the divine force behind it.
When preceded by this initiation ritual and undertaken with the proper
attitude of respect and acknowledgement, the shooting of the bow is thus not
only a discipline, but also an act of veneration, highly focussed and
disciplined humility, as it were. A
second and equally important effect of the initiation ritual is to acknowledge
the tie between the student and the preceptor.
In this rite, the acolyte is bound to his preceptor through life and
death. Further, the survival of
the tradition rests in this tie, for by instilling the practice of archery in
his students, the preceptor keeps it alive; the cord that ties the student to
the preceptor is the life-line of the tradition.
Overall, the initiation rite reminds one of the complex of
relationships--bow, student, teacher, training, practice, discipline,
tradition, and attitude--that make up archery.
raja's teacher was a member of the vastad community, a community made up of
"100 families" skilled in various martial arts. The
relationship between the vastad community and the royal line was hereditary;
the teacher who trained the raja also trained his uncle.
The hereditary relationship was marked with lands endowed by the royal
household to the vastad community and was annually renewed in ceremonial
presentations of gold, silver, jewels and other ornaments.
The raja said his father was very generous and that these
presentations, especially to his archery teacher, were lavish affairs.
When I asked the raja what has happened to members of the vastad
community now that this traditional relationship has been abandoned, he wryly
responded that they have gone off to find work in the civil service.
morning the archery instructors came to the palace. The raja said he trained with his uncle's son.
The palace also sponsored a school of martial arts in which about ten
to fifteen students trained in archery, all of whom were in one way or another
members of the royal family. I
asked him if women has also received training in archery, and he said that in
the past they had, but he was not sure if they had in his time.
In response to that question, he showed me to a painting he had done
several years ago of one of his ancestors, Sujanbai Rani, a queen who ruled
for one year (1736-37). In this
painting the raja had depicted Sujanbai Rani seated in a palanquin holding a
short golden recurve in her left hand.
raja also noted that when he took up the bow, his teacher positioned him quite
close to the target, perhaps six feet away.
As his shooting got more proficient, his teacher kept increasing his
distance from the target. When
aiming, his concentration was fixed on a coin placed on a board.
The raja remembered his training: establish his position, fix his aim
on the coin, draw his string to the upper side of his cheek while maintaining
his concentration on the target, and then release.
One-pointed concentration was what he emphasized when he spoke about
his training, and that he was taught to fix his aim before drawing the bow,
even in shots that required him to shoot from unusual positions.
raja spoke about a thumb ring, but said that he had not yet used one.
He was taught to draw the bow by holding the arrow between the thumb
and fingers and pressing down on the arrow with the thumb (figure 2).
He the released the arrow by lifting up his thumb.
I suspect that had he continued training he would have eventually
graduated to a thumb ring. He
shot off the right side of his left hand, in contrast to Western-style archery
which shoots off the other side of the bow.
The iron arrow heads were, in his words, small and sharp.
Finally, he indicated that archery exhibitions, held in the royal
gardens, were highly competitive.
Highness Thulajendra Raja P. Bhonsle Chatrapathy was the last of his royal
line to have received traditional training in archery. As we spoke he drew upon the memory of his youth to recall
what he knew of archery. Though
the time of which we spoke was some sixty years earlier, there was something
in the raja's fingertips which seemed able to recall the presence of his bow.
When I asked him to demonstrate his release with a pencil, his movement
was immediate and automatic. Perhaps
archery is a dying art in India; nonetheless it is still very much alive in
the memories of those who once practiced it.
question of brass or bronze bows, the author's husband, Jaap Koppedrayer of
YUMI Archery, is collaborating with a metal worker in Maryland to come up with
a copper alloy that can sustain the stresses and compression required in a