Archery: the Real Game is Played Elsewhere

By Kunga T. Dorji and Tashi Phuntsho. Photographs by Anand Prakash

First printed in KUENSEL, Bhutan's national newspaper.
Reprinted with kind permission of 'Tashi Delek', In-flight magazine of Druk Air, Royal Bhutan Airlines;
Published by Indo Japan Air Services Pvt. Ltd.

The game of archery is not exactly a sport that draws frenzied supporters out for a kill. There are no die-hard fans and no follow-the-team-to-kingdom-come fanatics. And no streaking hooligans. If anyone is all pumped up, it is the archers themselves…

To the Bhutanese, it's a tourist sport and a very saleable one at that too. It has tremendous tourist appeal. Archery is tradition; it's songs and dances and jeers and near-primitive howls. It's the works to someone seeking the unusual.

All that could be just a facade. Under the surface, and away from the real game, there's plenty afoot. More than a tourist could ever imagine and some locals too. Every time a major archery tournament is on, be it in the village or at the capital, strange things are happening. Perfectly sane, and often well placed men, are doing things that would otherwise have been dubbed completely insane.

Yes, it's strange. It also has a sinister air, and with hindsight, when recounted, it's simply hilarious. It all takes place away from the prying eye, at night or at the break of dawn. It happens at the range too; only it's too subtle for the simple spectator and a little too complex for the discerning.

Picture this : a motley group of men, in the wee hours of the morning, struggling down a hill slope. May sound quite natural, but wait! They're actually doing it backwards. Or better still, another group, huddled close on a hillock, teeth chattering to the extreme winter chill.

The next thing you know, they’re wading across the river. Not easy to comprehend, and especially not something that anybody would connect with the game of archery. It sounds too far-fetched. But it has happened, all the same, and could still be happening. And its definitely a part of the game of archery.Like everything else, the other side of archery begins with God. Every time a tournament is under way, there are suddenly silent, unassuming, sentinels at every sacred place. One archer can’t quite forget his moment of triumph, even though it was not in the real game, and still gets ecstatic every time he regales listeners with the story.

It's more about wily tact than a new experience. During one such tournament, the Dechephug temple was suddenly all secured, as perhaps, Fort Knox.

No person was allowed anywhere near the temple. This archer decided to hoodwink the self-appointed guardians and in a strategy, more common place with bank robbers, got inside. He simply dressed up like one of the guards and wandered in; he got the blessing of the deity and left with a ceremonial scarf to the sheer jubilation of his team-mates.

Temples and deities are much, or most, sought during tournaments. Archers say the simplest short cut to victory is appeasing your protectors and carrying to the game a piece of anything blessed by the deities. After the oblations, of wine and money, a roll of the dice is a must. There are, after all, more appeasements to be done if the fortunes told by the dice are bad.

Divine intervention, albeit forbidden by the National Archery Federation of Bhutan now, is still much solicited. There have also been many instances when a little coercion is exercised. A statue or other artefacts could find themselves reluctant bystanders to the game, covertly stowed away in a place of the team’s choice.

There are many other strange practices that have become deeply entrenched into the game. These have become almost matter-of-fact. For instance, all members of a team have to momentarily renounce the worldly comforts of home, wife included. During the course of tournament, all members of the team must shack up together, whether they like it or not.

Vehicles and equipment are zealously guarded lest they be defiled by the opponent or touched by a jinx. The stars, or astrological charts are consulted. They dictate time and direction, often culminating in a team very casually strolling into the field, sideways or merely going AWOL until the eleventh hour. And it's not just the archers, the vehicles too are parked facing the same direction.

When the tournament is inter-village, a home team remains invisible until the visiting team has entered the ground. This is an unwritten, but well understood, rule. And a quick scrutiny of the spectators is almost reflexive. just in case there’s face well reputed for practices beyond the ordinary. For all they know, the person could be moving mountains or merely redirecting the wind to deflect arrows flying home.

These faces, so revered or reviled, are those of Tsips - something like mediums who play the main part, more than the highest Karey hitter or even the Dhobjey one. It is them, after all, who made it all possible. They are believed to have access to powers beyond mortal imagination. As for delivery, archers have mixed feelings about their prowess. Modern times and broad minds are also gradually, but determinedly, chipping away their credibility.

The Tsips, says an archer of many years from Changzamthog, who is known for nothing more than archery, have been around for as long as the game of archery has been. They were, in fact, there even before archery was a game. In the old days, they guided arrows, not towards colourful targets, but at invading forces or duelling factions. The stakes were much higher then, only if they proved a hoax, there was seldom complaints. The gullible were long dead.

Today, the role of Tsips have mostly been confined to archery games and although the developments augur no historical alterations, they are still potent. They can still command people to go crazy. It is not uncommon to hear of a group of men, from all walks of life, and normally of sound mind, grovelling about in a forest all night. Such sights are, of course, rarely seen, as secret is the essence of the stratagem. All the powers-that-be that have been evoked could as easily be sent packing. For if such an excursion is spied by members of the opposing team, a counter-offensive could be launched – one commanded by another Tsip.

Tsips, says the archer, are indispensable to the game and inseparable from the archers. Mostly dervishes or people with some religious indoctrination, they straddle the thin line between the power of persuasion and blind faith today. It’s the economics in modern times: either prove your worth or be declared a fake, and lose face – and business. Nevertheless, the Tsip still survives, albeit underground now.

For the asking, they dictate every part of game. Beginning from the direction of the range in the morning, to the choice of target. Forwards, backwards or sideways: their word is law. They even decide when the order of players should be changed and at what point in the game. They perform countless rituals, be it a short one or one that takes an entire day, and calls for the paraphernalia of a house Puja.

They also become more indispensable because of the counter-offensive. A Tsip can choose a target for his team while at the time cast spells on the other. If one team has been told to camp out, the other Tsip can order a combing operation with a piece from his ritual garb which, thrown at the spot of the other camp, could undo all their hard work. It’s about defilement. And the tools can be both astounding and appalling.


They are normally soil from grounds of the dead, clothes stained with menstruation or any other unclean object. Kept atop vehicles of the other team, or rubbed on to their equipment, such tactics, say archers, prove very effective.

More dangerous still are the rituals done to undermine the capability of ace archers from the opposing team. Tsips are believed to be able to make archers fall sick or loose all sense of direction. Normally, the names and ages of the other players are taken by the Tsip on a piece of paper. This bit of paper is either stuck to a sewing machine or mixed, with unclean objects before being buried at a crossroad or under the mattress of a pregnant women.

Archers say that the services of Tsips were always well rewarded. In the old days a Tsip charged 400 Dheys (measure) of rice for his handiwork. A few years before the new rules, a Tsip charged anywhere between Nu 10,000 to Nu 15,000. While no archer will admit such practice today, they, however do not drop their guard when it comes to watching the antics of their opponents.

While people scoff at such credulous practices, these days stories of the powers of Tsips still abound. In one case, way back in the 1970s, one team hired the services of three of the best Tsips in the region. Unfortunately, the Tsips were not successful, or their powers failed to materialise. Their team lost and they were ignominiously discarded. Starch was poured on their heads.

The story today is that the powers finally did catch up with the three men responsible for pouring the starch. One became dumb at first. He eventually regained speech but parts of his body were paralysed for good. The second person was accidentally and fatally shot by a friend, right through the head. The third person was shot too, only through his thigh, and became a cripple for the rest of his life.

Archery targets near Bumthang by Chris Frape

Whoever said the game of archery was boring?