Bhutan Archery Festival: your window to Bhutan's national sport
Known in Dzongkha, the national language of Bhutan, as “Da”, archery is the national sport of the kingdom, and is one of the traditional sports associated with Bhutanese history for more than two thousand years. Nominated to be the National Sport in 1971, by the 3rd Druk Gyalpo (Dragon King), Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, archery has long been a sport practiced by the local people, and every town and village has its own full-length archery field.
As a national sport, archery is one of the most popular events in Bhutan, and archery tournaments occur regularly, at the local, regional, and national levels, with every village fielding its own team of archers. And this sport is so popular that it is even held during religious festivals and events as one of the entertainments of the festivals. For tourists to Bhutan, a trip to one of the bigger festivals is a great way to learn more about the sport and the culture that has developed this weapon of war into a national pastime.
Brief History of Archery in Bhutan
Archery in Bhutan is a local and distinctive martial art that has been used for both fun and fighting for centuries, and has its main roots in the arming of locals to defend the kingdom in times of war, as Bhutan previously had no official military. The bow and arrow was always the main weapon for survival in Bhutan, used for both fighting and hunting, as well as defending oneself from animal attacks. It has also played a major role in the ancient myths and legends of Bhutan, with many images of the Buddhist gods depicted holding a bow and arrow.
A Bhutanese Archer is displaying his superb archery skills.
Throughout the 15th century, many prophesy of the Bhutanese lama, Drukpa Kuenley, is said to have originated from his bow, and the lama would shoot an arrow into the air, and make the prophecy based on where and how it landed. Later, in the 17th century, the bow and arrow were used as the primary weapons used to arm the population to repel invaders, and it is their proficiency with the bow and arrow that allowed the Bhutanese people to turn back the invading Tibetan armies twice. After many battles, arrows from the corpses of the enemy would be confiscated and laid before the shrines to the local gods, as an offering of thanks for their strength and support in the fighting.
Archery became popular as a sport in the 1920s, in the reign of the second king of Bhutan, who was an ardent archer. After the announcement of the National Sport in 1971, when Bhutan joined the United Nations, archery became a regular competition event, and archers have been competing in the Olympics since 1984, with although no medals have been won for the kingdom. This is often attributed to the difference in distance - Olympic archery uses a 60-meter range, while Bhutanese archery contests use a 140-meter range – and the fact that drinking and merriment are not permitted at the Olympics. Today, archery is not just a sport, but a way of life in Bhutan, and few Bhutanese men can say no to an archery contest. And all contests are fun days out, filled with feasting, drinking (some archers are said to fire better when mildly drunk!), and carousing, with lots of cheering and jeering for the two teams.
Best Festivals to Experience Bhutan Archery
Archery in Bhutan goes hand in hand with the festivals in the kingdom, and no festival is complete without the traditional archery contests. There are also a number of archery competitions that exist in the kingdom outside the festivals, where local and regional teams compete against each other. The most notable of these is the Coronation National Archery Tournament, which was instituted to celebrate the coronation of the current Dragon King in 2008. Since then, every November, the tournament goes ahead again in the national stadium for archery, the Changlimithang Stadium in Thimphu.
Another popular national competition is the Bhutan Archery Federation’s International Style Archery Competition, sponsored by Yangphel Archery, which is held in either September or October in the Gregorian calendar. An international archery competition that allows Bhutanese-style archer from around the world to compete, 2021 sees the 24th Yangphel Competition taking place, though the dates have yet to be announced.
Local people gathered to watch the archery competition in Bhutan.
There are also contests of archery skills, as well as demonstrations, during Losar, the Tibetan Buddhist New Year, which is also celebrated in Bhutan. And in every region, archery contests are run throughout July and August, and are a great option for adding to your tour of Bhutan. One of the main highlights of the archery contests, as well as the accuracy of the archers, is the entertainment value of the teams. Whenever one makes a good score, the entire team will dance on the firing end of the range, cheering and applauding the archer who scored. Conversely, when an archer misses the target, the opposing team dances and jeers at the shooter and their team, throwing insults and mocking them, but all in good fun.
Archery contests in Bhutan are not usually set on the same date every year, as the dates are divided by astrologers. Astrology has always played a big part in archery in Bhutan, right back to the days of the wars with Tibet. Archers often prepare for their matches by seeking the help of astrologers, who can give them the signs of good and bad omens for the contest. These same astrologers are the ones that decide o the dates of the contests, by means of divination and talking to the gods. Teams also use astrologers to select members of the team, and these astrologers are often hired with huge fees to have favorable performances on the field and to gain the upper hand in a contest. Archers even go so far as to have the astrologers curse the players of the opposing team to give them an edge in the competition.
How to plan the archery tour in Bhutan?
If you are thinking of planning a tour of Bhutan, and want to include a visit to one of the many archery contests across the kingdom, then it is possible to do so, and our professional advisors can help with deciding when and where to go the get the best out of the tour. July and August are the main competition season at the Dzongkhag and National levels, though for the local leagues, the contests can be held all year round, and can be found at almost every religious festival and local village celebration. The most popular place in Bhutan for tourists to learn more about the local national sport, and where they can even take a few shots themselves, is at the Changlimithang Archery Range and Workshops, which is inside the Changlimithang Stadium in Thimphu.
Never miss the exciting archery competition while touring Bhutan.
The range is used by the national level archers for training and practice, as well as being used for archery workshops to give a one-day or week-long course in basic archery skills in the Bhutanese style. While some archers do now use compound bows for their contests, the traditional bamboo bow and arrows are widely used by contestants across the kingdom. Accuracy is a major concern for the Bhutanese archers, although even if they miss the small target (to within one arrow-length), they can still score one point for getting close. And at a distance of 145 meters, more than twice the Olympic distance, getting close to the target is still an achievement.
Archery in Bhutan has been the national sport for more than ten years, and has its sporting origins in the early years of the 20th century, when the former king enjoyed archery, and began many of the contests and competitions across the kingdom. A competent archer, he promoted it as part of the festivities, though it was not officially a national sport until 1971. Touring Bhutan is an amazing experience that can only benefit from traveling to see one of the many archery contests around the area of Thimphu and Paro, as well as in Wangdue Phodrang and Punakha, where contests run all year round.
Festivals are often the best places to see archery contests, as well as the skill performances of the top archers. Festivals are also a great place to learn more about both the culture of Bhutan and the sport of archery in the kingdom. While you may not be able to take part in the contests, as you will need to be a registered and trained archer to do so, watching these amazing competitions is just as delightful. And with the entertaining antics of the opposing archery teams, there is nothing like an archery contest to make your tour of Bhutan even better.