Whatever history and allure football and cricket possess, neither can claim the mythical roots known to Southasian archery. The Ramayan, Maha-bharat and the legend of Ekalvya each use an archery contest as their starting point. The sentiment of these fictional matches – as an arena for men to display their hunting prowess and compete in a show of machismo – if not their function, was echoed in the realities of historical life in the region. In the Himalayan principalities, archery was much more than the game it is today. As a form of defence against raiders, as the main method of hunting, and even as protection against invading colonial forces, archery held a place of prominence.
In today’s Himalaya, Bhutan is most widely associated with archery, where it has been the national sport since 1971. According to legend, Bhutan’s archery history dates back to the 10th century, when a Buddhist monk, Lhalung Pelgi Dorji, assassinated an anti-Buddhist king using a bow and arrow. Traditionally, a group of archers was led by a tsip, an individual believed to have particular archery powers. The tsips made full use of the power they were accorded, charging exorbitant fees for their services. Teams would invoke the divine to intervene on their behalf, a practice now forbidden by the government-controlled National Archery Federation of Bhutan.
Siddhartha Gautam, a skilled archer himself, is said to have played a role in archery’s spread through the region, as he moved across the Gangetic plains. Indian tourism websites from West Bengal, Darjeeling and Sikkim, all the way down to Tamil Nadu, boast of indigenous archery traditions.
In more recent years, the sport has undergone something of a revival, including regaining popularity in Nepal. Initially, influences from both the north and the south contributed to Nepali archery. The Thakali, Gurung, Magar and Chyanntal communities of the central and western hills of Nepal were traditionally archers. Head of the Thakali Heritage Committee, Bhumikarna Bhattachan, says, “We can’t say exactly when or how archery originated in Nepal, but the Thakali language itself highlights the significance of archery. It is one of the most important aspects of our culture.” During the annual Toran La festival in Manang, in the east of the Thakali region, archers shoot at a human-shaped figure, aiming at the heart.
Yogendra Sherchan was a member of the Nepali team at the first South Asian Archery Championship, in Dhaka in February 2006. That year, Nepal beat Bhutan to take third place. “Modern archery is different from its traditional form in terms of equipment and rules,” he says, “but the basic skills required are the same.” Bhattachan echoes these sentiments: “A skilled archer must have strong eyesight, excellent concentration and, above all, sadhana [spiritual practice].”
With India’s international achievements in archery (Jayanta Talukdar was ranked the world’s number two archer in 2006), the game is spreading beyond tribal communities. To make the sport more accessible than expensive modern equipment allows, the Archery Association of India created the Indian Round in 1995, sponsoring village-level competitions with wooden and bamboo equipment. The Toran La festival of Nepal (among others) serves a similar purpose. While Bhutan’s government is also making efforts to support archery, the youth of today are more likely to be found sprinting down than a football pitch than aiming an arrow. But while its dominance in the sport may have ebbed, the Thimphu state’s emphasis on Druk tradition means that archery is unlikely to be forgotten in Druk Yul anytime soon.
Image: Penguin India
Penguin India withdraws The Hindus
On 11 February 2014, Penguin India decided to recall and destroy all remaining copies of Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History. The decision was part of an agreement between them and Shiksha Bachao Andolan, a Hindu campaign group that filed a case against the publishers in 2010, arguing that the book was insulting to Hindus and contained “heresies”.
From our archive:
Diwas Kc reviews The Hindus: An Alternative History. (March 2010)