The Kingdom of Bhutan is a nation of toxophilites. That’s basically an old 18th-century English word to describe a student, lover or expert of archery. And yet it might come as some surprise to learn this when visiting a people as deeply spiritual and peaceful as the Bhutanese. So, why is archery the national sport of Bhutan?

Cez learns the national sport of Bhutan
Learning how to channel my inner Robin Hood

On our recent visit to the country with Druk Asia, we were lucky enough to witness the finals of a local archery tournament, see how the experts do it and even get to loose a few arrows ourselves while wearing the Bhutanese national dress. But forget the Olympics, archery in these parts isn’t anything like what you might be used to at all!

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History of Archery in Bhutan

Archery wasn’t declared the national sport of Bhutan until 1971 when the country also became a member of the United Nations. Its roots stretch much further back, however, when the skill was utilized to great effect in keeping invading Britons and Tibetans at bay, as well as its vital role in hunting and gathering. But there’s much more to it than simply survival.

Lydia trying the national sport of Bhutan
Maid Marion (aka Lydia) tries her hand

For the Bhutanese, archery takes on a more spiritual form. The sport is prevalent in many myths and legends, and arrows are often left as tributes and offerings to local gods. It’s a way of life here, weaved into their culture, beloved by Bhutanese Royalty and subjects alike, practiced by the old and the young. And although traditionally dominated by men, recently women have been actively encouraged to get involved, too.

Three Bhutanese men in conversation
“Discussing tactics” (that’s our guide talking to his friends who are competing at the tournament)

This love affair has much to do with the country’s second King – Jigme Wangchuk. A toxophilite himself – it was under his reign that archery really began to flourish in the 1920s. There’s now a range in every town and village, and as the last nation on earth to get television as late as 1999, spending time enjoying this outdoor activity clearly took prevalence. But there is one story above all that might go some way to explaining a national obsession.

A Legendary Murder of Langdarma

Way back in 10th century, a Tibetan king by the name of Langdarma was against the spread of Buddism and openly persecuted it. It was said that he had become possessed by a demon which controlled his vilifying of the religion. A Buddist monk called Lhalung Pelgi Dorji lived in a remote cave close by and traveled to seek an audience with Langdarma.

Cez in front of the big golden Buddha
Bhutan and Buddism go hand in hand

He presented the famous Black Hat Dance to the king, a colorful tradition in which dancers declare their victory over evil spirits. In his ceremonial robes, Pelgi Dorji had smuggled a bow and arrow and is said to have assassinated Langdarma during his performance. The legend has been depicted many times in paintings, dance, verse, and song.

Black Hat Dance

What does Archery Game look like in Bhutan?

With bow hunting and warfare confined to the annuls of history, archery became popular as a pastime. It evolved into a regular social event, where the whole family could participate. As well as the target shooting itself, cheerleading, singing, and dancing are also intrinsic to the national sport of Bhutan. As is yelling abusive insults at the opposing team.

It is actively encouraged to not just display your prowess with the bow, but your prowess with your sharp tongue. Players will waste no time in verbally tearing apart their opponents if they miss the target – or even if they don’t. This gamesmanship is every bit as important as hitting the bullseye. There are no points for sportsmanlike conduct here!

Bhutan's national sport is watched by spectators
“You couldn’t hit a barn door with a banjo…!”

Likewise, a team will burst out into traditional song and dance should a colleague hit the mark. As you can imagine, with all this revelry going on outside the actual competition, one single match in a tournament can take a full day to complete. Add in a load of inadvisable but expected feasting and boozing, and you’ve got a very entertaining (and potentially dangerous) spectacle, indeed!

Archery in Bhutan Today

During our Bhutan tour itinerary, we were treated to watching a local archery tournament. This has become something of a big tourist attraction in the country, as many visitors want to experience the traditional boisterousness that has become associated with the national sport of Bhutan. While many villagers still use hand-crafted bamboo bows, more modern (and expensive) equipment is used in the tourneys.

An archer sets his sights playing Bhutan's national sport
Today, the pros use modern compound bows

And they might well need that extra pound pulling power. The ranges are over 140 meters long – that’s twice the length of Olympic archery fields. Each archer shoots two arrows with one half of the team shooting and the other half standing close to the target to signal where a hit has been made by waving the appropriate colored flag (and to exchange insults whenever possible).

Color flags at a contest of the national sport of Bhutan
Archers shoot in one direction, then walk 140+ meters and shoot in the opposite direction

One point is scored if you’re close to the target at an arrow’s length away. Two points are scored if you hit the target, and three points if you bag a bullseye. The first team to 25 points is the winner, which, as mentioned, with all the singing, dancing, insult hurling, and arrow retrieving – it likely to take some time.

Bhutan Archery Team at the Olympics?

Bhutan is the only country in the world that claims archery as their national sport, but while they do have an Olympic team, that’s a very different game to the rowdy one we discovered during our visit here. Nonetheless, the country has only ever been represented at the games by its archers, in a tournament that’s usually dominated by the South Koreans.

Bhutan's national sport
If you squint, you might just be able to see the target

Still, that doesn’t dissuade the locals from continuing their proud tradition, with many of the opinion that Olympians couldn’t cut it on their turf. It was certainly one of the more fun things to do in Bhutan, a fascinating insight into a blossoming cultural phenomenon in the last kingdom of the Himalayas.

Would you like to try the national sport of Bhutan? Would you be better at shooting arrows or insulting people? Let us know!

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