A trio of dogs loll on their sides in the morning sun, oblivious to the arrows whooshing invisibly above them at 200 mph. When the shafts appear with a telltale thwack in the foot-wide oblong targets, the dozy beasts don’t even bother looking over. The hundred or so spectators in the bleachers here at the Changlimithang Archery Ground in Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan, are another matter. Like true fans everywhere, they know to arrive with cushions and cardboard panels to sit on. Among them are a dozen monks, who have come by taxi and will have to return to their monasteries by the end of lunch. But more enthusiastic still are the players on the field: each time an archer lands a shot, his teammates—clad in ghos, the knee-length, white-cuffed robes that Bhutanese men wear—stream around the targets to strut, yelp, and sing, even flashing a little thigh as they kick their legs like cancan dancers.
Archery is Bhutan’s national sport, and every village has at least one range. According to legend, in the 15th century the Buddhist mystic Drukpa Kunley launched an arrow from Tibet, with a prayer that his descendants would flourish wherever it landed. When it crossed the Himalayas and hit a house in Bhutan, he followed it there and seduced the owner’s wife, forever endowing the country with a twinned reverence for archery and the phallus: giant paintings of the latter, spilling semen, adorn buildings throughout the kingdom to protect residents from evil spirits. The pastime involving narrower shafts gained additional sway in the 1980s when then-King Jigme Singye Wangchuck embraced the compound bow. (He also introduced Gross National Happiness as his country’s chief index of well-being, but that’s another story.) Today, traditional bamboo bows are spurned by anyone who can afford a modern, American-made, carbon-fiber weapon—even if, at $1,500, it may cost a full year’s wages.
Those high-tech bows are the only ones I see at Changlimithang today. The competition I’ve come to watch, the Yangphel Open, is in its 15th year, and among Bhutan’s biggest. It began with 252 teams of five archers each; after three weeks, 78 teams now vie for quarterfinal slots. Three squads compete at a time, shooting at targets 476 feet away—more than twice the Olympic distance. From the sidelines, the challenge looks insurmountable, which is why, even in this Buddhist country, plenty of bravado is involved. “Archery is a manly game,” explains a 29-year-old competitor named Kunzang. (Many Bhutanese go by just one name.) “With bamboo bows, you see the arrows coming, so you can stay by the target and dodge. But not with compound bows.”
Of course, no serious player attributes his prowess to mere equipment. Most agree that the sport requires patience, practice, and inherent talent. Many also maintain that drinking alcohol helps to calm archers’ nerves. “We’ve been criticized for permitting this,” says Kinzang Dorji, the president of the Bhutan Archery Federation and two-time former prime minister of Bhutan. “But without alcohol, traditional archery would be incomplete, because it’s also a game with singing, dancing, and merrymaking. But we have rules during competitions.” In addition to banning intoxication, these rules prohibit aiming bows at spectators or at other players.