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.