Archery is the national sport of Bhutan, the tiny Himalayan nation:
Its national championship, the Yangphel archery tournament, is held here on an archery pitch, which is centuries old, just as the monsoon season ends.
For the last 17 years, archers in the tournament have been allowed to use metal compound bows imported from the United States in place of traditional bamboo ones. But in a classic Bhutanese compromise, modern sights and trigger releases are not permitted.
The archers must wear traditional robes and knee-high dark socks, but Prince Jigyel Ugyen Wangchuck wore black Adidas running shoes, and several other archers wore Nikes. None had sponsorship deals.
The match started at 8 a.m. and ended about 4 p.m., with a break for lunch. One reason for the duration was that each time the target was struck (which happened 118 times Saturday), the archers sang and danced. The songs were about love, enlightenment and karma, and the steps were a simple back-and-forth shuffle.
Because compound bows are more accurate than bamboo ones, the improvement has increased the time needed for these traditional celebrations.
The prince’s team, whose name (Phoja) can loosely be translated as “stud” or “manly,” was the heavy favorite. Tournament rules allow each team to include one archer with top results from the previous year. The prince has gotten around this rule by fielding a team every other year, winning in 2009 and 2011.
The prince being the prince, he could ignore the rule altogether and no one would dare disqualify him, tournament officials said privately. But to his credit, Prince Jigyel Ugyen is a stickler for skirting the rules legally. And other teams have tried that strategy.
Three teams competed Saturday, with Druk Shopping Complex and Pelden Group of Companies, last year’s winner, joining the prince’s team at the stadium. Each team had six archers. The final match Saturday had 15 rounds, with each competitor shooting twice in each round: metal-tipped arrows launched at a wooden target about the size of a fire hydrant and set in the ground more than 450 feet away.
Probably the most surprising part of the tournament was how casually everyone — archers, spectators, dancers and even stray dogs — carried themselves around lethal arrows being flung the length of one and a half football fields with varying degrees of accuracy. Dancers wandered onto the pitch throughout the match, arrows whistling yards over their heads. Archers stood feet from the target while their teammates aimed almost directly at them.
“People have confidence in our archers,” Prince Jigyel Ugyen said during a break in the action. “I’m not sure that’s a good thing.”
Archery injuries are among the most common reasons for hospital admissions in Bhutan, officials said. One possible reason is that drinking is encouraged during tournaments, as is the competitors’ near-constant chewing of pan, a mild narcotic that stains their teeth red. Taunting opponents is common, and on rare occasions, archers stand in front of the target and get shot rather than allow a competitor to win crucial points, though that has become even less common with the more powerful and accurate compound bows.
A Buddhist fatalism may also play a role. Archery and Buddhism have long been linked.
“Buddhism is about emptying your mind, and so is archery,” Prince Jigyel Ugyen said. “Once you pull the bow, you forget about everything else and find complete bliss. And if you can hold that mentality for 24 hours and 365 days, that’s enlightenment.”