The Bows of Bhutan
There are few nations on earth that can rival Bhutan for mystique. Nestled high in the Himalaya mountains, Bhutan is home to some of the rarest creatures and most breathtaking scenery on this planet. Oh, and they possibly have a Yeti. I’m still holding out hope for that one.
The people who call the country home are just as special as any of the views or creatures, real and imagined. Bhutan is a poor nation. The nation’s GDP runs close to $2.5 billion annually. For comparison, Atlanta, Georgia’s metro area GDP was north of $385.54 billion in
2017. But what the nation lacks in economic might, it more than makes up with its vast wealth in culture. Bhutan has been an independent nation likely since the very idea of nations was first dreamed up. It has never been conquered or been a conqueror, and every facet of daily life in the country is deeply intertwined with Tibetan Buddhism, which first came to the area with Tibetan refugees in the 7th century. Few places on earth are as lucky. Traditions here aren’t just old, they’re downright ancient. People still heard yaks up and down the mountainsides, as their ancestors did a millennia ago. Monasteries which have taught thousands of monks over hundreds of years still teach their same lessons today.
It's very easy to romanticize Bhutan as a land lost to time, immune from the grinding wheel of progress that powers the rest of the world. That’s not the case. As Bhutan’s neighbors China and India both found their economic footing, the modern world started to bleed into the mountain nation. What was largely an agrarian culture has begun to pivot, as many beautiful places have, to a burgeoning tourism pipeline. But the nation is aware that as it pivots towards the 21st century, it needs to protect the things that make Bhutan so special. The nation’s government works very hard to conserve the natural beauty and precious natural resources of the nation. They are also doing the same with their sporting culture.
You probably have never heard of Da (No, not your Da, Russia) before, but if you were to see it, you would instantly know it. It was born out of the Bhutanese need to hunt and to defend their families and has been passed down from one generation to the next likely for literal thousands of years. It is the national sport of Bhutan and is known to non-Bhutanese simply as archery. The bow and arrow have been a part of Bhutan’s history for as far back as you can find a cohesive history of the place. The bow has been wielded by gods, anchored spiritual rituals and even been used to kill a tyrannical king.
It is hard to overstate the popularity of Da in Bhutan. Just as every small town in America seems to have at least one baseball diamond, Bhutan is covered in archery fields. These fields can vary wildly depending on the space allotted, from sweeping grass fields which would make Julie Andrews sing to vertical courses where an archer may not actually be able to see his target. And this is not just a stoic test of accuracy. In Da, the spectators are more
than welcome to join in on the fun. Crowds that gather to watch Da matches, whether for a local affair between neighbors or between the best archers in the country, are encouraged to openly mock and try to distract the archers from their targets. It’s kind of like those wacky hi-jinks you see behind the hoop during a college basketball game’s free throws but instead of a ball, the players are shooting a lethal tool of destruction towards the fans and their opponents, often standing mere feet away. The archers also join in on the smack talk, walking in front of the very target their opponents are trying to gage in order to mock their lack of skills. It’s also not uncommon for both spectators and archers to get a little saucy during these matches. If this sounds crazy to you, that’s because it is. This danger doesn’t dampen most Bhutanese people’s exuberance for the sport.
In recent years, modern forms of archery have been able to chip away at Da’s stranglehold on the country. Bhutan’s traditional pastime is male-dominated, with women generally relegated to cooking for the men competing. But in modern archery, with composite bows made not of bamboo but man-made materials, diversity is blossoming. Top archers in the modern discipline are often women and Bhutan has fielded an archery team in each summer Olympics since 1984. Its top modern archers have corporate sponsors who bankroll their training and their travel. The same is not true for Da’s best archers, who stay relegated to regional or national events as their greatest showcase. With every passing year, more of Bhutan’s youth who might be interested in this traditional sport see a stagnating economic reality to it, which is not the case for modern archery.
As with the rest of the country, Bhutan’s archery community is at a crossroads, trying to preserve as much of its rich past while taking advantage of the present opportunities which lie ahead. The future looks bright for Bhutan on the international stage, with a competitive footprint which grows each year. The corporate money, which is so vital for a nation of Bhutan’s size to have in order to compete with titans in the sport like South Korea and China is growing as well. Now all Bhutan has to do is not lose its sporting soul to that promise of success. Sounds easy enough for a nation obsessed by the arrow. But continuing to shoot straight will be more challenging than ever.