“ Archery grounds located in Paro, Bhutan „
After the rather pathetic performance of England in the recent World Cup, I have to take some comfort from the fact that there are countries out there worse than us at the beautiful game. I just checked the FIFA world rankings to find out if the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan is any good at football and it's safe to say they aren't. They're ranked 198th in the world, just below Aruba and one place above the US Virgin Islands. In total only nine teams are ranked worse including Andorra who still seem to be able to scrape together 11 postmen and prevent England from giving them a complete drubbing. But it doesn't matter to any Bhutanese national that they're not good at football because crazy as it sounds, their national sport is archery.
When we arrived at Paro airport, Bhutan's only airport, our guide and driver picked us up to take us to our hotel and on the way they decided to make an unscheduled stop to look at the town's archery grounds. Almost every town or village in Bhutan has an archery ground and Paro's is an important one since Paro is the second biggest city. It's nothing fancy - just a long strip of more or less flat land with a few seats either side and a club house. The Paro grounds are located between the airport and the start of the town, close to the mighty dzong (or fortress monastery) that looks down over the town. We parked up outside the archery field and our guide led us over to join the throng of puzzled tourists.
I thought I knew a bit about archery. When my mother and my step-father were courting he was an archer. As a young divorced man I think he hoped that it might give him a veneer of manly sophistication that would help him pull a hot young widow like my mum. My sister and I just thought it was a 'loser' sport played by people with sub-normal social skills who liked to imagine themselves back in medieval times killing foreigners. He partook in the standard version of archery - with big targets and an aura of 'hush' about the place. It was nothing like the Bhutanese version of the game.
The ancient art of "bows-and-arrows" is the most common way for young men-folk in Bhutan to pass a Sunday afternoon in healthy competition. There's something rather medieval about a land where such an ancient form of warfare is more popular than computer games and where shooting at a small target a long way away is more compelling than shooting bad guys in a game of Grand Theft Auto. So why do they love archery? Partly it might be because they're rubbish at football but mostly because it's in their blood and their history.
Since it's the national sport you might imagine that they're really good at international competition but that's not true either. In fact they're pretty rubbish. Perhaps that's because they have to compete against people like my step-father (only better) who think that archery should be performed in silence. The Bhutanese aren't normally very loud people but when they get their bows out, they take on the characteristics of a bunch of English football fans that have drunk too much beer. Bhutanese archery is loud, aggressive and in your face. There's no hush of awed silence as the bowman takes his aim; no polite ripple of applause when he hits his target. Instead the teams behave like they're out on a stag night in Liverpool, drinking, jeering, insulting one another's manhood, being rude about each other's socks (maybe, I might have just imagined that bit) and generally being oafish. I don't know about you but insulting someone's mother when he's got a bow in his hands seems a bit risky.
I wondered if the love of archery in Bhutan had come about from a tradition of running round the mountains killing small furry critters for food but I was put straight on that one. "The history of archery" - our guide explained, "is not about food. Archery is about war". So don't think rabbit or fluffy little deer; think of shooting at invading Tibetan armies or fighting with your neighbours and then the atmosphere of hopping up and down and jeering "Come outside if you think you're hard enough" starts to make sense. In a Buddhist nation, I shouldn't have been surprised that it wasn't about killing for food - in fact I subsequently learned that Bhutanese arrow makers are only supposed to use feathers that they've found on the ground - they can't even kill the birds to get the feathers but they can apparently kill invading hoards of enemies.
Whilst archery today is only a sport and not a way of killing, it's easy to see why it must have come in very handy in the past. In a country where flat land is rare and vertiginous mountain terrain is the norm, many of the usual forms of warfare can have only very limited use. Whilst other lands moved on to more modern weaponry, in Bhutan archery remained an effective form of warfare long after the rest of the world had moved on to guns and missiles.
On any Sunday afternoon when any self-respecting young man in Europe or North America would be out playing soccer with his friends or drinking in a bar or catching up on the Eastenders omnibus, his Bhutanese counterpart can be found decked out in his traditional dress (plus expensive trainers) with his ultra-technical bow firing arrows at a target no bigger than a football 150 meters away. Aside from fancy trainers, there's little modification of the national dress in order to indulge in sport. Perhaps that's why they're rubbish at football - I wouldn't be at all surprised if they play in smart polished brogues, argyle socks and the gho - the traditional male attire that takes its inspiration from a baggy dressing gown tied up much too tightly round the middle.
There are targets at either end of the 150m archery field. Each is painted on a wooden board. Taking it in turns, half of the archers fire from one end until all the arrows have been shot, and then the other half fire back from the far end. You'll have spotted that half are therefore hanging about round the target that's getting shot at. I don't want to think about the risk assessment that would need to be done on that. In between shooting at each other they stroll off for beers in the bar, eye up the local girls and pose for all the tourists who generally have little idea what's going on. The success and experience of the archer is reflected in the number of scarves hanging from the belt around his gho. The sight of a man in his dressing gown with coloured hankies hanging off his belt is bizarre.
Even with my glasses on I struggled to even see the target, it was so far away. Occasionally I could tell the arrow had missed if I saw a puff of dust rising up from the ground beside the target but mostly the only way I knew they'd been successful was when all the bowman's pals on his team start dancing and singing and jeering at the other team.
As a spectator sport the actual firing of arrows is secondary to the preening and strutting of the archers. Watching someone shoot at a target you can't actually see gets dull quite quickly whilst watching the lads hooting and hollering in delight or derision holds the attention for a lot longer. I was also amused by the two scruffy brown dogs curled up in the middle of the archery field directly between the two targets and completely fast asleep.
As we sat watching the action a small boy strolled up and sat on the bench beside me. Thinking I should speak to him but not having any idea what to say about the match I asked him how old he was. He looked me in the eye and said in perfect English "I am eight. How old are you?" and then he walked away laughing.
If you are lucky enough to go to Bhutan, attending an archery match is a definite 'must-do' activity. Don't expect to know too much about what's happening, or to know who is winning or even for that matter to know who's on which team either since they're all dressed the same. It is an excellent introduction to the spirit of the land that judges Gross National Happiness to be more important than Gross National Product and it certainly got us in the mood for the rest of our visit to this fantastic country.