The archery national game of Bhutan

Friday, April 26th, 2013

For Karma Wangda, 51, the excitement of participating in an archery tournament is almost like contesting an election.  The night before a match he can barely sleep, thinking about the next day’s competition.

This has always been the case, despite having participated in umpteen tournaments, starting in the village as a 12-year old boy, and later at the Changlimithang archery range in Thimphu as a civil servant.

By local standards, he can be categorised as a skilled archer, and usually plays the position of ‘ma’- the last to shoot in the traditional game of 11 archers a side.

But his love for the sport is not confined to aiming at the target 150m away, and doing the jig when an arrow hits. Karma also makes traditional bows and arrows, many of which have been used in competitions all across the country.

“I might have made more 3,000 bows and 3,000 pairs of arrows by now,” said the employee of the department of national properties, ministry of finance. “I started to make them soon after I came to Thimphu in 1985.”

Karma Wangda has a set of basic tools and materials, such as a plier, hammer, hacksaw, knives, coloured thread, sandpaper and glue locked in a cupboard at his office that he unlocks after five pm, once office timings are over, when such a situation arises.  He has another set at his home in Chang Jiji.

Self taught in the craft, Karma Wangda explained that the length of the “dha”, or arrow, is generally 80cm, weighing between 20g and 25g.  The shaft is made from a reed (hema) found in Damdara, (Phuentsholing) Chamgang (Thimphu) and also in Trashiyangtse.  But the best reed to make the yangka or excellent arrow is found in Jala, Wangdue, near water bodies in the forest. “A yangka reed to make a pair of arrows used to cost Nu 150 in the ‘90s; now it’s more than Nu 650 and rare,” Karma Wangda said.

Before a reed becomes an arrow, it is dried in the sun or above the traditional oven for about a month.

The pointed tip of the arrow or “dhacha”, which is a centimeter in diameter, is affixed to the shaft of the arrow with either sealing wax or lachu.  Fletching or feathering extends 12cm along the shaft.  There are four vanes of feathers on an arrow.  The feathers used are usually that of the pheasant, found on hilltops and gathered by yak herders.  The cost of the four feathers that make a pair of arrows is around Nu 650.

The nock cut into one end of the reed is 7mm in depth, where the bowstring fits when the bow is drawn.  After a reed has been properly dried, Karma takes at least a day to make a pair of arrows, which sell for Nu 1,300 in Thimphu.

Making the “zhu” or bow also requires drying the bamboo for several weeks.  The species of bamboo used for the traditional “Changzhu” and “Tapzhu” is called “zhushi”, and comes from Tabadamtay village in Dunang, in the southern foothills.

Today, there are two kinds of locally made bows in use by archers.  The Changzhu is a single stave bow made of bamboo; Tapzhu is made from two pieces of bamboo, held together by two iron bands in the middle.

The average length of the traditional bow is 72.5cm and weighs about 500g.  It tapers from 5cm in circumference in the centre to about a cm at the ends.  The bow is broadest at its belly, measuring 3.5cm, which forms the grip, or “jangshi”. 

The bow string, or “zhu-tha”, is made from the fibre of the giant stinging nettle, locally known as “zoeche”.  In recent years, though, jute string zhu-tha have also been used.

Such bowstrings, archers say may last through one contest, during which at least a hundred arrows are released.  This bowstring must withstand pressure of up to 60lbs.  When the bowstring is fixed, the bow is braced and drawn contrary to the natural curve of the bamboo.

The bows are sold for Nu 650.

Karma Wangda said that, in recent years, it has become very difficult to get the raw materials, such as the reed, the bamboo and the feathers required to make the dha and zhu. 

“This is because there are many more people today, who play archery with the traditional bow and arrow,” Karma Wangda said. “In fact, the traditional made arrows have already become more expensive that the compound bow arrows.”

This situation has compelled archers using traditional equipment to take care of the arrows.  In many homes, it is usually placed on one side of the altar.  And many archery enthusiasts are known to make the bow and arrow themselves like Ata Norbu, Pema Loday and Tenzin Wangchuk.

“During the practice sessions, most archers use the cheaper versions with the hen’s feathers,” said Tempa, an archer. “The best handmade arrows are saved for the real tournaments and matches during special occasions.”

Karma Wangda believes that taking part in archery increases one’s luck and fortunes and dispels misfortunes. “It’s like a wish fulfilling jewel,” he said.

Source Kuensel