What's with the unique archery culture in Bhutan?


In Bhutan, archery is more than just a sport. It is a way of life. The dancing, the singing, the drinking—it is a manifestation of the unique culture of Bhutan and her people.

Archery in Bhutanese Myths and Legends

“The Divine Arrow can be seen only when it hits, not when it is shot.” ~ Traditional Bhutanese Proverb

During the Duar War between Bhutan and the British in the 19th century, Jigme Namgyal, father of the first king of Bhutan, was believed to have shot an arrow from a mountain after offering prayers to Yeshey Gonpo, the guardian deity of Bhutan.

The arrow flew from the mountains, hurled through the air, and landed right on the forehead of the British general, killing him. Monumental as this tale is, the mark of archery (dha) in Bhutanese legends can be traced further back.

In 600 B.C., an Indian prince, Prince Siddhartha won the hand of the beautiful Princess Yosodhara by emerging victorious in an archery competition with his superior aim and accuracy. This prince eventually became known as the Buddha.

Since then, the bow and arrow has been the Bhutanese’s staple, not just in war, but also in religion. Deities are often depicted holding bows and arrows in both their serene and wrathful forms. During the 10th century, Tibetan King Langdarma was persecuting Buddhism.

In response, a Buddhist monk, Lhalung Pelgi Dorji, entertained the king with the Black Hat Dance. During the dance, he feigned a bow, then reached into the large sleeve of his ceremonial dance costume, grabbed a bow and arrow, and killed the king.

As Bhutan ushered in the era of peace, archery became a symbol of festivity and competition. Present day, archery is wildly popular among people from different social stratas. In fact, there is an archery range in even the smallest of villages.

Every weekend, the archery ranges in Thimphu and Paro bustle with life, with archers shooting arrows and onlookers simply enjoying the game by the sidelines.

The most interesting part? Bhutanese practice a different kind of archery.

Traditional Bhutanese Archery - Description of the Game

Bhutanese archery is different from Olympic archery.

For one, Traditional Bhutanese Archery has a range that is 145 metres long, double the length of an Olympic range.

Each team has 13 archers and 2 reserves, which adds up to 15 archers per team. Opposing teams stand near the target at the end of the field. They take turns shooting, two arrows at a time. The team scores one point if their aim lands within an arrow’s length from the target. Two points if they hit the target. And three points if they hit the bull's eye.

The teams take turns shooting, and the first to reach 25 points wins. However, rules are complicated. For example, a bullseye wipes off the previous archer’s score.

The bows and arrows are vastly different from those used in the Olympics. While Olympians have advanced composite bows, the Bhutanese use bows made of bamboo, or sometimes fibreglass. The arrows are made from a reed (hema) gathered from the foothills in Bhutan. Vanes are stuck to the shaft with a glue made of animal hide.

Meanwhile, the targets are made of pine wood with regulated dimensions. The bull’s eye is 1 feet from the crown of the target, and the base tapers into a sharp point to be secured in the ground.

The Festivity of Archery Tournaments

There are two major archery tournaments in Bhutan: Coronation National Archery tournament and Yangphel tournament. Other significant archery tournaments are held during Losar, the Bhutanese and Tibetan New Year.

These tournaments are social events, and they are played between teams, villages, or towns. Consulting astrologers and deities are not beyond the Bhutanese. They pay astrologers large sums of money for consultation on which archers to field for favourable performance; otherwise they curse other archers.

The tournaments are more festive than competition, so they are extremely slow-paced. Games can last for days in modern times; traditional ones can even last a month!

And the dancing, of course. It’s not a Bhutanese archery tournament without dancing. Each team usually has their own dancers; cheerleaders, if I may. They cheer for their team and jeer at their opponents. It is very lively and all in good fun.

It’s a verbal battle too. This is a chance for archers to display their literary and intellectual skills. They praise their arrows, encourage teammates, and taunt their opponents.

Here’s a favourite: Where the vulture flies, my stone shall fly, there to collide (Bjagoed phu sa do chap kay).

It is a taunt, promising a bullseye to reset his opponent’s team’s score. And every time a target is hit, there is celebration and howling. The archer ties a colourful sash to their belt upon hitting a target. The team lines up, faces the target, and breaks out into traditional song and dance.

Very intense. It’s a sight to behold.

But archery tournaments in Bhutan are not just about archery. On top of song and dance, it’s also about food and drinks—an abundantly joyous occasion.

In fact, alcohol is synonymous with these tournaments. Both spectators and archers alike gulp down alcohol throughout the event, especially ara, a local brew. The archers drink to gain courage, they say. Apparently it gives them better aim.

Back then, the second king, Druk Gyalpo Jigme Wangchuck, commanded that archers who do not score a single hit be offered a drink from a barrel of Chaang (locally distilled alcohol). Up till today, people ridicule archers who come up completely empty by saying, “You are left in the barrel.”

Joining the Olympics

The Bhutan Archery Federation was established in 1971 and marks the birth of organised sports in Bhutan. In 1983, the Bhutan Olympic Committee was established, and the federation was tasked to oversee the international style of archery.

This lay the groundworks for Bhutan’s premiere at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Since then, Bhutan has been sending archers to every olympics.

One archer worth mentioning is Dorji Dema, a Bhutanese female archer who competed in the 2008 Beijing Olympics...while being 3 months pregnant. It was dreadful for her. She couldn’t eat and had morning sickness. However, what makes Dorji special is her current resolve: to put together an all-female team to participate in a Traditional Bhutanese Archery tournament.

Typically, women are by the sidelines, cheering and jeering, and serving food. In the past, women were not allowed to touch a bow; it was considered bad luck.

Dorji is looking to change that.


Darts (khuru)

Similar to archery, darts is also a popular pastime in Bhutan.

Teams of 8 to 12 players throw darts at a target. Other players stand near the target in large white cuffs around their wrists, presumably to guide the player by indicating the target.

Just like archery, the game is followed by singing and dancing. It is festive.

And it’s fascinating.

Both these games are periscopes into Bhutanese culture. After a while, we realise that archery and darts are not about the game per se, but about the people themselves.

More than skill and form and competition, they are a manifestation of the unique culture of Bhutan and her people.

Related Posts

Outstanding individuals, schools and clubs awarded for their...

On December 22, 2021, the Bhutan Football Federation (BFF), a bronze member of the AFC Grassroots Charter,presented...

Jan 11, 2022 14:15

Bhutan's national women cricket team won ICC Women's T20 World...

The United Arab Emirates is currently hosting the ICC Women's T20 World Cup Asia Qualifier. The two ICC Academy grounds...

Nov 23, 2021 11:13

Paro FC reclaimed its champion title for BoB Bhutan Premier...

Bank of Bhutan (BoB) Bhutan Premier League 2021, previously known as Bhutan Premier League (BPL), the top football...

Oct 02, 2021 19:57

Bhutan makes its debut appearance at the Paralympic Games

There is much to celebrate in the sporting history of Bhutan.

Aug 16, 2021 11:50

Bhutan competed in the Olympics through historic qualification

Since 1984, Bhutan has been competing in the Olympics via universality invitation, but not the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

Jul 29, 2021 17:06

What are the traditional sports of Bhutan?

The Bhutanese have a variety of traditional sports. Some test your aim and skills, whereas with others, it’s about pure...

Jul 13, 2021 11:15



Colours Beyond the Wall Volume II: Reformation through Art

‘Do you see the eyes?’ ‘Look closely and you would see the eyes with tears streaming down. And this is the nose,’ Kinga (name changed) said...

Apr 26, 2022 22:01

Travel to Bhutan: go off the beaten path in eastern Bhutan

You will find settlements on high grounds and isolated valleys. You will see rolling hills, deep gorges, and green pastures.

Mar 28, 2022 15:44


What went on at Miss Bhutan 2022 preliminary competition

The 3rd edition of Miss Bhutan is underway and the Preliminary Round was held and broadcast live on BBS Channel 2 on 15th May 2022 from...

May 19, 2022 21:11

Check out Drunken Yeti Bar for the best cocktails in Thimphu

Named after a mythical Himalayan creature and perched on top of a distinct and unique 3-storied building in Thimphu, lies a unique bar that...

May 17, 2022 21:11


The enormous role of hydropower in Bhutan

Bhutan uses hydropower to conserve the environment, produce electricity, and achieve economic self-reliance.

Jan 25, 2022 11:43

Online businesses are becoming more and more popular in Bhutan

Even though the Internet was developed in the 1960s, the tiny Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan was only introduced to it in June 1999.

Jan 20, 2022 12:41


Outstanding individuals, schools and clubs awarded for their contributions to grassroots football

On December 22, 2021, the Bhutan Football Federation (BFF), a bronze member of the AFC Grassroots Charter,presented awards to unsung heroes...

Jan 11, 2022 14:15

Bhutan's national women cricket team won ICC Women's T20 World Cup Asia Qualifier 2021 opening match

The United Arab Emirates is currently hosting the ICC Women's T20 World Cup Asia Qualifier. The two ICC Academy grounds in Dubai Sports City...

Nov 23, 2021 11:13


Trace the footsteps of the Divine Madman on this hiking trail

There is no better way to connect spiritually with Drukpa Kuenley, the “Divine Madman”. The trail will take you downhill for about four...

Apr 28, 2022 22:30

Been to Bhutan before? Stand a chance to win FREE flight tickets to back to Bhutan!

If you’ve been to Bhutan before, we want to hear your story.

Apr 15, 2022 19:49


The hot springs of Bhutan are believed to have miraculous healing properties

The Bhutanese believe that hot springs are a blessing from the Buddha.

Apr 08, 2022 21:52

What are the five main fruits in a Bhutanese fruit bowl 'thokay'?

There are usually five fruits that make it to the 'thokay' (fruit bowl) placed on the altars or in front of the King, Chief Abbot and Lamas.

Mar 08, 2022 15:54


A detailed summary of Bhutan's COVID-19 management and plans moving forward

With offices and all businesses open, movement of vehicles allowed and critical services resumed from 21st March 2022, Bhutan braces for a...

Mar 22, 2022 11:23

Vaccinated tourists to undergo 5-day quarantine in Bhutan from April 25

What you need to know about entering Bhutan from April 25.

Mar 14, 2022 14:21

Subscribe to our newsletter

Never miss out on new happenings and news stories!

Download Daily Bhutan Mobile App

Connecting with us just got easier!