When I reach the archery stadium, the group of men in traditional ghos are peering across the range, looks of intense concentration on their faces. It is a sunny morning in Thimphu and the match has been on for a couple of hours already. Spectators are drifting in and out; ardent team supporters who hoot with languid Bhutanese grace, local youth who are also possibly champion archers, and the quintessential monks who cover their heads against the sun with their bright red robes.
Thwack! The arrow flies in from across the field – all of 140 metres (at 476 feet, twice the official Olympic length) – and hits the bullseye. And suddenly the men on the field whoop and whistle, and break into dance. It is a simple simple foot up and foot down shuffle but it is performed with the earnestness the ritual deserves. When a player misses his mark, taunts fly thick and fast across the field, like the arrows themselves. There is a lot of laughter, and a lot of hand wringing. And, I am told, a lot of money riding on the match.
Archery is the national sport of Bhutan, and the Bhutanese take it very seriously indeed. Matches are held regularly in villages and towns across the country. On the eve of major competitions, players – 13 to a team – stay together in order to bond better for the big event.
Like everything else in Bhutan, modernity has nudged itself into archery. Compound fibre-glass bows imported from the US have taken over traditional bamboo ones. There are advertisements fluttering in the breeze and sponsorship signs everywhere. Alcohol flows freely on the sides, spirits are correspondingly high and it is a miracle there are no mishaps that morning.