Arrows zing to targets aided by wizard spells: Bhutanese take their archery competitions seriously, and using sorcerers to whip up hexes against opponents is part of the game, Tim McGirk finds on a visit to Thimphu

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The Independent Online
ARCHERY tournaments in Bhutan sometimes can get a little wild. There are only two rules: a team cannot invoke the angry Himalayan mountain gods to influence an arrow zinging towards its target; and, it is forbidden to hire a sorcerer to hex an opponent. But in the frenzy of competition, even these bizarre rules tend to be ignored.

Take this month's national tournament, for instance. Jigme Karthung, a travel agent shooting for the Agriculture Ministry team, which lost in the quarter-finals, said: 'I'm pretty sure that the Finance Ministry guys had us fried and tied.' Frying and tying are two hexes whipped up by Bhutanese wizards for archery competitions. 'Some of our good archers didn't hit anything, and they felt pain in different parts of their bodies,' complained Mr Karthung.

In the frying hex, the names of the rival archers are written on paper slips which are placed inside a magic triangle and then cooked in oil. The tying spell knots up the archer's muscles, as if he were a marionette dangling on the sorcerer's string.

Archery contests in Bhutan are not the grim, silent battles they are in the West. Here, an archery tournament is a test of skill, song and good-natured skulduggery.

Sorcerers may be banned, but an astrologer is strongly recommended. Using horoscopes, the team astrologer will select the shooting order of the 13 archers. On the morning of the tournament he also 'cleanses' the arrows. And the astrologer studies which direction of approaching the tournament ground is most auspicious, even if it means walking in backwards.

In this tiny Himalayan kingdom, archery is not only a game of marksmanship but also of the mind, and that is why the supernatural matters so much. Dago Tshering, the Home Minister, a wise, cigar-puffing man in his fifties who personally coaches his own ministry team, said: 'Archery is the art of war. Psychology, strategy and positioning are all part of this warfare.' Having an astrologer builds up the team's confidence, even though sometimes it can result in a sleepless night before the tournament.

Following an astrologer's advice, the Home Ministry team camped out the night before the national tournament in a forest. The Agriculture Ministry were told by their astrologer to sleep in a food warehouse. 'We didn't get much sleep,' says Mr Karthung. 'Our enemy found out where we were, and their supporters kept us awake all night making noise.' The Trade Ministry team - again, following astrological advice - placed their arrows on the altar of a Buddhist shrine, only to have them stolen by their rivals.

Archery is Bhutan's national sport, and even small boys in the villages exhibit remarkable aim with toy bamboo bows and arrows. But in the Barcelona Olympics, Bhutanese archers fared poorly. No veterans were sent, only teenage students, so that they could build up experience for future international competitions. Also, the hushed atmosphere of the Olympic archery field must have been unnerving to the Bhutanese. At village and national levels alike, competitors are allowed to stand only two feet away from the archer, shouting the most belittling and distracting insults. Not all members of the rival team do this; some go and dance in front of the target - a narrow plank of wood stuck in the ground.

'In some of the more remote areas, when an opponent is shooting, the village women will raise their skirts and taunt him. It can be quite distracting,' Mr Karthung said. Even with these diversions, some Bhutanese archers can hit the foot-wide target nearly every time - from a distance of 450ft. Until recently, the Bhutanese used only bows fashioned from a rare bamboo, and arrow feathers plucked from a unique Himalayan bird.

Although some contests still feature the traditional kit, nowadays most competitors use modern, compound bows. Kinley Dorji, editor of Keunsel, Bhutan's newspaper, said: 'People who've never left Bhutan still know of a certain shop on 31st Street in New York that sells the best bows.' Some avid archers, he said, have sold off land to pay for the pounds 350 bows. Professionalism is also creeping into Bhutanese archery: some big teams now pay their athletes.

It is doubtful that the superstitious side of archery contests will ever stop. The late king, Jigme Dorje Wangchuck, once selected two teams: one had talented archers and the others were mediocre. The mediocre team was given every occult advantage, while the good archers had none. The skilled archers won, but as an archer explains: 'For weeks after, all the archers in the good team felt quite ill.'

(Photograph omitted)