Forget wealth: These bowmen aim for fun

Bhutanese natives relish an archery festival in Butler, their first in the U.S. in years

September 02, 2007|By Gadi Dechter | Gadi Dechter,Sun reporter

To watch two dozen Bhutanese men celebrate Baltimorean Pema Tango's bowmanship yesterday is to understand why the tiny Himalayan kingdom -- where archery is the national sport -- aspires not to wealth but to Gross National Happiness.

Ecstatic whoops and hollers rang out as soon as Tango's arrow somehow found the tiny wooden target about 150 yards away. Play was suspended so that the park ranger's teammates could form a circle, singing and dancing in his honor for several minutes.

For his part, a beaming Tango couldn't have looked happier if he had won Friday's Mega Millions drawing. "It's picking up now!" he cried, marching across the hayfield to examine his shot.

Tango is one of about 45 Bhutanese expatriates from New York, New Jersey, Ohio, Maryland and elsewhere who are camping out in a Baltimore County field this weekend for a traditional archery tournament and festival, complete with feasting and dancing.

"This is one of the first times we are doing this in the U.S.," said Kinga Singye, the deputy permanent representative of the mountainous Asian kingdom's mission to the United Nations. "I think many years back, they did have one or two games in the New York area."

Most of the several hundred Bhutanese in the United States live in New York, Singye said, but it wasn't until a Butler couple invited the expatriate community to use their manicured lawns that the sportsmen and their wives could stage a proper tournament. The two-day festival continues today, but it is not open to the public.

Bhutan archery is a team competition with 11 or 13 bowmen on each side. A best-of-three match of 25-point games can take as long as eight hours to complete. Archers use traditional bamboo or modern compound bows, similar to those employed in deer hunting in the U.S. -- though no sights are allowed.

The small 3-square-foot target seems even smaller from 150 yards away, and it took several hours yesterday for the archers to get their bearings.

"First you have to get used to the range, how far you have to hit" said Kinzang Tshering, a neonatologist at a hospital in Ohio who was once a top-ranked archer in Bhutan. "Then you have to get the alignment. Then, once you get two things right, it depends on ... how smoothly you release."

Tshering missed the target on his first attempts, but it didn't appear to depress his spirits. "This is a very nice place," he said, gesturing to the Tibetan prayer flags fluttering in a light breeze beside a lake on the property. "Very nice, beautiful countryside. We are very thankful."

Harry Randall, a semiretired Johns Hopkins opthamologist who lives nearby, wandered over yesterday morning to watch.

"It's the most amazing scene I've just about ever seen," Randall marveled. "Just an ordinary day in Baltimore County. A whole lot of colorfully dressed Bhutanese archers. ... Oh! Another one hit the target."

And another dancing jag. The female Bhutanese contingent, be-dressed in native silk costumes, emerged from a Tibetan tent pitched on the side of the hay field to perform traditional cheerleading dances.

Later, the women assembled in a kitchen to prepare spicy pork, mushrooms and rice.

"Of course, this type of game women don't play," Singye explained, though the Bhutanese Olympic archery team does field female athletes.

In Bhutan, archery tournaments pit villages or regions of the country against one another, and the games are often fueled by alcohol and good-natured invective. But in the first half of the day yesterday, the only booze was a bottle of beer poured out by the players to appease local deities.

Kesang Singye, the diplomat's wife, promised more festivities later. "This is a big deal," she said of the tournament, which took two months of planning. "Some of them haven't played for four or five or six years."

In the evening, the women planned a cookout and more dancing. Kesang Singye said she exhorted her fellow women to learn native dances and songs for the occasion.

"None of us are traditional dancers," she said. "We just did it to cheer them up."

Cheering up the population is the governing philosophy of the Bhutanese, Singye said. In 1971, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck invented the term Gross National Happiness and instructed his government to study it.

"Our divine philosophy is actually based on this goal of promoting happiness," Singye said while awaiting his turn behind the bow. "All government policies and activities are geared to enhancing the happiness and well being of people."

Consistent with that, the monarch is directing a "slow transition" to democracy, Singye said, and parliamentary elections will be held sometime next year.

Despite coining the term several decades ago, Bhutanese economists have yet to determine exactly how to measure Gross National Happiness, Singye said. But imprecise measures -- grins, cheers, spontaneous singing -- suggested that the happiness quotient in Butler was on the rise.

"I'm very happy," Tango said. And proud that the first Bhutan archery contest on U.S. soil in recent memory took place in his town. "That makes me very, very happy. People came all the way from New York to play here."

gadi.dechter@baltsun.com

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