Archery in Ladakh: A Story Through Perspectives — by Murtaza Fazily

Feb 8, 2019

Murtaza Fazily visits his birthplace to meet young and senior archers, sports officials, bureaucrats, prominent cultural figures and residents to gather their perspective on archery and its essential place in Ladakhi society and its culture. In the story narrated mainly from the dialogues with such figures, a history of archery, its tradition, its transformation and its present condition is discussed thoroughly. The writer has chosen to remain loyal to the words of those who inform his research about the status of archery in Ladakh by providing ample space for their statements and accounts. As such, the story that follows is primarily driven by such statements and accounts by the same people who practice and promote archery while struggling to keep it relevant.

Murtaza Fazily visits his birthplace to meet young and senior archers, sports officials, bureaucrats, prominent cultural figures and residents to gather their perspective on archery and its essential place in Ladakhi society and its culture. In the story narrated mainly from the dialogues with such figures, a history of archery, its tradition, its transformation and its present condition is discussed thoroughly. The writer has chosen to remain loyal to the words of those who inform his research about the status of archery in Ladakh by providing ample space for their statements and accounts. As such, the story that follows is primarily driven by such statements and accounts by the same people who practice and promote archery while struggling to keep it relevant.

 Introduction

Archery has been a part of every human society, right from the time early humans used bows and arrows to hunt. In Ladakh, archery is called Dah-fangs and Dar-tses, and is still practiced here and Gilgit-Baltistan, especially during the spring season.

Dr. Sonam Wangchok, the President of IALS and Secretary of Himalayan Cultural Heritage Foundation, has traced the history of archery in Ladakh to prehistoric times. “There are many petroglyphs in Ladakh depicting people hunting animals with bows and arrows. Archery must have started with hunting, was then used for war, and then became a part of our culture.” 

This observation was echoed by writer Kacho Asfandyar Khan, “Our elders would hunt wild animals with bow and arrow. Archery was a source of livelihood and leisure. We have reverential terms related to hunting. For instance, if an animal is injured by a weapon it is called Dah-Foq (arrow-hit) and the second arrow used to kill it is called Dha-Snan (additional arrow). This suggests that archery has been a part of Ladakhi culture for several centuries.”

Along the same lines, Padmashri Morup Namgyal, who has been collecting Ladakhi folk songs, relates that archery has a special place in Ladakh society, “Kesar-e-zGrums (Tales of Kesar) are sung across Ladakh and Baltistan. Over the years, I have recorded hundreds of folk songs and found that many of them are dedicated to archery. Arrows also have a special place in many rituals and customs. For instance, when a child is born, people greet the family with an arrow whose tip is wrapped with a khatag. Arrows also play a special role in Ladakhi marriages as the person accompanying the bride (rNatin-pa or Hal-pa) carries an arrow wrapped with khatags,” he added.

Namgyal further explained that Ladakhi folk literature is rich with references to archery. He illustrated this with a song from Kesar-e-zGrums, “The song describes three arrows of which the first one is white and will hit the enemy, the second one is red and will suck the enemy’s blood, and the third one is black and will kill the enemy. The Kesar-e-zGrums also mentions that an arrow is divided into three portions (chik-sum) and specifies that its length must cover the distance between the bow and the archer’s shoulder, the importance of the metal tip (digo) and hawk’s feather (tha-nkar), and the paste made from yak’s horn (rus-prin) that is applied to the surface of an arrow. The method of making an arrow is specified in Kesar-e-zGrums and if these are followed, the arrow will never miss its target.”

National-level Ladakhi archer Hajji Sadiq Shalti attributes his success to the passion that Ladakhis have for archery. “Archery is played in every village of Kargil during Nawroz (March 21st). In the 1980s, most players used traditional bows (Juu) and those who could not afford it, would use willow bows (tankung). Two teams would compete for Dah-mar (local butter) and then would compete for Dah-Gron, which literally means bigger feast (usually a lamb or sheep). We would have archery tournaments at Dak Bungalow, Kargil with participants from different villages and government departments.”

Traditional Archery Festivals

Ladakh has many annual social events centred on archery with intricate rules and customs. Kacho Asfandyar Khan explained that archery festivals are not just sporting events here but have deep social meaning. “Archery festivals are generally held in early spring, usually before the sowing season. I remember archery festivals during my childhood in Shakar-Chigtan where every villager would participate in Dah-fangs. Two teams were formed with elders or influential community members as their leaders. Each team would host dinner feasts for the arrow commander of participating teams.” He added that many social celebrations were planned around archery festivals and relatives would be invited for family feasts, “If someone had passed away recently, the archers would visit the family to pay their respects and invite them to the festival. Archery was so important that after such a visit, the family would stop mourning.”

Similarly, Morup Namgyal described some customs from the Leh area as follows:  “Archers mark their arrows with special feathers to identify them easily. The target area (ben) is made with sand to ensure that the arrows do not break. In the past, people would put soil and animal feed around the target area. The target itself is made with sand and covered with black yak skin with the bull’s-eye or tsagey in the middle. Many players keep their arrows in the Chod-khang (prayer room) for two-three days and whisper special prayers to it. Women are not allowed to touch the arrows as this was regarded earlier as a bad omen. Archers also rub the rope of their bow with local butter. The tsagey is regarded as the eye of an enemy or evil spirit and there are big celebrations whenever someone hits it.”

The Arghon Dar-tses was one of the most famous archery festivals in Leh. Historian Abdul Ghani Sheikh remembers people crowding in the area near the Cinema Hall, “Arghon Dar-tses would be celebrated over a week with some 18 musicians playing music. The British Joint Commissioner would visit Leh in the summers and a huge feast would be held in his honour during the festival. Many performances are associated with Arghon Dar-tses, including Skyan, Mi Ringmo (Tall Man), Amban Dance, and Mer-tses (torch dance). Ladakhis would wear their best dresses to the festival. Somehow the festival was gradually forgotten after Indian independence though I did try to revive it in the 1980s.”

The timings of these celebrations are influenced by Ladakh’s topography and cultural calendar. Historian Mohamad Sadiq Hardassi explained that Ladakh remains inaccessible during the winter and invaders would usually attack in summer. Hardassi noted “Thus, people would practice war drills such as archery and polo in the spring. Forts and palaces in Ladakh are generally located on tall cliffs, which allowed archers to shower the enemy below with arrows. This is why traditional archers practiced on steep slopes. These practices later became a festival.”

Turtuk is an important centre of Balti culture and local writer Fazil Abbas Turtuki spoke about the rich cultural heritage of the region with regard to archery, “Till a century back, we played a game in Turtuk called Penmazkyukpa, which literally means ‘shooting’, in which the archer would shoot at a target while riding a horse. We have not celebrated archery festivals since several decades, though it was very popular earlier. A lot of the cultural heritage of the region suffered due to Partition and the subsequent insecurity of being located at the LoC between India and Pakistan. People are now becoming more conscious of their roots and culture.”

Kargil-based researcher Ajaz Hussain Munshi added that historically archery tournaments allowed people from different villages to meet and coordinate their sowing, resolve livestock-related issues and other grievances. “This is why archery tournaments were held in spring, though tournaments in Leh are now also being organised in the summer. In Kargil, archery is also accompanied with Qasida (Balti poetical prayers praising Prophet Muhammad) and Salawat (Arabic blessings and prayers for the Prophet). In Baltistan and Kargil, archery is closely related to social institutions such as Hlchangra and Shagaran,” he added.

Archery is also very popular in Zansgkar Valley. The Councillor in LAHDC Kargil, Phuntsok Tashi said that archery festivals are organised by two respected families before the harvest season. “Generally around 300 to 400 archers participate in the two-day festival and everyone wears traditional attire. Women prepare chhang and the men participate in the archery competition. Music and chhang are the two important aspects of the festival. One big difference in Zangskari celebrations is that our tsagey is made from zama (hard clay), which explodes when an arrow hits it. It is believed that anyone who hits the tsagey will have a good year as it symbolises the victory of good over evil. Archery is an important for social cohesion. During the festival, two people note the archers who hit the tsagey, and are then asked give some money, which is used for a feast on the third day. On the third day, special prayers are said for the coming year and then the harvest season starts. In Zansgkar, archery is a celebration of traditions and very few people use modern equipment,” he added.

Modern versus Traditional Archery

While traditional archery is imbued with socio-cultural meaning, competitive archery requires modern equipment and rules. Many archery enthusiasts believe that the use of modern equipment should not be at the cost of traditions. One such person is Hajji Sadiq Shalti, who was part of India’s national archery team in the 1980s and credits his achievements to traditional archery. Shalti recall, “In 1987, the Sports Authority of India (SAI) organised trials in Leh for Ladakhi archers. Around 125 archers were in the fray and five of us were selected for training at the National Sports Academy. We then competed with 65 national-level archers for selection to the Indian team. I was selected to the Indian team along with five others. In total, there were 12 to 13 members on the team and I remained on it for three years. This team created history in Indian archery by qualifying for the 1998 Olympics in Seoul and winning many international medals. Unfortunately, I never represented India as the competition was fierce and I often missed the opportunity by a few points. I still have the satisfaction of being a part of the Indian team for three years. None of this was would have been possible if I had not played traditional archery.”

Sadiq returned to Kargil in 1992 and in 2000, he started organising traditional archery tournaments under Ladakh Archery Association, Kargil, which started 27 teams and has now grown to 92. When asked about the use of modern equipment in tournaments, Hajji Sadiq Shalti said, “There is no harm in using modern equipment but it restricts the participation of players who cannot afford them. As a result, people with traditional bows get a negative complex that they cannot compete with those who use modern equipment. Players wear traditional attire but the essence of the game is missing when people do not use traditional equipment. I think we should have separate pools for traditional and modern archery.”

Others like Sadiq Hardassi said that local material and techniques are used to make traditional bows and arrows. “If we start using modern equipment, then what is different about our archery? And what are we preserving for our future generations?” he asked.  In a similar vein, Dr. Sonam Wangchok said we should encourage traditional archery, especially in villages. He further added, “However, in tournaments in urban areas most people use modern equipment that has technical advantages. We must find a way to balance the two as there are religious and socio-cultural sentiments attached to archery.”

Kargil-based researcher Ajaz Hussain Munshi said that archery is losing its socio-cultural importance with the use of modern equipment. “In the past, traditional foods like marzan and paba would be distributed amongst players and that has now stopped. The modern equipment cannot compare with the aesthetic beauty of equipment made from ibex horn and willow. I am not against the use of modern equipment but we should not neglect traditional archery. Many people buy modern equipment as a status symbol, which has caused problems for skilled artisans who made traditional bows and arrows,” he added.

One such artisan is Hajji Mohamed Hassan, a calligrapher from Trespone, who used to make traditional bows and arrows but has now shut down his business. He remembers a time when archery tournaments were held in every village and each team would carry eight to nine Juu. “My father made these bows and arrows and I inherited his legacy. However, the ban on hunting ibex affected our production and I switched to making bows with willow, which were in great demand. We would need at least eight men to fix the rope on the Juu. In the last few years, people have started using modern equipment and we have stopped our production as we were not getting the required price and there was little demand,” he commented.

Nawang Rinchen emphasised the need for balance between traditional and modern archery. He is the President of Ladakh Archery Association and has been recognised by the Government of Himachal Pradesh and received the Gyan Jyoti award in New Delhi for his efforts to promote archery in Ladakh. He said, “In Leh, we ensure that the players wear traditional attire. We tried to introduce traditional dishes at tournaments but many players preferred international cuisine. Since older players still practice traditional archery, we try to introduce modern archery to new players. While this affects traditional archery, our traditional equipment cannot cover the distance with the same precision as the target has been moved from 25m to 30m. We should promote traditional and modern archery. My aim is to promote professional archery amongst youth to ensure that we produce competitive athletes. Last year, I accompanied six sponsored students from Leh to Jamshedpur for national selection. Though our players performed well, they were eliminated due to lack of physical strength. We need more support from government institutions.”

In relation to the current situation of archery in Ladakh, Professional archer Kunzang Dolma said, “I face a big challenge in some archery tournaments. They say it’s a traditional archery tournament but I use modern equipment and we aim at a traditional target. It becomes technically difficult to hit the target. Traditional archers face the same problem when they use a modern bow with traditional arrows to hit a traditional target. This is neither traditional, nor modern archery. It is a mess. If we are to excel at archery, we must encourage youth and children to play the game and provide them with platforms to perform.”

Gender and Archery

Archery in Ladakh has been a male-dominated activity with women playing a peripheral role. I once happened to witness an archery tournament in Choglamsar organised by the Police Department. There I noticed a woman archer who seemed very different from the other athletes. This was Kunzang Dolma, who is a professional archer and sub-inspector in the Police Department. She said, “I did not know anything about archery till I was posted in Srinagar some years back. I came to know that the Police Department was creating an archery team and joined the 2014 trials in Srinagar. Four of us were selected for a year-long training program in Jammu where we graduated from bamboo bows to Recurve bows. In January 2015, we participated in National Police Sports meet in Nagaland and won a bronze medal.”  When asked about women and archery, she said that women have traditionally been excluded, “During my childhood, my relative would say that womenfolk shouldn’t touch the arrow as it is a bad omen and the arrow would miss the target. Now, things are changing and we are participating in various tournaments.”

Morup Namgyal agreed that women were largely excluded from archery. He said, “Womenfolk were also restricted from entering the prayer room out of fear that their menstrual cycle would hamper the spirituality of the space. In the past, women were shy and did not raise such sensitive issues. It is still a sensitive issue but education has given women the confidence to claim the right to perform certain rituals. Some years back, the station director of All India Radio was a Ladakhi lady. She was invited as the chief guest for an archery tournament, where she asked to try archery. No one protested and she managed to hit the bull’s eye! The mentality of society is changing and women archers are bringing laurels to our society.”

Future Prospects

The Department of Youth Services and Sports (DYSS) have been promoting traditional and modern archery. DYSS Officer, Kargil, Mohamed Hussain Rehnuma said, “In the 1990s, the department used to organise block-level traditional archery tournaments. Once insurgency started in Kashmir and there were some reports of scuffles between players, the district administration stopped these tournaments. Later, we introduced traditional archery tournaments in schools but realised that our students will not excel till they practice modern archery. So, we introduced modern archery in schools in the town area as we did not have the resources to introduce it everywhere. The process started about four to five years back and it is already bearing fruit. Archery is primarily practiced in Leh and Kargil, and Ladakhis invariably represent the state at the national level.”  

He mentioned that nine boys and nine girls performed well in the 2014-15 inter-district archery tournament held in Srinagar but could not participate in the nationals due to the 2015 floods in Kashmir. “In 2015-16, the inter-district archery tournament was held in Kargil and our students won 18 gold medals, 12 silver medals, and 13 bronze medals. In January 2016, the gold medallists represented the state at the nationals in Jharkhand. In 2016-17, the inter-district archery tournament was once again held in Kargil and seven athletes were selected from Leh and nine from Kargil to represent the state in the nationals in Maharashtra,” he added.

Ladakhi archers do not seem to be able to replicate their success at national tournaments. Mr. Rehnuma identified several factors for this, “The most important factor is that we lack coaches and infrastructure to train archers, though Hajji Sadiq Shalti has been helping us. We also do not have sufficient funds to buy necessary equipment. SAI is now building a hostel in Kargil, which will be good for the sport.”

The same story is repeated in Leh, where DYSS officer (Leh) Tsering Tashi said that the department promotes modern archery and organises annual inter-school archery tournaments in the district. He commented further, “Archery in J&K is dominated by athletes from Leh and Kargil but our performance in the nationals is not so good. We lack infrastructure, resources, and coaches to improve our performance. I am hopeful that in May we will be able to organise a modern archery camp and trials with experts. We have instructions from CEC of LAHDC, Leh, to focus on archery and athletics with promise of special funds for archery. Some years back, SAI had an office in Leh, which helped us produce national-level athletes. Now we have a J&K Sports Council office, which we hope will promote sports here. We need to promote both traditional and modern archery and private organisations can play a big role in this.”

Kunzang Dolma emphasised the importance of participating in such tournaments saying, “I got a morale boost by playing in a national-level tournament. Initially, I thought our bows were expensive as they cost around ₹25,000 but the other athletes were using bows that cost more than ₹250,000 as they had sponsors, which we lack in Ladakh. The Nagas excel in archery but we lag behind despite having a similar tradition in the sport,” she said.

I also met veteran archer and retired police officer from Leh, Sanaullah Khan while he was practicing archery with some children. He said archery holds Ladakhi society together commenting, “I love practicing archery with children as it allows me to pass on the magic of this tradition that I have inherited from our ancestors. Archery connects people across communities and regions and holds our society together. I hope that it continues to play this role for centuries to come.”

This story was originally published in Stawa, the only monthly English periodical published from Ladakh. Stawa has been operating since last five years and showcases perspectives on Ladakhi society through its feature stories, photo stories, investigative pieces, cartoons, artwork and literary columns. The format of the magazine is more like a journal. “Stawa” is the Ladakhi word for “perspective.” All images copyright of Hosain Ibn Khalo.

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About the Contributor

Murtaza Fazily hails from Kargil, Ladakh. He holds a Master’s in Mass communication and Journalism from University of Kashmir and is working as a long-form journalist since the last three years. During this time he has worked with organisations like Stawa, Kashmir Monitor, Rising Kashmir and Greater Kashmir. His work focussed mainly on Ladakh, its socio-political discourse, heritage and culture. Murtaza has also worked as Assistant Director on some international films (like “Half Widow”) and on various documentary and short films in the same position.