Dartse: The Archery Festival

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Illustrated by Nawang Tankhe

Archery has been a vibrant part of Ladakhi culture for generations. It has its origin in traditional hunting. In the prehistoric times, it was practiced during warfare and for livelihood but gradually with change in socio-cultural positions, use of archery in people’s daily practice have dwindled. It, however, continues to hold an important part in Ladakhi culture and local customs. Playing archery using traditional bows and arrows is perhaps one of the very few visible cultural remnants of the past and symbolizes rich socio-cultural heritage.

Many Ladakhi folklore, proverbs, literature and rock-art have references to archery, unraveling fascinating insights into traditional way of living. The oral folklore - The Epic of King Gesar (Kesar-e-zGrums) narrates heroic stories of the warrior king Ling Gesar who was a skilled archer and horse rider. The epic saga also has a detailed account of the art of weapon and armor making.

Pix for Dartse article . Photo credits Abhijit Dutta, Archery festival in Gya.JPG

Photo credits Abhijit Dutta, Archery festival in Gya

The Epic of King Gesar is the most celebrated oral narrative of the central Asian region and has a particularly huge influence in highland pastoral areas of Tibetan plateau and Ladakh. Phrases like “fast like Ling” - evoking magnanimous strength and speed of Ling Gesar Gyalpo is a common part of local speech. The allusion to natural elements and imagery of nature is also quite frequent. The oral narrative explores the theme of harmony in nature, balance between human and nature, battle between good and evil (deities v/s demons) and disruption of natural order in great depth. In today’s times, much of these oral traditions and cultures are going out of practice and what remains is a watered down version of the rich cultural heritage our ancestors have passed on.

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Photo Courtesy: Karma Sonam

Archery, one of the few remaining traditions, is the most celebrated local festival in Ladakh and is very popular in my village Gya too. Gya, one of the oldest settlements in Ladakh, was historically the abode of chieftain ruler Gya-pa Chow. Today, there are around 150 households in the village dependent on agro-pastoralism. Dah- Fang or Dartse (Archery) is celebrated for good harvest, harmony and happiness in the village. Traditional song and dance, feasts, archery competitions, rituals- all are part of the festivity and prayers.

Dartse is celebrated twice in a year; sPitda is celebrated in early spring after dormancy of winter days and Yarda is a mid-summer celebration. The Spring archery festival marks the beginning of harvesting season and is celebrated right before watering the fields when farmers are getting ready for the cultivation. The Goba (village heads) of all neighboring hamlets collectively consult Rongtsen (oracle) for an auspicious date for cultivation and subsequently coordination for archery celebration is carried out. Once the date for ploughing is finalized, the Goba will announce the date of festival and gather barley, grains and ra-luk (sheep-goat) for the feast.

Women and young girls participate in preparing food for the whole village while men and adolescent boys take part in archery competitions. Drinking traditional wine is a huge part of the celebration and a group of women known as Changma (wine incharge) are solely responsible for brewing Chaang (barley wine) and Aarak (local alcohol) and serving it to archers during the festival.

Gya has 3 main hamlets and Dartse is celebrated collectively in all these villages. It goes on, uninterrupted for 6 days and each village takes turns hosting it in their village. In Hemya (my mother’s village) religious ceremonies for good harvest and prayers for peace and harmony among villagers are done by holy lamas (monks) and the grain sheaf called “Phut” (first offering to god) is offered in monasteries as a gesture of gratitude.

The archery competition is one of the most awaited events of the festivals and a lot of men and young boys take part in the competition. The archers are divided in two teams known as Ma-Bhu (Ma - mother, bhu-son) with one team headed by Goba (village leader) and another team led by Nyerpa (a monk representative). Earlier, bows and arrows were made of ibex horns by skilled artisans but these days we use the ones made of willow and bamboo. The target area is made on a heap of mud to ensure the arrows don’t break, and the target (bull’s eye) known as Tsage is either made of zama (earthen clay) or a wooden plank. The archery competition starts with rdaman pa (traditional musicians) playing songs and when an archer hits Tsege (bull’s eye target) people breakout in loud songs and dance cheering the team. Whichever team hits the target maximum number of times, wins the competition. The winning team has to pay some amount to Rdaman pa as a gesture of gratitude for their services and circumambulate Tsege (target area) in loud celebratory cry Rzang solo!!

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Photo Courtesy: Karma Sonam

Archery is not merely a sports tournament but is an integral part of our communal identity and cultural ethos. It is a reflection of the rich Ladakhi cultural heritage and carries strong socio-cultural sentiments of the people. The festival brings together communities and is important for maintaining cohesion and peace within society. Ladakh being primarily an agro-pastoralist society, the festival is in a way also a celebration of crops that are grown on land and cherish the efforts of the farmers.

But such traditional practices are slowly fading away and many aspects of the festival and traditional customs are altered to suit modernity. Wearing traditional clothes like Goncha (woolen robe), eating paba (barley delicacy) and using bows and arrows handmade by local artisans were significant aspects of the archery festival but are slowly eroding. These days, modern sports gear are used for archery and the spirit of harmony between people, between communities is slowly being replaced by competitiveness of the game. I have personally witnessed these traditional practices (whether farming or archery) undergo drastic change in the past few years and I feel an overwhelming sense of loss. Our land and our practices make up for who we are and I feel it is important to preserve these traditional practices.

About the Author

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Karma Sonam

Karma Sonam hails from the remote village of Rumptse in the Eastern part of Ladakh. Born into a humble agro-pastoral family, he remembers growing up around livestock and taking on the responsibility to graze them in the pastures around his village. He has a passion for the natural world and loves birding. He has been working with NCF for the past 15 years and is helping mobilize community-based conservation efforts across the Rong and Changthang regions for Eastern Ladakh.