Bows, arrows and gambling: Archery thrives in rural India
NEW DELHI, March 3 -- They come from the outskirts of town and from villages near and far to gather in a corner of the polo grounds. Armed with bows and arrows but dressed in modern clothing, they look like strange warriors who are about to engage in a tribal battle.
The fresh scent of the earth after the rains combined with a heavy smell of tobacco fills the air. Once the site of celebrated horse races during colonial times, this part of town is dotted with small wooden stalls and has an atmosphere that suggests it's in a time warp. People are gathered here for what's known in the region as teer, a team-based archery event that incorporates gambling.
Local archers gather every afternoon except Sundays, said Pherbok Laloo, head of the organization that runs the competition. Once the archers get started, he said, nearly 2,500 arrows fly in two bursts lasting two to four minutes each.
After each round, arrows that hit the target are counted. The last two digits of that number is the basis of the gambling, said Stalin Lytin, a competition coordinator.
“If the total number of arrows which hit the cylindrical thatch target is 856, then 56 is the number on which bets are placed," he said.
Lucky gamblers can win 10 times - or even 100 times - the amount gambled.
Bookies like M Rai and Tito Biswas say that they make 400 to 500 rupees (about $9 - $11) per day from the sale of numbered tickets.
Banshaiborlang is a local archer for whom teer means a source of daily income.
“I make 100 rupees ($2.20) per day,” he said.
Making bows and arrows is also a cottage industry in local villages like Nongkynrih, where half of all residents are involved in the activity.
But the event is getting expensive for some archers. Those who come from the countryside often find it difficult to afford new bows and arrows.
The number of bookies is also increasing day by day, leading to increasing competition. A small fee is charged from booking counters and stalls at the site of the archery contest for the maintenance of the grounds. On top of those costs, gamblers often lose everything else in their wallets when they're unlucky.
“Some days you make big profits, while some days you incur even bigger losses," said Tito Biswas.
Teer was illegal until 1982, when the government began earning money from the practice. Today, bookies carry government licenses that cost 3400 rupees (about $75), Laloo said. Nearly 40 percent of the daily earnings at each teer booking counter is taxed, he said.
Teer supports more than 3,000 bookies and their families, and brings in about 60 to 65 lakhs (about $13,500 to $14,500) to the state, said J.R. Marak, a local taxing official.
In this picturesque hill state, archery has a rich history. Bows and arrows, besides being used for hunting, warfare and recreation, were also an integral part of local festivities, birth and death rituals and judicial processes since ancient times.
Archery is embedded in the local folklore, songs, poetry and tribal religion passed on from one generation to another. Modern-day teer, however, is relatively new. It developed in the last four or five decades, influenced by the horse race betting that was popularized during the British colonial period.
The game boosts the local economy, but it could mean the erosion of a valuable tradition, said Kyrhem Nongkinrih, a sociology professor from the region's Northeastern Hill University.
“The challenge is whether archery in its traditional form is accepted and practiced by a new generation of young people," he said, "or will it be reduced to a mere means of one’s livelihood?"