HOW TO APPRECIATE MONGOLIAN NATIONAL ARCHERY

by Oyungerel Tsedevdamba


You are on the naadam field. Look around. Do you see wrestling or horseracing? Or do you see men, women and children shooting arrows from their bows? If you see the latter, you are at the Naadam archery field. Although the smallest of all the naadam fields, the archery field is the busiest throughout the naadam. Archery completion begins four days before the naadam’s official opening ceremony and ends when the 5th round of the wrestling contest concludes. As with wrestling and horse racing, the President of Mongolia presents the national title of “state marksman” to the winning archers and they work hard to earn their titles. SEE ARCHERY BEFORE YOU LEAVE Because naadam time is the highest season for Mongolian tourism and there are not enough flights to meet everyone’s wishes. Consequently, many tourists have to schedule their return for just before naadam. How frustrating to be in Mongolia so close to naadam time and yet not to see it —a lifetime experience! No worries if your return ticket cuts you off from the main naadam. Archery is your savor. Archery competition commences July 7th in Ulaanbaatar. There will be archery competition every day from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. at the archery field next to Ulaanbaatar’s main stadium.

KNOW WHAT TYPE OF ARCHERY IS ON A single technological invention in Mongolia gave many ideas to the world. It was our bow making technology that was later studied by engineers developing light sturdy materials for aeronautics. Mongolian bows are light, multi layered and incredibly strong. They shot much further and more accurately than any other bows of their time. For that reason the Mongolian bow conveyed a great advantage in ancient warfare. Made of at least 12-13 different materials mainly involving wood, horn, sinew and animal glue, Mongolian bows made a great contribution to our animal herding nomadic culture. As a reminder of our ancient ingenuity, three main types of bows and styles of archery are included in Mongolia’s naadam competition: Uriankhai style, Buriad style, and Khalh (or common national) archery. The national title-winning archery is Khalh archery as the shooting distance is the farthest and it is standardized by age and gender. The other two styles are national heritage styles. The archery field will be filled with archers in colorful ethnic national costumes beginning from the morning of July 7th. This first day will be dedicated to Uriankhai style archery—i.e. shooting for 30 and 40 meters. You will see only men participating in this category. Uriankhai style is a cultural and sports representation of the hunting men’s world of the past. Until now, this archery excludes women. However, beginning from July 8th, the Buriad style day, plenty of women will be on the field. The archers of this day will be most likely wearing buriad hats, buriad-style deels and holding buriad-style bows. They’ll be shooting for 30 and 45 meters distance. But the fanciest bows, arrows and shooters come out in the khalh style of archery. If you are travelling as a family, you will enjoy the July 9th children’s completion. The archers will be adorable and tough. Depending on their ages, the children’s arrow shooting distance will be between a minimum of 3 meters to a maximum of 65 meters. It will be a rare occasion if you really see a child shooting for 3 and 4 meters distance. It will mean that the boy of one year old (for 4 meters) and a girl of one year old (3 meters) are participating! Any children’s competition involving a child under eight brings lots of target moving jobs to the organizers. It is because the target has to be 3 times in meters the age of a girl participant and 4 times the age of a boy participant. So, the closer the targets are to a little archer, the rarer the game you are watching! From July 10th till the end of the Naadam, there will be Khalh, the common national, archery competition only and the race for the state title will be in full swing.

UNDERSTAND THE TARGET: THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS A BAD SCORE When you are on the archery field, look for small brown and red leather cylinders stacked in two or three rows on the ground. They are the targets -- called “hasaa”. Usually, there will be 30 or 60 such cylinders or hasaas as the naadam target depending on the competition. The red ones in the middle of the brown hasaas are the central targets for the archers, but hitting the red ones won’t grant the archer an extra score. So long as it moves the requisite distance, hitting any hasaa is equally scored “1”. So, there are no special high-score hasaas. An archer is given 40 shots. Twenty of them are given to hitting 60 hasaas lined in three rows. The next twenty chances are given to hitting 30 hasaas lined in two rows. One is called an “archer” only when he or she ‘stands to shoot’. In one stand, four archers stand together facing towards the same target. The shooting is initiated by the highest ranking of the four. Then, the next ranking one shoots. This way, all four archers shoot one by one four times. While archers are “standing to shoot”, they must complete the stand, and nothing should stop them. Only a dangerously strong storm can be an excuse not to shoot. Regular rain is not a reason to delay the competition. From the spectator’s eyes, the width of the hasaa rows and number of targets seem big and seem easy to hit. But it is not as easy as it looks. Also not all the hits are considered a score. The score is given only if a hasaa moves at least eight centimeters from its original location – the width of one hasaa. To do the meticulous judging, a group of “surchid” will be standing near the target area generally named as “zurkhai”. Archers, after shooting four times at a shift, will be obliged to stand at the zurkhai to serve as “surchid”, or co-judges, for the two next shifts.

NATURE DICTATES ARCHERY: THINKING AND KEEPING IT ORGANIC When you are watching Mongolian archery, you are also watching the art of communicating with nature. Imagine natural glue in the sunshine. It will melt. Likewise, the bow that is glued out of natural organic materials, will be softened when the sun shines too hotly and less flexible and harder when it is cold. So, how does it influence in archer’s technique? Very much and every time! An archer is a constantly calculating and calibrating person. She or he has to know her or his bow exceedingly well. If archers do not know the “character” of their bows, they will miscalculate nature’s influence on their success. A softened bow needs to stretch further to reach the target, while a hardened bow needs to be stretched less. The temperature is just one of nature’s variables. Another important variable is the strength and direction of the wind. All pistol and rifle shooters know they need to calculate the wind into their aiming. But archers must calculate the wind effect plus the condition of their bows. Shooting arrows in the wind while considering the organic nature of one’s bows is a complicated thing. It is not easily demonstrated on the TV screens or from the panorama of the archery field, but if you have a chance to chat with archers after their shooting, or while they wait for their shooting, please ask them to show you their left hand. Most shooters use a “marking on the back of a hand” technique to find the right target. If there are many marks during one competition, it means that the archer had to change her/his aiming point several times because of a change in the wind or temperature during the competition. Even if the day is windless and calm, the archer will have to change her/his calculations a few times just because the organic bow changes its character throughout the day. How to become a good archer when the bows are so capricious? The best of the best archers are of course those who do their training throughout the year in every condition of the weather over and over patiently. Because nature complicates the art of archery, the Mongolian archery community is truly passionate to maintain this interesting and challenging way of shooting arrows. Even though young innovators offer plastic materials for making bows, such innovations threaten the national intangible heritage of the art and techniques of shooting organic bows. Therefore, only traditional bows are allowed in the state naadam.

WATCH THE BODY LANGUAGE: MEASURING SUCCESS AND FAILURE OF A SHOT The first and most important body language communicator of archery is the surchid. As I mentioned earlier, surchid are the archers who are serving as co-judges when they are not shooting. This group of surchid will be employing body language to convey technical information to actively shooting archers. The body language easiest for the viewer to observe happens when the target is successfully hit. In such a case, all the surchid will raise their hands with the palms up and shout “uukhai” which means a point is counted. When the arrow flies over the target, the surchid will make a sliding movement with his/her hands (with the palms down) over the hasaas, thereby showing the archer how high the arrow sailed over the hasaa. Watching this body language, the archer calculates his/her next shot. If the arrow strikes the ground short of the target, the surchid will show the length of the gap by their arms. If both arms are far stretched out, it will mean that the flight of the archer’s arrow was quite short of the target. Sometimes, the arrows reach the targets, but don’t hit the hasaa strong enough to make a score. This is very frustrating for the archer, and the surchid will make a stepping or drumming movement with their hands. However, the archers while shooting arrows, hardly show any emotion. They stand still. They follow their ranks. Senior ones shoot first and the junior ones stand in line according to their rank. They watch their environment and the target attentively. They calculate. They concentrate. They display a noble and determined character. They use their muscles to stretch a bow 40 times and each such stretch is equal to lifting 25 kilograms.

CAN A TOURIST PARTICIPATE IN ARCHERY? Yes, if you have your own Mongolian bow and arrows. Remember, you can’t participate in the Mongolian naadam if your bow is not made according to Mongolian tradition. No metallic or other materials harder than wood are allowed to strengthen your bow. To participate in naadam archery, one needs to submit his or her request to the naadam’s archery committee. Because the state committees register the archers via the national archery association, it is not so easy to enter the national Naadam because the national archery association ranks the archers throughout the year and grants permission to compete in the naadam only to the higher performing archers. However, soum naadams and other local small naadams can be more relaxed and one can get registered with the permission of the local naadam commission. Most archers allow the spectators to try his or her bow after they finish their competition. If you are given such a chance, please be mindful of few things before you try. First of all, protect your left arm and right thumb as a strong shot could hurt you at those places. If you happened to have thick cheeks or a thick chest, the stretched bow might hurt you too. So, hold them at a reasonable distance from the snap of the bowstring. If you are keen to hit the target, then sense the bow very well. Is it a hard frigid one or is it a soft one? Use more strength and aim farther in order to reach the target if your bow is softer. And do more precise aiming if the bow seems to be not too soft and not too hard. If it is windy day, please sense the weight of the arrow first. You should use heavier arrows if the wind is too strong against you. Such calculations will never seem to end and must always be in your mind if you are serious about archery. But this is naadam. Most importantly, you are having a holiday here. So relax and just enjoy your time on the archery field in full harmony with nature.

Ulaanbaatar, 2014



Copyright 2014 Oyungerel Tsedevdamba

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