How Young Women Archers in Ladakh Are Defying the Gendered Tradition of the Sport

Srinagar: When 25-year-old Dechen Namo from Taksha Village in Nubra Valley of Ladakh heard about the first womens’ archery tournament in the region, she was convinced she had misheard. So, she confirmed thrice before it truly sunk in.

Locally known as Da-Fang, archery has always been the most popular sport in Ladakh. Competitions are usually held at the end of the harvest season in almost every part of Ladakh. The legend of the bow and arrow in the region dates back to the first settlers who lived by hunting and gathering. Accordingly, it became an important ritual of daily life and so the prehistoric petroglyphs engraved on rocks in Nubra valley along the Shayok and Siachen River abound in images of human figures with bows and arrows. Marriages, to this day, are solemnised by a richly adorned bow held by the head of the groom’s party.

Yet archery in Ladakh has been traditionally dominated by men and women have so far only only played a peripheral role. Women are usually not allowed to touch the arrow as it is considered a bad omen and it is believed that a woman’s touch would make the arrow miss its target.

The news of the tournament, therefore, came as a breath of fresh air for Dechen for she has been obsessed with archery for as long as she can remember.

“My father is an ace archer. I used to practice archery with him as a child. But I could never do it in the open as the Ladakhi tradition disallows women to touch the arrow. Custom could not be broken as society would not permit it,” Dechen said.

Now Dechen is living her archery dream. Not only Dechen, 25-year-old Nomo Phutsong from the Hunder Village had also not imagined in her wildest dreams that she would be allowed to shoot someday. “The workshop came as a pleasant surprise. Women in our region could not even think of practicing archery given the old traditions in place. It felt liberating, and doing what we had always yearned for,” she said.

Image credit: special arrangement.

Nomo now wakes up every morning to practice and has become well-versed with archery techniques. “I hope to participate in next year’s tournament as well. For now, I just eat, sleep and breathe archery,” she said.

It was in September this year when the winds of change started blowing in Ladakh when the first of its kind initiative under the Ministry for Youth Affairs and Sports was held. This included a ten-day-long archery workshop for women.

“While traditional archery is imbued in sociological-cultural meaning, modern archery has no such notions attached to it as it requires modern equipment and rules. Traditional archery has religious and sociological-cultural sentiments attached to it, so women are not allowed to touch the arrow. Therefore, our focus was on imparting training to women archers in modern archery only, so that nobody has any objection from traditional point of view,” councilor Panamik, Tsering Sangdup said.

Around 55 participants took part in the workshop, from which the top 20 were selected and then the top eight.

Nawang Rinchen, a coach and vice president of the Ladakh Archery Association, said all the girls who participated picked up the techniques within just four days of training.

“We taught them the difference in techniques between traditional and modern archery. We also introduced them to different types of bows, how to choose the right type of bow, bow measurements, additional gears for bows such as arm guards, bow releases. Lastly, the main part was to impart confidence to know you’ve got what it takes, concentration to control the controllables, composure to find the right intensity level for your game, and motivation to keep going when things are tough,” he said.

Sangdup added they had been discussing this idea for the last three to four months. “Surprisingly, when it happened, men here readily accepted this new change and showed a warm response. We hope to produce new examples and role models among the women in archery,” he said.

Hirra Azmat is a journalist based in Srinagar, Kashmir, who covers human interest stories with a special emphasis on health and environment.

Featured image: special arrangement