Mongolian archery remains a national sport in the country in modern times – one of the “Three Manly Sports’ of the annual Naadam Festival but its history stretches back centuries and it helped the Mongols to conquer the largest land empire in history.
The Mongols have used bows and arrows for centuries including on the battlefield – from standing and from horseback – and when hunting for food. There’s even a legend of Erkhii Mergen, an archer who saved the Mongolian people from a drought by shooting six suns out of the sky. Also, according to The Secret History of the Mongols, when one of Chinggis Khan’s ancestors wanted to demonstrate the strength of unity she instructed her feuding sons to snap a single arrow – which was easy – and then to repeat the action with a set of five arrows which was impossible because of their combined strength.
Mongolia’s composite bow has multiple layers and is handmade from multiple materials found within Mongolia including horn, leather, birch wood and bark, and fish glue. When unstrung, Mongolian bows retain a curve. The arrows are made from birch, the fletchings of the arrows from the tail feathers of birds, and the arrowheads from metal blades, bone, or wood.
During Mongolia’s archery competitions, the archers are constantly calculating and calibrating. A softened bow needs to stretch further to reach the target, while a hardened bow needs to be stretched less. Variables include the changing temperature and weather conditions throughout the day of the competition. Another important variable is the strength and direction of the wind. The winning marksmen and women are awarded the title of ‘state marksman’ – also known as ‘mergen’ or sharpshooter.
There are three main archery styles in Mongolia – Buriat, Uriankhai and Khalk. All three are included in Mongolia’s state Naadam competition with Khalkh style being the common national archery style. The national title-winning archery is Khalkh archery as the shooting distance is the furthest and it is standardised by age and gender. The other two styles are considered national heritage styles. Typically over 300 archers compete in the three different styles during the state Naadam. In Uriankhai style archery, male-only competitors shoot from 30 and 40 meters. In the Buriat style, both men and women compete and shoot from a distance of 30 to 45 meters.
Teams of twelve archers emerge onto the shooting line and in turn launch four arrows each at the targets which are leather cylinders installed in the ground. The shooting distance is 75 metres for men and 60 metres for women. For those under 18, the distance is set at a rate of three to four metres per year of age.
When you are on the archery field, look out for the small brown and red leather cylinders stacked in two or three rows on the ground. They are the targets – called ‘hasaa’.
The red ones in the middle of the brown targets are the central targets for the archers, but hitting the red ones won’t grant the archer an extra score. The score is given only if a hasaa moves at least eight centimetres from its original location – the width of one hasaa. So long as it moves the requisite distance, hitting any hasaa is equally scored ‘1’. There are no special high-score hasaas.
An archer is given 40 shots in total. 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.
A group of judges (surchid) stand near the target area (generally named as zurkhai). Archers, after shooting four times, will be obliged to stand at the zurkhai to serve as a judge or co-judge, for the two next shifts.
The images used throughout this post were taken by EL guests. We work in long-term local community partnership with Tomorkhuu Batmonkh – one of Mongolia’s most successful archers but also a talented craftsman of the Mongolian composite bow. To meet him and to learn more about the skill involved in making Mongolian bows and arrows and in the skill of archery, look at our archery workshop.
Jess @ Eternal Landscapes