Sunday, 16 January 2011

Shillong's Arrows of Outrageous Fortune

Khasi archers, Shillong

Most types of gambling are illegal in India, but in Meghalaya's capital Shillong betting on archery is a tradition, which is practised completely openly everywhere in the town and even other parts of the state.

The archery contests take place every afternoon year round. We had been to Shillong before and seen most of the sights, but somehow didn't make it to the archery so we made sure to catch the action this time around, en-route from Cherrapunjee.

The archery arena in Shillong. The archers are always seated and place in a half-circle around the target

In reality the gambling on archery is nothing more than a disguised lottery. Although there are two teams of archers that do compete against each other in some sort of tournament structure, the bets are not about picking winners or losers of this contest. Rather you must guess the last digit(s) of the number of arrows that hit the target, something on which there seem to be no rational basis to hold one outcome as more likely than another making this type of betting a game of pure chance.

For instance if a total of 612 arrows hit the target, you would win if you played 2 as the last digit (giving you close to 10 times your money back) or 12 as the last two digits (giving you close to 100 times your money back). According to my memory the odds are pretty good, as they are close to being even to the likelihood of the outcome. However, the receipts confirming your bet are very small and easy to loose, so I suspect the bookmakers have a higher level of earnings from lost or forgotten winning slips, rather than from the margins built into the odds.

Eyeing the Target
Large sums change hands and even from other states and abroad significant sums are gambled, primarily by locals who have moved out of the Meghalaya. People with mobile phones will convey the results immediately to the anxiously waiting gamblers.

Any tourists visiting Shillong should consider spending an hour for this uniquely Meghalayan event. Any person in town should be able to explain the way to the archery range. 

Towards the end of the contest the target becomes filled with arrows making it look like an over-utilized pin cushion
There are both young and old archers, but the seniors do seem to be in majority

Collecting the arrows for counting is a major, time consuming task

Several old-timers help in on the collection

The coloured tips of each arrow make it possible to identify the archer, thereby making it possible to determine the wining team and also reveal the contributions of the individual team members

First the arrows are sorted according to colour (and thereby team)

Then the arrows are grouped into bunches of ten and then hundred to count the total number. Many eyes observe to insure against any miscounts or deliberate attempts at manipulation
Finally the results will be announced to the waiting crowd including archers and gamblers

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