High in the Khasi hills of North East India stands Shillong, the state capital of Meghalaya. It’s known as “the Scotland of the East” because of its resemblance to the Scottish highlands. Tall pine conifers line steep hill roads that zigzag and up and down the valleys. It’s also home to a great swathe of Presbyterian churches, founded by Scottish missionaries in the mid-19th century.
The game is on Shillong is home to a large number of Khasi tribes people. Every day (apart from Sunday) men from four archery clubs gather to shoot arrows at a cylindrical target for four minutes. The event, known as “Siat Khnam”, is held twice a day at 4 and 5 pm. It’s not just a pleasant afternoon out; archery is serious business. All around Shillong and its neighbouring towns and villages, there are small betting booths taking stakes on the outcome of the contest. I had arrived in town just in time to see what it was all about.
By the time I, along with my Assamese guide who surprisingly had no clue about the game, arrived at ‘Saw-furlong’ (the venue), the first contest was well underway. A crowd of Khasi men seated in a semi-circle, firing arrows at a cylindrical drum shaped target. The place was packed with players and onlookers. After all, there was big money at stake on the outcome.
The arrows flew continuously into the target. Some secured themselves firmly; others ricocheted off and fell to the floor. Finally, a canvas sheet was raised in front of the target, stopping anymore arrows from securing a place. The local master of ceremonies, with great flourish, called a halt to proceedings and thus the first contest came to an end.
The crowd surged forward to witness the count and the tension was palpable.
Sorting the winners
Naturally enough, arrows that had missed the target were dismissed. Arrows that were considered neither in nor out were cast aside and eliminated from the count. Finally, a grand total was agreed on and the gamblers pressed even further forward to hear the verdict.
These people weren’t interested in the grand total; their bets had been laid on correctly predicting the last two digits only. With a great theatrical flourish, the master of ceremonies threw arrows into the ground in front of him.
“One, two, three (the crowd hung on every number), four, five, (folk were already on their mobile phones contacting people back in town with the result)…six!” And there we had it; the result for 4 pm was 5 and 6. The result was immediately relayed back to the betting booths and the payouts began in earnest. So if you ever find yourself in this wonderful hill town, be sure to check out the archery contest.
There are both direct flights available from Mumbai and New Delhi to Shillong, Meghalaya, as well as ones with a stopover in Kolkata
The nearest railhead in Shillong is Guwahati. You can book a train from Mumbai, New Delhi and Kolkata to Guwahati and take a bus to Shillong