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. There's an
abundance of Scottish names
engraved onto the graves in
the local Presbyterian
church's graveyard but the
similarity ends there.
For 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
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.
My Assamese guide hadn't even
heard of the contest. So whilst I, a
middle aged western tourist in this
remote North East hill town,
attempted to explain to him the
intricacies of a Khasi betting game,
he negotiated with the taxi driver to
take us to the event. Travelling
rarely gets more surreal than this!
By the time we arrived at "Sawfurlong"
the first contest was well
underway. A crowd of Khasi men,
were sat in a semi circle firing
arrows at a cylindrical, drum
shaped target. The place was
packed as people tried to jostle their
way to better viewing positions.
No grandstands here. Just turn
up and stake your claim to a
Lot of money at stake
The atmosphere, unsurprisingly,
was electric. 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. Some held on
for dear life, neither fully in nor out
of the target. 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
first contest came to an end.
The crowd surged forward to
witness the count and the tension
was palpable. The archers themselves
meanwhile, seemingly unperturbed
by the result, discussed how
well or otherwise they thought they
had done and tactics for the later
Sorting the winners
Naturally enough, arrows that had
missed the target were instantly 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.
Only my guide seemed deflated.
Today he'd suffered the indignity
of being educated by a middle-aged,
white westerner about his own
indigenous tribes and then he'd had
to pay the taxi driver what he considered
an over inflated price. What
made it worse and rubbed salt on
his wounds was that he'd picked
2 and 3.
So if you ever find yourself in this
wonderful hill town be sure to check
out the archery contest. Armed
with this article you'll have more
knowledge than my Assamese guide
and you never know, with a bit of
luck, you may actually win enough
for the taxi fare!
Rob is a UK-based writer who
has visited four of India's "seven
sister states" and hopes to visit the