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 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.
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 viewpoint.
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 contest.
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 rest soon.