Bullseye: Shillong's archery contests draw as much as Rs 500 crore in legalised betting

Every afternoon at about 3 pm, traffic slows down on the narrow MC Road at 4th Furlong in Shillong. Some are looking for a place to park, while those on foot hurry down a nondescript hole in the wall that leads to the local archery arena.

This is unlike the archery that has today become an Olympic sport; more of a tradition in Meghalaya that draws crowds for their dose of legalised betting. Unlike the serene calm that engulfs an archery arena, this one features the hustle and bustle of a marketplace, which even offers the archers a fix of tobacco before they focus on the task at hand.

People go about doing their thing at the betting counters and pan shops, which sell the local betel nuts called kwai, awaiting 3.15pm when the action unfolds. All around are archers, readying themselves for the main event that is responsible for the crowd, as well as the jam outside.

Archery has been a favourite past-time for the Khasi tribe from the state. In the past, each village sent forward its best archers to the neighbouring village for a friendly competition called U Thingiong U Thingsaw. Then, there were competitions that were held on festive days, while also in the memory of Meghalaya’s freedom fighters. One of the most intense rivalries which involved money even back then was played out between Laitryngew and Mawthohtieng villages near Sohra Rim, which continues till today.

 Bullseye: Shillongs archery contests draw as much as Rs 500 crore in legalised betting

Archers in action. All images courtesy Shail Desai

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As the sport grew in the state, archery clubs were formed which started competing against each other. The first record of people betting dates back to 1952-53. The 12 active clubs were then governed by the Archery Board Control (ABC), which is today known as the Khasi Archery Sports Institute (KHASI).

“The late 60s was when archery got really popular in Shillong, and the government of Assam (which Meghalaya was a part of) wanted to ban it. The police was given authority to arrest these bookies,” says Philip G Khongsngi, the president of KHASI.

So while archery competitions were held regularly at various venues, the betting was all underground. The trend continues in parts of Assam and Tripura today, where betting on the game is still illegal.

“Today, we still have the traditional archery competitions at Polo ground on Sunday and during festivals — there is no betting involved here and it’s the archers who are awarded a cash prize. But 4th Furlong is where the big money is spent,” says Morning Star Jyrwa, general secretary of KHASI.

After Meghalaya was recognised as a separate state in 1972, KHASI negotiated with the government to legalise betting but it wasn’t until a decade later, that the proposal was approved on October 1,1982. Today, the streets of Shillong are lined up with betting counters for this lottery of sorts, known as Siat Khnam locally.

There are two rounds each day, where the size of the target — essentially a cylindrical haystack — and the number of shots vary. In each round, one can bet a minimum of Re 1 for a return of Rs 80 in case of a win — odds of 80/1, which is the same for the second round as well. In case of a forecast, where one nails both the winning numbers, odds of 4000/1 are offered.

The target after each round

The target after each round

Each bookie needs to procure a license from the government before running operations. The smallest bet placed is recorded in a booklet that is handed out by the government. There is no limit on the number of bets, and the industry is said to rake in transactions worth Rs 500 crore each day.

“The bets don’t come just from Meghalaya. Today, we receive bets from around the world since mobile networks and the Internet have made things easier,” says Rintu Sharma, a bookie at the venue.

Each club in the league has two fixtures a week. The clubs make their money based on the collection at the counters, and hire about 13 archers, who earn up to Rs 350 a day. There are also on the spot cash awards at stake for individual archers, each time they hit the target.

“Each club gets a minimum of Rs 4,000, whether there are bets placed or otherwise. Our cut is decided on the money collected at the counters. We keep a track of these archers and sign them up based on their performance,” says George WK Susnji, who represents Wahingdoh club.

S Rynajah, 36, has been a regular shooter for the last 20 years. While he works odd jobs in the day, competition is serious business each afternoon.

The archers come from the villages around Shillong and belong to all age groups

The archers come from the villages around Shillong and belong to all age groups

“We have about a thousand homes in my basti at Nongkynrih. The kids go to school, but archery is as important. Every home has a few archers,” Rynajah says.

Archers crouch along an arc, about 10 metres from the target. The bows and arrows are made using local wood by the archers themselves, based on the dimensions specified by KHASI. The arrow ends distinguish archers of each club.

Thirteen archers from two clubs face-off on a given day. In four minutes, they must fire 1500 and 1000 arrows in the two rounds, respectively, which are counted at the end by the jury. While the total is in the hundreds, the last two digits are taken into account to arrive at the winning number (So for example, if the total number of arrows in the target are 786, 86 is the winning number).

(L) An archer gets his arrows ready for a round; (R) The streets of Shillong are lined up with betting windows

(L) An archer gets his arrows ready for a round; (R) The streets of Shillong are lined up with betting windows

The winning number is displayed after the counting

The winning number is displayed after the counting

After the results are announced, the chatter grows as the winning number is relayed to the booking counters and is found displayed on the boards outside. The crowd disperses almost instantly, getting back to business as the road outside gets clogged once again.

Representatives from the betting stalls relay the winning number

Representatives from the betting stalls relay the winning number

While archery spells serious business for those associated with serious betting, you know where to go for the cheap thrills the next time in Shillong.

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Updated Date: Dec 18, 2016 08:52:11 IST