If you want to see how mythology can touch reality, look no further than the Bhil archers of Western India. India’s largest tribal group are also its most renowned archers. And they follow a strict code, forbidding them from using their thumbs to draw an arrow.
The practice originates from the tribe’s ancestral figure, Ekalavya, an anti-hero of the Mahabharata. The son of Bhil parents, Ekalavya lived in the forest. He wished to learn archery from the greatest teacher of the land – Dronacharya – whose mandate was the train the royal princes. Arjuna was his star pupil and is commonly revered as the greatest archer of all time.
Dronacharya refused Ekalavya’s request to train under him. The latter made do with an earthen rendition of the old teacher. Speaking to this figure, he self-trained. His skills soon surpassed that of Arjuna himself. On the advice of Krishna, Dronacharya decides to cripple Ekalavya. His motivations are debated – whether they were based on caste (Ekalavya was of a lower caste than the Kshatriya prince) or on realpolitik (Krishna could see that Ekalavya would fight against them in later battles and needed to nip his power in the bud) is a mythical question.
Dronacharya approached Ekalavya and commended his skill. But he demanded a teacher’s gift (Gurudakshina) and this was to be Ekalavya’s thumb. Hesitating, Ekalavya asked him to confirm his request. The teacher did. With no further hesitation, Ekalavya cut off his right thumb and handed it to the teacher. He later resolved that he would surpass Arjuna even without his thumb.
Millenia since the supposed events of the Mahabharata, the Bhil archers honour Ekalavya’s tradition. The scorned archer has become a Dalit and Adivasi icon in places – seen as being unjustly handicapped to favour an upper-caste competitor. But for those who wield the bow best today, abhorring the thumb honours the legendary archer of their ancestors.
Bhils are among the few communities who still hunt with a bow and arrow today. While many have had to turn to agriculture, those who still live in the deserts hunt antelopes, birds, rabbits, and lizards – usually at night. Using homemade bamboo-fashioned bows and sickles, they are one of the few people today who murder using traditional weapons.
Where they fit in the caste hierarchy is hazy (as is Ekalavya’s position). A British report from the nineteenth-century states:
They live cheek by jowl with the untouchable, the scavengers, and cobblers. They are coupled with such out-castes in ordinary parlance. Yet a Bhil may enter a temple or a house without defiling it, just as a Mussulman or a Christian may. He is not part of the scheme of caste at all.
The British had reason to study the Bhils. A rebellion amongst them broke out in 1818 – and all attempts to quell it failed. One of the officers sent to quell it, captain Henry Bowden Smith, was killed after suffering an arrow to the head. Ultimately, the British raised a corp of Bhils themselves in a bid to stop the rebellion – and it worked. Until 1938, the Bhil Corps was a regular unit of the Indian Army – but they were later merged into the Rajasthan Police.
Tribal archers aiming for gold
With bamboo bows, archers at the Ekalavya Archery Academy train to compete with international champions wielding metal and carbon fibre. Founded by Dinesh Bhil, it was once called the poorest sports academy in India. Their bamboo bows cost Rs. 3000 (under $50) while those in archery tournaments cost up to Rs. 1.5 lakh ($2300).
By 2013, it had produced an output of 74 medals in archery contest – 24 of which were gold. They had become Gujarat’s barefoot champions. The same year the government ordered the Bhils to vacate the premises – as both tribal and non-tribals require government permission to buy tribal land.
Training the Bhils to become Olympians was definitely showing promise. In 2016, Gujarat made plans to set up another Ekalavya Archery Academy – this time under the tribal development ministry. But whether this can match Dinesh’s people-up approach remains to be seen.
While Indians have won medals at the Commonwealth Games and World Archery Championships, an Olympic medal has so far proved elusive. The investment needed to take a tribal archer to the Olympics is part of the challenge. It’s not just the skill they train against, but the quality of equipment and the role of Olympic trainers. Working by themselves, the Bhils have yet to have a chance to shine at the Olympics.
India’s premier award for archery is called the Arjuna Award. For the Bhils, an award named after a historic arch-rival must sting. Academies and awards bearing Ekalavya’s name carry on the legacy of the spurned archer of Indian mythology.
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