Walking through Police Bazar shopping district in Shillong, the capital of India’s north-eastern state of Meghalaya, I came across dozens of small kiosks selling what seemed to be lottery tickets. My curiosity was piqued by the blackboards hanging unassumingly in front of each one, where numbers were scrawled in white chalk. There was a muted excitement among the small groups of people gathering around the counters.
I stopped at one of the kiosks, where the young lady in charge asked me if I had already chosen my number for the day’s teer lottery. Given that this was my first time, I decided to refrain.
You may also be interested in:
• A village with a curious addiction
• The game keeping a language alive
• The mysterious origins of the piñata
Named after the Hindi word meaning ‘arrow’, teer is an almost-daily activity in Shillong – a game of chance born from a skill that Meghalaya residents have practiced for centuries: archery. Spectators choose a number between one and 99; professional archers fire arrows at a target, and if the last two digits of the total number of arrows to hit the target matches your number, you win.
Later that afternoon, Shillong’s former polo field, now home to the Khasi Hills Archery Sports Institute, was a beehive of activity: there were even more kiosks here accepting bets, while chai and snack vendors did brisk business. Around 50 archers squatted in a semi-circle facing a half-metre-tall cylindrical target made of bamboo thatch, chewing on paan (betel leaf) with reddened teeth.
All of a sudden, an anxious silence fell on the sportsmen and the onlookers alike. At the referee’s count, each of the archers simultaneously shot 30 times at the target. A barrage of arrows flew in front of our eyes, most hitting the cylinder with precision.
Among people of the Khasi tribe of Meghalaya, which translates from Sanskrit lyrically as ‘the abode of clouds’, archery has been both a sport and a form of defence for several centuries. Meghalaya – like India’s other north-eastern states – remains somewhat isolated and largely pastoral, with Shillong as its only major urban centre. While modern customs have replaced many of traditional aspects of the culture here, a pervasive fascination for archery remains, even when the rest of the country has turned its attention to cricket.
“Archery actually has ancient roots in the Khasi community, with several popular tales and myths around this sport,” said Professor Desmond L Kharmawphlang, head of the Department of Cultural and Creative Studies at Shillong’s North-Eastern Hill University.
According to Kharmawphlang, legend has it that archery was a gift from the gods to the Khasi people of this region. It was received by Ka Shinam (known locally as the ‘reigning goddess’), who passed the divine bow and arrows to her sons U Shynna and U Batiton. The boys played with these weapons and became skilled marksmen over time.
This purportedly divine skill lives on in Meghalaya today, instilled in Khasi boys at a young age. Kharmawphlang explained that when a boy is born, a naming ceremony known as ka jer ka thoh involves placing a bow and three arrows before the baby, indicating his role as a warrior and protector. The first arrow signifies his land, the second his clan and the third himself. Upon his death, the same bow is placed by the body, the weapon preserved safely inside his home since his birth, while the arrows are shot into the sky to accompany his soul to the heavens.
The modern history of archery in this region can be traced back to the tribal chieftains’ resistance against British invaders. In April 1829, the warrior ruler U Tirot Sing Syiem helmed an army of archers to defend the north-east territories against the invading British, and defeated them using only their bows and arrows. Although he was eventually captured after the British successfully took control of the region, U Tirot Sing Syiem remains respected as one of the region’s bravest freedom fighters.
Over time, with the integration of Meghalaya into independent India, the use of the bow and arrow declined, and archery turned purely into a leisure activity. Shillong and other villages across the state host large competitions, often held on festival days, that are a matter of great pomp and prestige, with competitors travelling from all over the region to compete. Victors walk away with cash prizes and sometimes even corporate sponsorship offers.
It did not take long for gambling to creep into these contests. Originally banned by the Meghalaya government, but now blessed for its contribution to the state’s economy, teer has become engrained in the fabric of life here, with hundreds of people gathering at Shillong’s polo ground most afternoons to watch the spectacle.
A pervasive fascination for archery remains, even when the rest of the country has turned its attention to cricket
According to local government estimates, there are more than 5,000 bookies operating in Meghalaya, with 1,500 in Shillong alone. Betters can gamble any amount of money starting from 1 rupee (roughly one pence), going up to 500 rupees (less than £5.50). Winners see their investments multiply several times over – up to 80 rupees for each rupee initially bet.
Amrita Das, a prominent travel blogger who grew up in Shillong and returns several times a year to visit her parents, told me that while she places bets three to four times a year, her father has gambled regularly in teer for many years now. “As a child I always saw these numbers on blackboards hanging outside really small shops, and when I grew up to understand it, I found it alluring and wanted to try my luck,” she said.
After all the arrows had been fired, I watched the crowd gather around as the referees counted the final number of arrows embedded on the target. Mobile phones rang ceaselessly as hopefuls outside the stadium (and even outside Shillong) sought news of the outcome. The total number of arrows embedded on the target was 766, so those who had bet on 66 had cause for jubilation.
Kharmawphlang says that teer has ensured the tradition of archery is preserved, while government-regulated archery clubs ensure that the skill is taught and practised properly. “When the government began to take interest in teer and ordered that archers should be part of organised clubs, it ensured that some discipline and training was brought into archery,” he explained. Now it is not just Khasis, but young people from all the regional communities who are interested in archery, he added.
As for me, I was caught up in the excitement of the victors as they walked away from the field. Meanwhile, the others shrugged their shoulders, and made plans to return the next day.
Join more than three million BBC Travel fans by liking us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter and Instagram.
If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter called "If You Only Read 6 Things This Week". A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Travel, Capital, Culture, Earth and Future, delivered to your inbox every Friday.