Tharlo and The Sacred Arrow • Part 3


      Pema Tseden has not only coped with the constraints of his creative situation, including the isolation of Tibet, political censorship, and the economic requirements of the cinematic form, but he has also transformed them into powerful visual images of the isolated human psyche in its quest (Lo and Yeung 2016).

     hqdefault.jpg The Sacred Arrow is Pema Tseden's fourth film, following the path of his ambivalent exploration of tradition and modernity among contemporary Tibetans. The Sacred Arrow won an award for Best Cinematography at the 17th Shanghai International Film Festival (2014), and received recognition at various other international and national film festivals. Shot in Gcan tsa (Jianzha) County, Rma lho (Huangnan) Tibetan Autonomous, Mtso sngon (Qinghai) Province, The Sacred Arrow is set in A mdo, as are his previous films. The film opens with a grand Tibetan-style melody hummed with a ma rtse ma'tantric mantra' along with orchestral instrumental accompaniment as dim images move across a screen of thang kha murals related to Lha lung dpal gyi rdo rje (Pelgyi Dorje),[1] who fled from Dbus gtsang (U-Tsang) to A mdo after assassinating King Khri 'U'i dum brtsan (r. 841-842). The king had persecuted the "Sangha in central Tibet... during which he attempted to eradicate Buddhism in Tibet" (Blo rtan rdo rje et al. 2009:12). Images on the screen project Lha lung dpal gyi rdo rje, who fled on a white horse that had been colored black with charcoal, and wearing the black side of a reversible two-toned robe. Crossing a river, the horse was washed white, and Pelgyi Dorje reversed the robe to show the white side, thereby evading soldiers in pursuit (Mandelbaum 2007).

      According to popular accounts, after reaching A mdo, he hid the bow and arrow at Lo rdo rje brag Cave and meditated. Later generations thrived and made an arrow commemorating the arrow used in the assassination. The film then switches to a black screen that transitions to an archery competition between two groups of archers. The Lha lung group wears red shirts and the Mda' mo group wears white shirts. Both wear similar Tibetan robes and use traditional-style bows and arrows in a vigorous rivalry emphasized by robust screaming as sunset lighting pierces the floating dust on the flat top of a mountain. A local TV reporter in front of a camera reports on the annual final competition and the best two archers from each of two villages - Bkra don from Lha lung and Nyi ma from Mda' mo. After keen competition, Bkra don loses in a final round to Nyi ma, a calm, thoughtful man who is in love with Bkra don's sister, Bde skyid.

This is the second consecutive year that Mda' mo Village wins the contest. The shame of losing leads Bkra don to drink with his friends in a forest near Lha lung Village. Skal bzang rdor rje, Bkra don's brother, says he has damaged their village's reputation when he approaches them in the forest while they are drinking.

      The archery competition between Lha lung and Mda' mo is part of local culture and has been maintained for centuries in a harmonious rivalry with little concern over which village owns the gyang mda''sacred arrow' from year to year. This year, however, Bkra don cares a great deal about the surface layer of the competition - reputation and prestige - than about the harmony and joy that traditionally undergirded the event. His deeply felt humiliation leads to numerous unfortunate consequences and propels the story forward. That same night, villagers watch a film on the threshing ground. Skal bzang rdo rje arranges a competition to be held a month later for boys, hoping to regain honor for his village. Meanwhile, one of Bdra don's friends finds him and reports that Nyi ma and Bde skyid are having a romantic rendezvous in the forest. Bdra don mounts his motorcycle and speeds off. When he finds them, he is enraged.

     Nyi ma says, "You lose and you act like this. Act like a man if you are one."

     Bdra don replies angrily, "Did you just say I'm not a real man?"

    Bkra don says, "You are like a dog."

     "You are like a yak," Nyi ma replies.

     Bdra don pulls a bottle of beer from his robe pouch and breaks it across Nyi ma's head. Beer suds cover Nyi ma's black hair and two lines of blood stream down his face.

     Next morning, the villager chief and Bdra don's father take a sheep on their motorcycle to formally apologize according to the local custom, for Bdra don's behavior. Bkra don's father feels very guilty as he apologizes to Nyi ma's mother. Meanwhile, Nyi ma's father mentions Nyi ma and Bde skyid's possible marriage.

     Bde skyid's father indicates agreement on the condition that they love each other. On the way back to their village, Bde skyid's father and the village head discuss the coming lab tse[2] ritual and 'cham dance, and express concern over finding enough young men to participate, given that most young people are outside the village engaged in migrant labor. Ensuing scenes show Lha lung archers cutting trees for the lab tse ritual and a brief introduction to making a good arrow is conveyed through conversation between Bdra don's father and his younger son, Skal bzang rdo rje. A competition between boys from the two villages is held in front of Lo rdo rje brag Cave. The competition ends in victory for Lha lung and humiliation for Mda' mo.

A humorous story is told while Dbra don's mother, Bde skyid, and daughter-in-law are baking traditional bread: a village girl brought a loaf of bread to an archery celebration. When it discovered that it was discovered that it was not cooked through, it became a widely-told joke and the girl was never able to marry.

     Lha lung Village's lab tse ritual take place on a nearby sacred mountain, a mountain deity is praised, rlung rta'wind horses' are tossed into the sky, and participants scream and circumambulate the lab tse while led by asngags pa'lay tantric practitioner'. On the way back to the 'cham dance from the lab tse, Bdra don arranges an archery contest with Nyi ma privately in a dense forest. He proposes they shoot balloons among the trees while riding motorcycles. He promises if Nyi ma wins, he will not interrupt his marriage with his sister. Intense competition follows and Bkar don loses terribly.

beijinghimalayaaudiovisualculture-scared-arrow.jpgAs they compete, villagers impatiently wait for Bkra don to lead the 'cham dance at the village temple. An awkward conversation ensues when Bkra don's arrives: "There are also certain steps. You can't just dance any which way. The deities won't be happy with that," he says. "Father, so many rules! What century is it?" Bkra don replies. While dancing, Nyi ma exits the temple, approaches Bde skyid in full view of the assembled villagers, gives her a ring, and says, "I'm going to marry you."This is a discomforting moment. Tibetans in the area where the film was shot do not discuss romantic love between men and women in front of relatives, nor in public.

      Suddenly, Bkra don appears in the frame. He is poised to shoot Nyima, who responds by notching an arrow and aiming at Bkra don. Villagers watch in shock and the space becomes very silent. Thankfully, nothing happens. That night, Lha lung villagers celebrate the lab tse and 'cham dance rituals. A TV announcer informs that the winners of the next year competition will be awarded 30,000 RMB to promote and continue folk archery culture. The Lha lung village chief comments that an opportunity has come for the village to regain its prestige.

      Lha lung archers then purchase modern bows and arrows without letting the other villagers know. When archers from Mda' mo see the modern bows their eyes register surprise and Nyi ma comments, "Times change. Our bows need to catch up with this decade." Predictably, in the ensuing archery competition between "traditional" and "modern," Mda' mo loses.Although Lha lung archers receive much praise for winning, they feel deeply guilty about winning with the unfair advantage brought by the modern bows. In the afternoon, as Bkra don's family watches a TV report on the competition, the village chief arrives with news that the county town government is planning to host the first Sacred Arrow Cup International Traditional Archery Invitational Tournament, has asked an archer from both Lha lung and Mda' mo to participate.

      For days, Bkra don learns more about archery from his father, who explains that certain dance movements  illustrated in the thang kha illustratethe archery skills of Lha lung dpal gyi rdo rje who, as noted above, assassinated King Khri 'U'i dum brtsan while dancing 'cham, thus the 'cham dance became the origin of the archery festival and thrived in local communities. 

     One day, Bkra don climbs the rugged mountains to the cave and observes the painting very carefully, in a dark, tiny shrine lit by a butter lamp that brightens the dark shrine, illuminates his face, and lightens his inner heart. He practices the 'cham dance illustrated in the thang kha mural alone in the temple. The viewer then is taken to the stadium where thecompetitionproceeds according to modern rules, but in the absence of an enthusiastic audience, robust scream, and floating dust. In contrast, it is a covered stadium featuring limited space. Bkra don and Nyima earn equivalent marks and qualify for the Sacred Arrow Cup International Traditional Archery Invitational Tournament. They receive an enthusiastic welcome from residents of the two villages on the flat top of a mountain, who happily shout and circle in a beautiful sunset scene. Soil/Earth plays a key role in the key protagonist's, Bkra don's, path to self-realization - from losing the peace and joy that comes from traditional rivalry, to abandoning the traditional bow, to picking up the traditional bow again.

     Bkra don habitually takes a pinch of soil from the ground before he shoots an arrow. Soil is symbolic of rootedness and belonging. Before shooting an arrow in the stadium, he reaches down and touches the ground for a pinch of soil, but it is concrete. Feeling uncomfortable, he takes a bit of soil from a flower basin, suggesting that, the further a tradition is from its natal home, the less it retains of its original meaning.

     Bkra don is in a silent dilemma, e.g., in the early morning of the second year's competition in drifting snow on a mountain slope, he grasps a traditional bow in this right hand and looks in the sky as snow blows in his face and, maybe into his heart as well? Seemingly he is deliberating whether to use the traditional arrow during the next competition. In the event, he chooses a modern bow and arrow.

     Within the past decade, Pema Tseden has gained worldwide recognition for three feature films. The Sacred Arrow emulates the previous three in telling stories about contemporary Tibetans faced with conflicts that arise between maintaining tradition while dealing with the surging intrusion of modernity. The Sacred Arrow maintains Pema Tseden's ambivalent tension between tradition and modernity. The film, however, departs from his previous films in terms of cinematic style. Many scenes in The Sacred Arrow follow the mainstream commercial cinema style with professional performers "professionally" grand music.

5432843781e2.jpgFrom the first feature-length film to Old Dog, Pema's films feature a calmer exterior but a more turbulent[3] interior. The Silent Holy Stones, for instance, tells the story of a young monk fascinated by a TV series adapted from the Chinese classic, Journey to the West (Frangville 2016:1). The use of long-takes and long shots in the course of the young monk's journey between his monastery to his home community for Lo gsar 'Tibetan New Year' and return to the monastery to participate in the Smon lam Festival contemplatively captures transitional moments of life in a colorless winter space.

      In The Search, a film crew starts a painstaking journey looking for actors to perform in a film based on a famous play, Dri med kun ldan, of a prince who gives away all his property, and his wife, children, and his own eyes, to those who need them. In the course of the film crew's search in a four-wheel drive vehicle, they cross various Tibetan landscapes, including adobe compound farming villages, vast grasslands sprinkled with sheep, schoolyards full of students engaged in sgor bro'circle dancing', monks in monasteries learning English from ABC, nightclubs frequented by college graduates, and illiterate performers in a Tibetan troupe in town. Old Dog is a tale of conflict between a herdsman and his aging father centered on an old Tibetan mastiff. The old dog is important for his spirit of dignity. Tibetan mastiffs are prized as pets by Chinese businessmen and the sale of a single mastiff might net untold riches. This translates into mastiffs being stolen for sale on the black market. Blo chos's son, Mgon bo, secretly sells the dog to a Chinese dealer in the local town. Blo chos then goes to the town and reclaims the dog. This incident propels a chain of selling, stealing, and reclaiming the old dog, which becomes increasingly worrisome. Blo chos tries to save the old dog by designating the dog as tshe thar, which locally means it cannot be sold or used for profit. However, the dog is stolen by a local villager and then later discovered in the black market in the town. In reclaiming the dog, Mgon po fights the thief. Finally, unable to think of other solutions, Blo chos kills the dog that has been his faithful companion for years to liberate both the dog and himself.

       The route to and from pasture and town is portrayed using mostly a fixed camera in natural light, zigzag dusty roads, depressingly grey skies, and endless sounds of construction. This creates a wordless depressing tone of culture in danger of disappearing.

      Each of the above films is a journey in search of an answer. Pema Tseden said, "What I am doing is not to search for my origin or root but to contemplate and explore the future," and except for The Sacred Arrow, "They share the quality of promising completeness and stability by returning to the same point. Yet these promises are not realized" (Berry 2016:8). Along each journey in this marathon, modernity and tradition are depicted, while maintaining a neutral stance as an observer narrating the condition of contemporary Tibetans.

       The Sacred Arrow seemingly leads to an optimistic resolution to explorations in meshing tradition and modernity, bringing the protagonists back to where they began. At the very end of the film, while Nyi ma and Bkra don stand in the "stadium" - a predictable representative metaphor for "modernity" - they hold their traditional bows and arrows in the same, single frame. Modern, government-sponsored competition now solves conflict.

     Additionally, the way of cinematic storytelling is slightly different in The Sacred Arrow, as compared to Pema Tsedan's previous films. Long takes and long shots are favored as the camera tends to stay back, keeping the various characters in the frame, establishing a distance. Although we follow certain characters, we are observing them rather than being drawn into identifying with the protagonists in the film (Berry 2016:12). Wide angle and long shots are frequently implemented in his previous films. As Pema Tseden said (Asia Society 2010):

      I wanted to create a calm visual style. A distance between the camera, the characters and the sets, so that ... the audience can make their own decision. Through the narrative development, the audience can choose to get involved. The environment the characters are in is more important than their facial expression. Within the settings, we reveal human relationship, reveal the plot, and reveal the human condition.

      Pema Tseden with the assistance of cinematographer, Luo Pan (Ganglameiduo 2008), utilizes intense close-ups that lead us to more closely identify with the characters in the film.

      The Sacred Arrow also differs from Pema Tseden's earlier films in that, with the exception of the protagonist, played by TV comedian Sman bla skybs in The Search, all performers in his films are non-professional. In contrast, The Sacred Arrow features such well-known performers as Bkra shis don grub (Ganglameiduo 2008); Bkra don from the Lha sa Drama Troupe; Bsod nams nyi ma, a model from Khams; Stobs rgyal (Mountain Patrol 2014, Prince of the Himalayas 2006; No Man's Land 2013); Blo bzang chos 'phel (Lopsang) (Xiu Xiu:The Sent-Down Girl 1998; Prince of the Himalayas 2006), and Bde skyid (Taste of Tsampa 2010).

      With the exception of The Silent Holy Stones, Pema Tseden has not used strident soundtracks. He attempts to use diegetic sounds, avoiding the intrusion of the director's subjective perspectives. However, for The Sacred Arrow, he invited Ricky Ho (Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale 2011) of Singapore to compose music.[4]

      The Sacred Arrow is comparatively less circulated internationally, compared to his previous films. After a long journey marked by rivalry and conflict between the two villages, local officials find a solution. Conflicts are resolved in shouts of joy, amid beautiful images, and the resounding sound of an orchestra, reflecting  government influence in film production.

      The film's striking, orchestral soundtrack contributes to publicizing exotic Tibetan archery, local historic sites, and Gcan tsa's impressive scenery. The film will surely attract more tourists to the area where it was filmed.The director arranged the protagonists to return to where their journey began. However, whether they truly return to the "village" and maintain a traditional form of archery and all that it represents - even with government support - is another question.

* Originally published in Asian Highlands Perspectives at 


[1] See (accessed 31 July 2016) for more on Lha lung dpal gyi rdo rje.

[2]Lab tse refers to arrows and spears with flags attached inserted in heaps of stone atop mountain peaks in Tibetan areas. Origins of lab tse may trace to Tibetan soldiers making wooden frames for their weapons; Tibetan troops constructing such structures to signal control after occupying new lands; storage areas for weapons that mountain deities might utilize in battles; and sites where weapons were collected and put on striking summits in plain view to suggest a credible peace between tribes (Stuart et al. 1995, Xing 1992).

[3], accessed 6 April 2016.

[4]In 2011, Ho received the Best Original Film Music Award at the Taiwan Golden Film Festival for Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bable. I believe this is the first work Ricky Ho did for a Tibetan film, which was obviously influenced by the Himalaya (directed by Eric Valli, 1999) soundtrack.


1.         Asia Society. 2010. Pema Tseden: Tibetan Films for Tibetan People., accessed 31 May 2016.

2.        Benson, Sandra. 2007. Tales of the Golden Corpse: Tibetan Folk Tales. Northampton, Mass: Interlink Books

3.        Berry, Chris. 2016. Pema Tseden and the Tibetan Road Movie: Space and Identity Beyond the 'Minority Nationality Film'. Journal of Chinese Cinemas 1-17.

4.        Blo rtan rdo rje, Charles Kevin Stuart, and Roche Gerald. 2009. Amdo Tibetan Tongue Twisters. Asian Highlands Perspectives 1:7-51.

5.        Frangville, Vanessa. 2016. Pema Tseden's The Search: the Making of a Minor Cinema, Journal of Chinese Cinemas 1-14.

6.        Lo Kwai-Cheung and Jessica Wai Yee Yeung. 2016. Special Issue on the Tibetan Cinema of Pema Tseden. Journal of Chinese Cinemas 10(2):87-88(, accessed 11 December 2016).

7.        Mandelbaum, Arthur. 2007. Lhalung Pelgyi Dorje. The Treasury of Lives., accessed 9 May 2016.

8.       Mikos, Rachel. 2012. The Becomings of Narrative: Transformation and Transmutation in the Tibetan and Mongolian "Enchanted Corpse" Cycles. MA thesis, Institute of South and Central Asia, Seminar of Mongolian Studies, Charles University in Prague.

9.        Stuart, Kevin, Banmadorji, and Huangchojia. 1995. Mountain Gods and Trance Mediums: A Tibetan Summer Festival. Asian Folklore Studies 54(2):219-237.

10.    Virtanen, Riika J. 2008. Development and Urban Space in Lauran R Hartley and Patricia Schiaffini-Vedani (eds).Modern Tibetan Literature and Social Change. Durham: Duke University Press,252-262.

11.     Xing Quancheng (Chen Qiang and Kevin Stuart, translators). 1998. A Northern Tibetan Summer Festival. Central Asiatic Journal 42(2):291-306.

12. Zhao Xuefeng 赵雪峰. 2015.万玛才旦: 银幕上的藏地浮生Wanma Caidan: yingmushang de zangdi fusheng [Pema Tseden: Floating Tibet on the Screen]., accessed 31 May 2016.


Khasham Gyal graduated from Qinghai University for Nationalities with a major in Tibetan Literature. He is the founder of the Amilolo Films, dedicated to  educating young Tibetans about digital video production and encouraging a new generation of Tibetan filmmakers. Khasham Gyal has directed numerous documentaries and short films about Tibetan life and culture. Valley of the Heroes is his first full-length documentary film.