It wasn’t until I visited the 2017 Haa Summer Festival that I knew there was a sound of slingshot that played a significant role. My understanding of slingshot was limited to its stone throwing function. Even the art of weaving one was new to me; I thought it was just plain leather going by the type of slingshot we used to play during our childhood.
Attending my hometown festival for the first time I was exploring the stalls for hoentay, tongba and rainbow trout delicacies, and there was no way a piece of rope woven from yak hair could draw my attention. But somehow while passing by a tent I couldn’t help notice the slingshot hanging among yak tail, bells and other yak products.
I took it in my hands and started playing with it without a stone. It wasn’t long before a yak herder came and began naming the parts of it to me; what seemed like a piece of rope has four parts to it with names. The man told me that it wasn’t done well. There were flaws in two areas of slingshot we were looking at. I was intrigued. He was particularly not happy that the tip was made from nylon material and not yak hair. He said it wouldn’t sound good.
Sound good? What has slingshot got to do with sound? Isn’t it a weapon to propel stone across the distance? That’s the beginning of my understanding of the sound of the slingshot.
The man distanced himself from me into the open space, made a loop on one end to hold on to and sent it swinging over his head and after certain round made a sudden twist. Out of nowhere, an explosive sound was produced, completely unexpected from a piece of rope. It was physics of breaking the sound barrier.
The man did it several times, each one louder than the previous. The sound drew a lot of attention and among the people drawn by the sound were few hardcore yak herders. Looking at the reaction the man was enjoying the fellow yak herders started saying, “That’s nothing. Come on let me show you.”
Soon, everyone rushed to take his turn. It became a battle. Each produced a different sound and it was hard to judge but nonetheless, I gave verdicts, which infuriated the battle further. Among them was an 11-year-old boy named Kinley Wangdi who pushed his grandfather into the competition, insisting that the old man was the best.
The old man came forth with so much pride but the sound didn’t come so well to uphold the reputation his grandson gave him. Clearly frustrated, he inspected the slingshot and declared that it was not a good one. His little supporter jumped in to inspect and much to my surprise even he declared that it wasn’t the real one. He said his grandfather could make the real ones. Everyone agreed.
The discussion then moved on to the components of a real slingshot and I was awestruck by the details of weaving a slingshot. What really made me raise my brows was when they pointed at the pattern on a section of slingshot and said that it could ward off evil forces and that the injuries from such sling would never heal. The passion with which the guys said it warranted no denying. Believe it or not, they mean it with their lives.
My curiosity and their passion for the subject matched perfectly. I was not done yet. I asked, what was the purpose of the sound they produced with the slingshot. They explained that it was the sound that could make the bravest of yak shit in their fur. When the animals go haywire the herder would make that explosive sound once and even the naughtiest bull would fall in line like a good boy. It’s like the command of a military general.
The sound of the blank slingshot frightening the yaks can be associated directly with Pavlov’s Dog experiment on classical conditioning. Most yaks have experienced the horrific pain of getting hit by a stone shot from a slingshot, and they remember that pain and the sound together. The next time even a blank shot could achieve the same result without actually having to hurt their beloved animals.
Dasho Dzongda of Haa, Kinzang Dorji joined the passionate group and listen to their stories with utmost keenness, it was then that I proposed Dasho randomly about coming up with a competition among the yak herders to see who can produce the deadliest sound. The idea went very well with the crowd and even with Dasho. He agreed that it could be a special component of the Haa Summer Festival.
The men proposed that each man bring their own slingshot and that there be competition to see the best slingshot. I could hear them talking about working on their own slingshot right way. 12-year-old Kinley Wangdi was definite that none could beat his grandfather. He validated his grandfather’s worth by bringing along a beautiful piece the very next day just to show to me.
I went straight to my Japanese friend Akane Matsuo and inquired about the possibility of her bringing in a sound measuring device from Japan the next time she went home. Because I realized that we couldn’t possibly trust human ear to pass judgment on that sort of sound. She Googled it right away and agreed to bring one. After all, it was in her best interest to do any little thing for her second home- Haa. It was her project in RSPN to develop community-based sustainable tourism in Haa, and the slingshot that sparked all the interest was actually hung in her team’s stall that fateful day.
By Passang Tshering
The writer is the founder of Bhutan Toilet Organization and a blogger