A retired employee of the Indian Air Force, Tej Gurung now spends his days at the archery shooting ground in the city of Shillong, in northeast India.
The 80-year-old grandfather goes there to play teer, the only legal form of gambling in Meghalaya state.
But this isn’t like betting on a normal sport. Wagers in teer are based on the world of dreams.
The game works like this: Squatting in a semi-circle with their bows, 20 or so archers engage in a 10-minute firing frenzy, trying to hit a bundle of straw about 50 meters (164 feet) away from them as many times of possible.
Players bet on how many arrows will end up in the bale, choosing a number between 0 and 99 which represents the last two digits of the total number to find their mark. For example, if 453 arrows hit the bundle, everyone who chose 53 wins a payout.
It’s a game of chance, but it is guided by the belief that the winning numbers appear in the dreams of players, who use a local system to translate images into numbers.
“A corpse, doctor and a person wearing a police uniform would all indicate the number 9,” explains Loknath Khannal, a Nepali local who has been selling tickets at a Teer counter for 30 years. A dog or a cow would mean the number 4, he adds.
Gurung says he has been most lucky when being guided by his dreams, recalling a bet he placed on 12 after that number came to him in his sleep. He put on 5,000 rupees ($70) at various counters around town because most limited bets to 1,000 rupees ($14).
“I played a single number 12 on the first round and won,” he said. “I don’t remember how much I made in total, but for a 500 rupee bet, you win 40,000 rupees. So you can only estimate how much.”
No one knows exactly how the ancient sport of archery evolved into a lottery, but it’s so popular that people in neighboring states are dialing in bets and pocketing payouts.
Archers earn a small fee
Teer, which means “arrow” in Hindi, has been around for about as long as the state of Meghalaya, which was carved out from Assam in 1972 and includes Khasi, Garo and Jaintia Hills, former kingdoms that came under British rule in the 19th century.
British colonial leaders once called the capital, Shillong, the “Scotland of the East,” because of its wet climate, hilly topography and typical overcast gloom.
The state’s three main indigenous tribes from these kingdoms were largely converted to Christianity by missionaries during British rule, making Meghalaya one of the few states in India that’s predominantly Christian. Tourism and mining of mineral resources, such as coal and limestone, are the main drivers of the state economy. But Meghalaya still ranks among the lowest in India in terms of its Gross State Domestic Product (GSDP) and life expectancy, education levels and overall standard of living.
Gurung has been playing Teer for the past 40 years, but it has only been legal since 1982, when the Meghalaya government decided to lift it out of the shadows to make some tax revenue. Now, every ticket seller – or counter operator – pays a 10% cut to the government, on top of the archers’ salaries and other operating costs.
The archers, registered with one of the 12 neighborhood clubs in the Khasi Hills Archery Association, treat their earnings like extra cash since they are normally either formally employed or run a teer counter. Michael Shaibor, a 24-year-old archer who had been shooting for seven years, says he makes about 300 to 400 rupees ($4 to $5) a day, for about three hours work. “It’s not bad,” he says.
Bets come in five categories: single (0 to 9), house (10 to 19, 20 to 29), ending (last digit), and pair (11, 22, 33, 44) to the high-stakes forecast, which means guessing the exact numbers in both rounds on a single day. Players make their wagers at counters around town, which have varying limits for the jackpot.
Chandra Kumari, a Nepali local, says she occasionally plays for small sums of 10 or 20 rupees. Others spend a lot more.
“There are about 500 to 600 counters and an almost unlimited number of bookies in Shillong alone, where the bets can go up to Rs. 5 crores on a single day,” said a bookie in Shillong, who asked not to be named as several bookies operate without a license.
Women in the game
Meghalaya is not only unique for allowing its citizens to legally gamble on Teer.
It’s also the only Indian state where residents observe a system of matrilineal inheritance, an oddity in India’s fiercely patriarchal society. Mothers pass their names and the family’s property to their daughters. However, despite the elevated status of women in Meghalaya, and attempts to clean up teer’s reputation as a pastime predominantly reserved for men, the game remains stubbornly male.
Philip Gean Khongsngi, president of the Khasi Hills Archery Association, says that before he took over in 2017, the archery ground in Shillong used to be a dingy den of men, who would often drink while gambling.
“About two years ago, we dismantled everything and propped up a cleaner space. But the taboo of gambling still remains,” he says. The church expressly forbids any form of gambling, he adds, adding an extra layer of stigma.
Khongsngi says that while many women stay away from the shooting ground, many gamble in secret.
“Younger women, especially, would not go themselves to witness the game or even buy a ticket. For them, it’s as taboo as going to a wine shop,” Khongsngi says.
Sushma, one of the few female counter operators, who has been selling tickets for 16 years, says: “Women who go to church do play but are extremely secretive about it. They’ll either send someone to buy a ticket or purchase it discretely so that no one sees them.”
Lisa Wallang, who has sold tickets at the Shillong shooting ground since 2012, says: “Before me, my mother used to run a teer counter and that’s how she supported her children. This is how I’m feeding my family and running my home now.”
Modern form of gambling
Last December, the Meghalaya government made an announcement that sent shockwaves through the Teer community.
It had decided to relaunch the state lottery, which stopped operating in 2005. Meghalaya is one among 13 states in India where the Supreme Court allows legal lotteries to be conducted as per an order in 2015.
“Re-introduction of state lottery will be the last nail into the coffin for Shillong Teer,” one teer ticket seller told local media.
While some bookies reportedly fear that the State Lottery could divert people’s loose change away from Teer, others dismiss such apprehension. “Teer is like an addiction so people can’t stop playing,” said one Shillong-based bookie.
When the Indian government demonitized 500 rupee and 1,000 rupee notes overnight in November 2016, Teer – like many small, cash-reliant businesses and cottage industries – was badly hit.
Yet even demonitization did not deter locals from playing the game. “Those who used to play for Rs. 5000 came down to Rs. 500 a day,” the bookie adds.
For many, Teer is more than a gamble: it’s a way of keeping a connection to their roots, especially for those in the Jaintia Hills, many of whom have retained their indigenous religion, Niam Tre, or converted back to it from Christianity.
“Christian evangelists have tried to veer us away from this game, saying that gambling is a sin,” says Pasah, who runs a teer ticket counter. “But for us, it is a way of keeping in touch with our own culture.”
Makepeace Sitlhou is a journalist based in Guwahati, India and a 2019 National Foundation for India fellow.