In terms of quality and originality, Bhutanese architecture is doubtless the best expression of the isolated country’s unique character. Bhutan’s architectural roots can be traced to Tibet, yet it is obvious that the architects have developed a style which is peculiar to their own country. Dzongs (fortresses) are the most striking example of Bhutanese architecture. The architecture is massive in style with towering exterior walls surrounding a complex maze of courtyards, temples, administrative offices, and monks' accommodation. Dzongs all over Bhutan are different in terms of layout and structure, yet maintain a perfect uniformity of architectural style.
Dzongs are built at strategic locations - at the entrance to a valley, at the summit of a hill or at the confluence of two rivers, and reflect a certain religious and social outlook, as well as of spatial organization. The Dzongs are part of a network that defended the Kingdom against frequent invasians by Tibetans in the 17th century. Dzongs have stone foundations and walls of sand and clay bricks, and wooden beams are skillfully cut to fit most dexterously. Traditional Bhutanese architecture did not use nails or iron bars.
Apart from the sprawling Tashichhodzong of Thimphu,
our travels took us to the Dzongs at Punakha, Wangdue and Paro.
Puakha is the ancient capital of Bhutan, and the Dzong is the Winter Seat of the capital's venerated monastic community. On 17 December 1907, it was in this Dzong that the Dratshang, Ponlops and Dzongpons, on behalf of the Bhutanese population, put their seals on the historic genja and unanimously elected Gongsar Ugyen Wangchuck as the first hereditary monarch of Bhutan.
I thought it Bhutan's most attractive Dzong. Constructed in 1637-8 during the reign of the Shabdrung, the Dzong was Bhutan's second, after Simtokha Dzong in Thimphu. It is 600 ft long, and has housed as many as 600 monks. The Dzong also hosted the National Assembly until the capital was moved to Thimpu in 1961.
The Dzong's location at the confluence of the Mo Chhu and the Pho Chhu (literally, the mother and father rivers) are believed to quell the spirits present wherever two rivers meet. The rivers surround the Dzong on three sides, providing protection from attack. This location proved inauspicious, however, when in 1994 a glacial lake 90 kilometers upstream burst, causing a massive flood on the Pho Chhu, damaging the Dzong and taking 23 lives.
There is a 55 meter traditional cantilever bridge over the river, made of stone and wood. A solid wood door allows entry, and a colorfully painted narrow set of stairs lead to the upper floor. There is a lhakhang inside the Dzong grounds.
Punakha Dzong's defensive fortifications include a giant wooden front door that is still closed and barred shut at night and a steep set of front steps than can be pulled up.
The building has an air of solidity, secrecy even. It is dark, even in full daylight. High inward sloping walls of brick and stone painted white have few or no windows in the lower sections of the wall. The outer walls enclose flagstone courtyards with flowering gardens and ornate galleries - all a bit overwhelming. All doors have thresholds to discourage the entrance of spirits. Upper floors are reached by steep steps carved out of huge single logs, each tread narrow and the rise high - not to be traversed in a hurry.
The decorated windows offer a superv view of the valley. Each window is framed by carved and painted woodwork, known as shinzo. Windows are framed in thick solid wood on the lower floors, with lighter framework and more glass on the upper stories. In the midst of such magnificent surroundings rise the Utse - the central tower housing the Lhakhangs.
The flared roofs have a distinctly chinese style, constructed with bamboo and wood, ornately decorated at the eaves. They are open at the eaves to provide a ventilated storage area. Dzongs are constructed without using a single nail!!!
As we walked outside, an air of tranquility seemed to hold us in enchantment, and I felt all weariness draining away. We sat on the banks of a lily pond, and watched a monk feed the fish. A gentre breeze was blowing, and the warm sun made it all so peaceful.
The Punakha Dzong has survived six fires, two glacial lake bursts, and a massive earthquake. The restoration work on the Dzong epitomizes the highest quality of the 13 crafts of the zorig chusum tradition. Apart from the traditional Bhutanese woodwork, masonry, metalwork, and paintings on the colossal main structures, the new treasures that have enriched the numerous Lhakhangs in the Dzong include more than 200 sacred images intricately crafted out of the five menjim (precious substances) and modern elements that include copper, brass, and other metals.
We next drove to Wangdue, to visit the Dzong at Wangdue Phodrang. The Dzong commands a cacti-covered hill over the Punatshang Chhu and Dang Chhu.
Built in 1638 by the Shabdrung, the Dzong was situated on a site chosen when scouts saw four ravens fly in the four directions, as if carrying Buddhism in the four directions. Its position along the main trading route helped it become Bhutan's third most powerful dzongkhag.
The entry was through an ornately carved high wooden gate, and there were intricate paintings on the gatehouse ceiling.
The view from the Dzong was breathtaking.
If a Dzong is built on the side of a valley wall, a smaller dzong or watchtower is typically built directly uphill from the main dzong with the purpose of keeping the slope clear of attackers who might otherwise shoot downward into the courtyard of the main dzong below. Rinpung Dzong at Paro (also known as Rinchen Pong Dzong or Paro Dzong), is guarded by the Ta Dzong (literally, "watchtower fort").
Rinpung Dzong was built by the first Shabdrung on the site of an earlier monastery built by Guru Rinpoche (who introduced Buddhism to Bhutan). The Dzong has a history of defending against numerous invasions by Tibetans, as Tibet is very close to Paro. Unlike most dzongs, Paro has only once been damaged by fire, in 1907. The utse is the tallest part of the Dzong, towering over the courtyard. There is an elaborately decorated Lhakhang. Paro's utse - built in 1649 - has two Lhakhangs. The annual teschu is held in this courtyard.
There is a bridge over the river, with a heavy wooden door and brightly painted inner walls, and tiny windows.
The winding road to the Dzong lies in the shade of toweing trees.
And there are watchtowers at each corner of the surrounding walls. This Dzong also has a secret underground passage, used when siege was laid to it.
Ta Dzong, shaped like the auspicious symbol of a conch shell, was built in 1668. Unlike the rectangular shape of the Dzongs, Ta Dzong is round, more like the turret of an European castle. It is the only round shaped Dzong in the whole country. In 1968 Ta Dzong was turned into a comprehensive National Museum, housing antique thankha paintings, textiles, and weapons, among other things.
Ta Dzong gives a wonderfully panoramic view of Paro valley and the town.
All Dzongs have a base of solid stone, painted a brilliant white, the color of purity. The buildings seem to be getting lighter as the stories rise. Perhaps they all serve the same purpose: to protect, to enlighten, to cherish.