Dzongs in Bhutan

Trongsa dzong in Bhutan

History of Dzongs in Bhutan

Regal and imposing, the Dzongs are some of the first sights to arrest the attention of any visitors to Bhutan. These castle-like structure stood as defensive fortresses and symbols of unity against external invasion and internal discord. Today the Dzong continues to function as a vehicle of Bhutanese unity, identity, and strength. In nearly every other country and culture in the world, there is separate structures designed for military, government, religious, administrative, social, and commercial uses. In many cases, Dzongs of Bhutan have one time accommodated all these needs. Historically government claimed that Dzongs were the seat of the ruler. The military used the Dzongs as a garrison if need be and as an armory. The history of the construction of Dzongs dates back to the 16th century and can be categorized into three phases: Pre-Zhabdrung Dzongs, Zhabdrung era Dzongs, and Post-Zhabdrung Dzongs. However, Dzongs built during Zhabdrung’s time like Simtokha Dzong in 1629 under his command are of greater importance. This structure reminds all Bhutanese of the victory of Bhutanese over the Tibetan invasion from the north and a unified stand against the British-Indian attacks from the southern border.

Importance of Dzongs in Bhutan

Dzongs are very Important in the Bhutanese system of Governance. The Dzongs were used as administrative centre at present and training institute for young monks and seat of the religious leader. The dongs were also the place of trade and area where people would congrgate to celebrate specially during annual Tshechus and masked dance festivals.

Top 5 Dzongs in Bhutan

Tashichho Dzong

Tashichho Dzong

Tashichhodzong is the most important Dzongs of all because the Dzong is the seating office of the King of Bhutan and religious leader Je Khenpo. In 1216 Lama Gyalwa Lhanagpa built the Dho-Ngon (Blue Stone) Dzong on a hill above Thimphu where Dechenphodrang now stands. When Zgabdrung came in the 17th century the follower of Lama Gyalwa completely fell and Bluestone fell into the hands of Zhabdrung. In 1641 Zhabdrung rebuilt Dho Ngon and named it Tashichidzong (Fortress of Auspicious religion). The entire Dzong was rebuilt in 1962 by 3rd Druk Gyalpo without nails or written plans. In 2002 a newly built Nreten Chudung Thongdrel was consecrated and added to Tashichhodzong by His Holiness the Je Khenpo. The thongdrel depicting the Buddha Shakyamuni is surrounded by the 16th arhats. The Thongdrel is unveiled to the public annually on the 15th day of the 4th month of the Bhutanese calendar coinciding with the Duechen Ngazom celebration during the Thimphu Festival.

Punakha Dzong

The second most important Dzong in Punakha Dzong. The Dzong is the winter resident of Je Khenpo and one of the largest and most beautiful Dzongs in Bhutan. Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel the founder of the Bhutanese state built the Punakha Dzong and later died in 1651. It was named Pungthang Dechenphodrang Dzong which means the palace of great Bliss. Located on a stretch of land where two rivers, the Phochu and the Mochu converge the Dzong appears as a great anchored ship. The Dzong is important because it was here that Ugyen Wangchuck Bhutan’s first King was crowned in 1907. Punakha was also Bhutan’s first capital and served as a center of Government.

When approaching the Dzong one must cross the Mochu river via a suspension bridge which is to be replaced by a traditional cantilever bridge. The bridge leads to three steep wooden staircases, above which is the immense front door of the Dzong. The staircase was strategically designed in times of war they could be removed, making the Dzong in effect impenetrable.

Paro Dzong

Approached by a gently sloping flagstone road and an attractive wooden cantilever bridge roofed with shingles and abutted by two guard houses, the Dzong is the administrative seat of the district of Paro. It also houses thenstate monastic community of about 200 monks. Paro Dzong also called Paro Rinpong Dzong ( Heap of Jewels) is another popular Dzong in western Bhutan.

The construction began in 1644 on the order of Zhabdrung. Unlike most other, Dzongs Paro Dzong survived a massive earthquake in 1897 and was again damaged by fire in 1906. Paro Dzong is called Rinpung Dzong which means the fortress of the heap of jewels. Administrative offices line the first courtyard of the Dzongs. The entrance is guarded by two traditrional paintings standing on either side of the gate, a mongol holding a tiger on a leash and a man holding a black yak. The five storied utse of the Dzongs is one of the most beautiful with its outstanding woodwork. Its 4th floor has a temple dedicated to the line of Drukpa Kangyupa Lamas a temple of eight kinds of chorten and temple of Taras. A staue of Guru buot by Sherab Wangchuk is located on the 4th floor.

Trongsa Dzong

The historical and most important Dzong is Trongsa dzong. History tells us that the father of the first King first received intimation of the illustrious future of his family in the Trongsa dzong. The Trongsa Dzong dates back to the time of Yongzin Ngagi Wangchuk, a descendant of Ngawang Chogyel and a revered follower of Kuenkhen Pema Karpo. In 1541 he visited the village to meditate a few kilometers above Trongsa dzong. As he was meditating in the village his disciple built many smaller meditation centers near and mondrupley temple, which soon began to resemble a small village. The people of yuelley names this new settlement Trong-Sar (New village). The Dzong was built by Chogyel Minjur Tenpa in 1647 and he was also the first Trongsa Penlop. On the northern side of the Dzong, the Taa Dzong is located built to oversee the ongoing construction of the Dzong. There are four observation centers resembling Tag (Tiger) Seng (Lion) Chung (Garuda) and Druk (Dragon). The Dzong has four doors one facing each direction. The door facing east and west were the most frequently used doors, people traveling from eastern Bhutan has to travel through these doors. The north and south doors lead to secret passages used by those residing in the dzongs.

Wangdiphodrang Dzong

Wangdi Dzong is another popular Dzong in western Bhutan recently distroyed by fire but raised to its former glory. It was built by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel in 1638 on a hill overlooking the confluence of Puna Tsang chhu and dangchu. It was a massive structure with 14 temples that included an assembly hall for the monks.

Daga dzong

Daga dzong also known as ‘Darkar Trashi Yangtse Dzong’ derives its name from jomo Darkala, the guardian deity of that region. Dronyer Druk Namgyel built it in 1648 under the command of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel. It was house of the Daga Penlop, and represented the power house governing the entire southern region of Bhutan. It succeefully defended against several inc=vading forces of southern rebels and invaders from as far as Assam and West Bengal in India. It was damaged by a massive earthquake and was rebuilt in 1897.

Highlights:

Simtokha Dzong

Simtokha Dzong is the oldest dzong in Bhutan built in 1629 by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel.According to legend the Dzong was constructed enclosing a rock where a demons was subdued. Completed in 1931 the Dzong was named Sanga Zabdon Phodrang meaning the ‘Palace of the profound meaning of secret mantras. Today besides the numerous monastetries inside, it houses the school for Buddhist studies.

Highlight: Wall Painting depicting 1000 images of Buddha and twelve sided Utse making it a dodecahedron, one of its kind in Bhutan.

Jakar dzong

Jakar Dzong or ‘Fortress of the White Birds’ derives its name from the account of Lam Ngagi Wangchuk, Zhabdrungs great Grandfather, witnessing an auspicious omen of a white bird landing on the site where he was building a temple. Yab tenpai nima later expanded the temple but it was only in 1646 that a larger Dzong was built by Desi Minjur Tempa where the temple stood.

Highlight: A significantly higher Utse than other Dzongs standing over fifty meter high unusually situated on the outside wall.

The Chu Dzong (Water tower) that has asheltered passage  that leads to a well which served as the access point to water during invasion.

Drugyel Dzong

Drugyel Dzong translates as the ‘Victorious Fortress’ owing to the several victories over marauding Tibetan invaders. One of the four defense fortresses in bhutan, it was built in 1531 by  Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel. Despite being distroyed by a fire in 1951, the massive ruin still retains measure of its former grandeur. It was military startegy masterpience and hasd a single main entry gatewith several false entrances. One can get magnificient view of the Mount Jomolhari from here.

Highlights: Secret Passage that leads to the riverbanks and the ancient water tunnel which is an architectural and engineering feat.

Dobji Dzong

Dobji Dzong is considered to be the first model Dzong in Bhutan and despite its somehwat minitature size, it has all the feature of Dzongs. It was built in 1531 by Lam Ngawang Chogyel, the brother of Lam Drukpa Kuenley aka the devine madman. Much of the Dzongs was damaged by a massive earthquake and only the central tower survived. It was used as a central prison in 1976 but today it houses the monastic body.

Highlights: The massive five storied Utse. Holy Spring near the Dzong, which is frequently visited by tourist and locals year round.

Gasa (Trashi Thongmen) Dzong

It is the second of the four defense fortresses built under the command of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyek. It was built in the 1640s by Desi Tenzin Drukda and functioned as the defense tower in the northern region of Bhutan. Gasa dzong is also known as ‘Trashi Thongmoen Dzong’ a name that derives from its principal protector, a local deity Trashi Thongmein.

Highlight: The remains of the Skeleton of a sheep brought along by Zhabdrung himself and three startegically located watchtowers.

Haa Dumchog Dzong

Haa Dumchog Dzong was initially built in 1895 with labor contribution from the people of Haa under the leadership of first haa Dungpa. It was built as a part of the four defense fortresses, and by another account to supress the serpent deity that troubled the people of that region. Later in 1913, the same year when Dumchog Dzong was razed down by fire, a new Dzong 

Lingzhi Yugyel Dzong

Lingzhi Yugyel Dzong which translates as the fortress of Victory was built in 1668 by Desi Chogyel Minjur Tempa to commerate the victory over a Tibetan invasion. The Dzong stands on a barren hillock located at an altitude of 4150meters above sea level making it one of the highest placed Dzongs in Bhutan. It acted as the first of Defense against invaders from the north and was part of the four defense fortresses built in the era of Zhabdrung.

Mongar Dzong

Mongar Dzong is relatively one of the newer Dzongs in the country. It was built in 1930 during the reign of the second King, Jigme Wangchuk to replace the old Zhongar Dzong, around an old Utse that dates back to an earlier age. It was built following the traditrional architectural pattern. It stands on agentle slope which is in contrast to the startegic location of other Dzong in Bhutan. It can be attributed to the absense of need to defend.

Paro Taa Dzong

Taa Dzong in Paro is built in 1645 as a watch tower by Paro penlop La Ngoenpa Tenzin Drukda together with Desi Minjur Tempa. It was built to protect Paro Rinpung Dzong from the unceasing attacks from Tibet and India. The watch tower was converted to a national Museam in 1967.

Highlight: The circular Dzong has a two and half meter thick wall made up of cresent and circular stones held together by clay. The museam has an exhibit several antiques and relics of Bhutan.

Trashigang Dzong

Trashigang dzong or the ‘Fortredd of the Auspicious Mound’ is one of the most startegically placed Dzongs in Bhutan and is accesible only from the north. It is also referred to as the ‘Sky Dzong’ due to its startegic and high location. Built in 1659 by the third Desi Minjur Tenpa, it acted as a power stronghold of eastern Bhutan. It was later reconstructed by the fourth Desi Tenzin Rabgye in the 1680s.

Highlight: Sacred Statue of Thangthong Gyelpo sculted by himself. Religious treasures discovered by pema Lingpa in Lhodra Karchu in Tibet.

Who was Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel?

The arrival of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel in Bhutan in 1616 was a historical and political milestone which laid the foundation for a unified Bhutan. He was the first person who introduce Dzong system in Bhutan and built almost all Dzongs of Bhutan. The Zhabdrung enjoyed a high religious stature and was revered by the people. However it was his military tact that helped him increase his influence and gain political dominance. He was able to bring the feudal lords under his rule making Bhutans entry into an era of peace and prosperity. Zhabdrung is also attributed for the creation of a unique cultural indentity of Bhutan. Another significant contribution was the introduction of the dual system of governancewhich is followed even to this day. He was so influential and important for Bhutans sovereignty that his death in 1651 was concealed for several years under the pretext of a retreat.

The Dzong built by Zhabdrung left a legacy of architectural perfection that would eventually become the benchmark for future Dzongs. Dzongs in Bhutan played an important role in solidifying his dominance.

Significance of Dzongs and Fortresses in Bhutan

Dzongs or fortresses, spread across Bhutan, are architectural masterpiece built on strategic locations.