Preserving the Dzong Architecture

Written by Fatima Siraj  •  Region  •  May 2013 PDF Print E-mail

Bhutan’s magnificent and historical dzongs are increasingly eroding and are prey to natural disasters or fires, prompting an urgent need for introduction of preservation measures.

Characterized by high, slanting walls, gorgeous flared roofs, imposing entry doors made of wood and iron and the use of red and golden hues, dzong architecture is a distinctive feature of Bhutanese culture. Located on picturesque mountain tops, dzongs can be seen in major districts all over the country, often resembling ancient fortresses. With massive walls that encircle a vast compound consisting of temples, courtyards, administrative offices and monks’ accommodation, they truly are a magnificent sight. Their significance, however, does not only lie in their architectural splendor.

Along with their religious significance, some dzongs have often been the sites for historical and cultural events and have served as safe houses for storing national treasures, books, weapons and written historical records. They are also historically significant for originally serving as protective fortresses used for defense purposes. Traditionally, dzongs housed the governors who ruled each region, hence becoming centers of ruling power and in times of famine, were used to distribute grains and food to people. Nowadays, they serve as the religious, military, administrative and social centers of each district and are often used as the site for annual religious festivals. The rooms inside them are equally divided between the religious and administrative wings.

The biggest and arguably the most magnificent dzong in Bhutan is the Trongsa Dzong, located high above the raging Mangde Chhu River. With the Black Mountains providing the perfect backdrop for its scenic setting, it has been described as “the most spectacularly sited dzong in Bhutan with a sheer drop to the south that often disappears into clouds and mist.” Strategically built in the Trongsa District, the central district of the country, this dzong is an important building in terms of serving as an administrative headquarters. It consists of as many as twenty-five temples and a state of the art museum located within its watchtower. Apart from serving as a major monastery, (it houses upto 200 monks) and an administrative centre, as is typical of most dzongs in the country. Trongsa Dzong also has a printing house where printing of religious texts is done by traditional woodblock printing.

Another noteworthy dzong in Bhutan is the Rinpung Dzong. Consisting of a total of fourteen shrines and temples, it holds great religious significance. A seven-story watchtower built on the hill right above the Rinpung Dzong is the home for the National Museum of Bhutan that was inaugurated in 1968. Today the National Museum has in its possession over 3000 works of Bhutanese art, reflecting more than 1500 years of Bhutan’s cultural heritage. The Rinpung Dzong is also significant in that it is the venue for a great annual festival held over a span of five days in the second month of the traditional Bhutanese Lunar Calendar (usually in March or April). Processions depicting holy images, traditional mask dances portraying religious stories and the breathtaking display of a great, sacred banner in the early morning hours, are all features that mark this glorious event.

Aside from the aforementioned dzongs, Bhutan is home to many similar architectural marvels. One such marvel is the Punakha Dzong built at the confluence of the Mo Chuu and Po Chuu rivers and is often considered one of the most beautiful dzongs in the country. Commonly known as “the palace of great happiness or bliss,” it is also the site of famous events such as the coronation of the first king of Bhutan in 1907 and the wedding ceremony of the King of Bhutan and his fiance in 2011.

While the rivers add a natural embellishment to the location of the dzong, they also bring with them the threat of glacial flooding. In the past, such flooding has caused extensive damage to the Punakha Dzong and fires and earthquakes have further intensified the problem. The government of Bhutan joined hands with the government of India in an attempt to restore the dzong to its past glory. They successfully managed to do so by employing a refurbishing technique called the ‘zorig chosum.’ This ancient tradition involved a combination of several skills including masonry, metalwork, woodcarving and painting. It now stands fully restored with notable paintings and statues adorning it. A memorial has also been erected outside the dzong, as a mark of respect for the twenty-five people who lost their lives inside its walls in the 1994 floods.

In 2012, a similar tragedy befell another one of Bhutan’s remarkable dzongs -- the Wangdue Dzong. However, the damage in this case was not caused by floods but by a fire that burned the entire structure down to ashes. Even though no lives were lost, it was a great loss to the nation in terms of cultural heritage. “It was one of the most magnificent sites of Bhutan - that dzong,” said Dasho Karma. “For me it was always an uplifting experience to come to view it. It was always a great esthetic experience to sit quietly at the point where you could see that dzong.”

With its backbone structure built into the ridge some 1500 meters above sea level, the Wangdue Dzong provided a great military advantage as it was inaccessible on three sides. The only way to access it was by a narrow front way path. The same inaccessibility that was intended to ward off enemy advances served as a hindrance for fire fighters. The destruction of the Wangdue Dzong alerted the Bhutanese government and brought to attention the ever present threat of losing centuries-old dzongs to calamities and natural disasters. The home minister announced that the fire would cause Bhutan to shift its policy to protect its dzongs. These policies were said to include alternative building materials to timber, ensuring safe and high quality electrification, installing adequate fire extinguishing equipment and multiple exits to ensure no lives were lost. 

Fatima Siraj is currently pursuing a BBA degree at the Institute of Business Administration. She frequently writes on marketing and social issues.

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