What are dzongs in Bhutan?

Dzongs are omnipresent in Bhutan. But what are they exactly? A dzong is a complex fortified building used as a centre for the district monastic body and also government administrative office. The very first fortress, Simtokha Dzong was built in 1629.

The historical importance of dzongs

Dzongs are an integral part of Bhutanese life. These large fortresses were built across different eras, but most of the dzongs found in Bhutan today are built in the 17th century under the leadership of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel.

Prior to the 17th century, Bhutan was a divisive land with many local kings and chieftains. Hence, the fortresses are used to store grains in case of emergencies and are often strategically located as they served as defence fortresses in the past; to guard against Tibetan attacks from the north and British-Indian attacks from the south. Thus you’ll observe that many of the dzongs in Bhutan are built on top of a hill or mountain spur.

The administrative and religious significance of dzongs

Today, most of the dzongs serve as integrated centres for both the monastic body and government administration. Many of the dzongs house precious religious and historical artefacts. The majestic complexes are also venues to celebrate Bhutanese festivals such as tshechus. Locals would flock to the open courtyard of dzongs to congregate, socialise and attend festivals.

Each of the twenty districts in Bhutan will have at least one dzong.

The role of dzongs in Bhutan tourism

Dzongs are now an essential part of promoting the cultural development of Bhutan. Due to its rich heritage and distinctive characteristics, visitors are often in awe of its majestic structures. Tashichho Dzong located in the capital city, Thimphu and Punakha Dzong are the two most visited dzongs in the country for tourists. If you are a photography enthusiast, you will definitely want to check out Tashichho Dzong, Punakha Dzong and Paro Dzong.

How many dzongs are there in Bhutan?

There are currently 25 dzongs in Bhutan.


Dzong architecture in Bhutan

The dzong architecture in Bhutan is highly unique and intriguing. Traditionally, all the dzongs are constructed without any architectural plans. The construction of the dzongs is done under the guidance of a revered lama who established the dimension through spiritual inspiration.

The dzongs usually comprise enclosed courtyards with a separate area for the monastic body and civil administration. Some of its most distinctive features are the high inward sloping walls of brick and stone painted white. There are few or no windows in the lower sections of the wall. The colours of red and gold are prominently featured in the exterior decor. It has a unique style of overhanging roofs and massive entrances made of wood and iron. The interior of the courtyards and temples are brightly coloured in Buddhist-themed art motifs.

The most astounding fact about the architectural feat is that not a single piece of nail is used to build these majestic structures.

Dzongs across the country vary in size, although their basic structures are similar.

There will be a tower-like structure known as utse or central tower is located at the center of the courtyard, housing the main temples. It's the most important space within the dzong and is usually surrounded by a row of prayer wheels. If you’d like to circumambulate the utse clock-wise and turn the prayer wheels, remember to do it clockwise. The most sacred space within the central tower is the lhakhang, which means 'house of gods' or 'temple'. You can find statues of Buddha, Guru Rinpoche, bodhisattvas and other deities inside the lhakhang.

Evolution of Bhutanese dzong architecture

Some newer dzongs in Bhutan like Samdrup Jongkhar Dzong adopt a more modern architecture. For instance, the dzong was built on a flat and wide-open area and constructed using cement, a stark contrast to the older dzongs that were built using mud and clay bricks.

Preservation of traditional Bhutanese architecture

The government of Bhutan has taken careful measures to preserve the traditional Bhutanese architecture. The specifications and rules for building dzongs are codified in Driglam Namzha - Bhutan's Code of Etiquette. Driglam Namzha sets the rules for the construction of the dzongs as well as other traditional buildings in Bhutan and its roots can be traced back directly to the 17th century lama, Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, the unifier of Bhutan. The guidelines were intentionally codified to encourage the establishment of a distinctive Bhutanese identity.

Bhutanese-architecture inspired buildings around the world

Bhutanese dzongs architecture is world-class and awe-inspiring. Numerous countries around the world even have replicas of the traditional Bhutanese architecture. The entire university campus of University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) built its entire architecture based on the traditional Bhutanese design elements. There is Bhutanese influence in every nook and cranny of the campus.

Aside from Texas, there is a replica of the original Tashichho Dzong in Kagawa, Shikoku, Japan. The replica is in Maragume, surrounded by the Ayauta Forest, at the edge of the New Reoma World complex. Inside, you can find Bhutanese artefacts and information about Bhutan.

Check out the replica of Tashichho Dzong in Japan.