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Architecture and power

The importance of the dzongs goes beyond their military purpose or their crucial role in creating a unique Bhutanese identity; the dzongs also reflect the religious and political power of the old theocracy. In the form of a building the Shabdrung erected a clearly visible sign of the secular victory of the Drukpa theocracy. Bhutan's fortress-monasteries became the constructed symbol of the dual system of government (chösi nyiden*), combining religious and secular power, with the most important positions in both areas filled by clerics.


All dzongs are divided into an ecclesiastic and a state wing. The monks of the state religion live in one part of the complex where they practice their religion in temples and prayer halls. This is the centre of the country's spiritual culture, which is still shaped by Buddhism.



The temples are situated either around the central tower or the inner courtyard, which is called the dochen. The name comes from the big stones with which the yard is cobbled. Around the inner courtyard, there are multistoreyed buildings with verandas, which contain temples, halls of prayer, but also the monks' living quarters and kitchens. Once a year the courtyards of the religious part of the dzong turn into the social and religious centre of every province; this happens on the days when, during the tsechu festivals, the monks perform those religious dances which go back to Guru Rinpoche.



The other part of the building, which, on grounds of its architecture cannot be distinguished from the religious one, hosts the secular administration of Bhutan. This part is ruled over, with immense authority, by the penlop. It is from here that, soon after the Shabdrung's death, the unity of the young state was to be endangered.

These courtyards are also surrounded by multistoreyed buildings. The facades at ground level often consist of arcades with wooden columns topped off by plant or cloud capitals. The upper storeys are surrounded by verandas with wooden carving, or the facades are structured by windows. The offices of the secular administration, tax authorities and jurisdiction can be found here.

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The dzongs are also the seats of the jurisdiction.
Photo by Robert Dompnier

The fortress situated the furthest in the east of Bhutan, the Tashigang Dzong, was only built after the Shabdrung's death, but for that, according to his requirements of construction and architecture. Minjur Tenpa had it erected in 1659, after East Bhutan had finally fallen into the Drukpa's hands. The name »Tashigang Dzong« means »Fortress of the Mountain that Promises Happiness«.
Photo by Guy van Strydonck

The Tongsa Dzong encloses 23 temples. They are all dedicated to specific deities, statues of which can be found in altars with ornate carvings.
Photo by Robert Dompnier

Once a year the lay population of the areas surrounding the dzong visits the inner courtyards of the fortresses to attend the monks' dances.
Photo by Jon Warren

Officials in the inner courtyard of the Wangdipodrang Dzong use their lunch break for conversations on the verandas of the courtyard.
Photo by Christian Schicklgruber