The history of Bhutan | Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyel | The cultural heritage | Inheritance in stone

Inheritance in stone: the dzongs

The countryside is dominated by powerful fortified constructions against enemies from inside and outside the country. Every valley is marked by such a monastery fortress, a dzong.


These monastery fortresses can be compared with the European fortress-castles of the Middle Ages: strongholds of political and religious power. Contrary to Europe, though, this great architecture forms a living part of Bhutan's culture. Besides being carriers of Bhutanese identity, they also represent the cohesion of religious and secular power.

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The origin of the concept of using a dzong as military fortress predates the period of the Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyel. Centuries before him, the powerful Lhapa school had already built various such buildings, following Tibetan models, in western Bhutan. Soon these fortresses developed to the seats of the rulers of the small kingdoms before the foundation of the state. While unifying the nation, the Shabdrung saw in the fortresses the ideal solution to the problem of continuous attacks from both inside and outside the country. In case of an attack, all the inhabitants of a valley found refuge in the dzong.

But, at the same time, he made these buildings much more relevant than they would have been for military use only.

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In 1637 the Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyel built the Punakha Dzong at the confluence of two rivers. Until recently the dzong used to be the capital in the winter months, but today it is the winter residence of the Head Abbott and his staff. In summer the monks move to the capital, Thimphu, which is also the permanent seat of government.
Photo by J.C. White, 1906

At the side wall of the Paro Dzong there is a little house, a so-called lu khang. It is the home of the snake-like beings (lu*) from pre-Buddhist times. Despite having been defeated, feelings of respect did not allow them to be expelled from their hereditary places.
Photo by Christian Schicklgruber