The Exhibition in Leiden | The fortresses - monks and rulers

The fortresses - monks and rulers

The mighty fortress monasteries, the country's political and religious centres, form the focus of the room, most of which is taken up by a scale model of the Tongsa dzong.

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The landscape is frequently dominated by the »dzong«, the fortresses which are so typical for Bhutan. The fortress reflects the religious and political power of the old theocratic reign. It remains a symbol of national strength and unity today. Mostly built on mountain spurs, the dzongs overlook and strategically command the entire valley. One part of the complex serves as a monastery for the monks of the Drukpa Kagyupa state religion and prayer-halls are consecrated to different deities. The other part of the fortress accommodates the administration of the district. In the old times it also contained the storage rooms for the tributes of the people. The dzong was where the political, religious and artistic life of the country concentrated. Today, all the dzongs still function as the regional centre of administration and leading monastery of the valley. Architecture is a reflection of the universe. The detached central tower of the dzong represents the global mountain Meru, where the gods reside with their indestructible creative power. As the axis of the cosmos the tower links the three levels of heaven, earth and underworld. To this day the architecture of the dzong shapes the appearance of all sacred and secular buildings in Bhutan. Dzong architecture attained its imposing proportions during the 17th century. The Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyel, the unifer of Bhutan, had a dzong built in most of the valleys.
The Tongsa dzong represented here is the largest and most impressive of all the fortresses. Situated in the heart of the country, it commands the strategic position on the main roads linking west to east, and north to south. In the past, the roads passed through the dzong itself. No one could cross the valley without the knowledge of its ruler. The first construction of the dzong dates back to the great-grandfather of the Shabdrung in the 16th century. The dzong was enlarged to a considerable extent in the 17th century by the Shabdrung himself, and further additions were made in the following centuries. Before the establishment of the monarchy, the ruler of Tongsa was one of the most powerful men of the country. The Tongsa dzong is the ancestral seat of the hereditary kings of Bhutan. It is now customary for the crown prince to assume the title of Tongsa Penlop (Governor of Tongsa). The Tongsa dzong consists of many courts, laid out on different levels of the mountain spur. Within the massive and unscalable wall, the regional administration occupies one of the courtyards, separated by a gate from the monastery that has several halls for worship and prayers. Sacred buildings are crowned with golden pinnacles representing the Banner of Victory. About 350 monks and novices now live in the monastery. Daily activities and seasonal festivals continue to this day.