Bhutan’s Dzongs’ are pre-17th century Buddhist fortresses located at key defense points, such as along Tibet or Chinese mountain passes. Thirteen forts were built without architectural plans under the spiritual dreams of holy lamas’. Today these structures remain an odd mix of religion and government. Prayer, peace, and tranquility are steps away from offices of the nation.
The fortresses all have similar architectural components: Steep white masonry walls with few (slotted) lower windows, an ochre band indicating this is a holy place, elaborately carved and painted wood details, roofs of bamboo and hardwood without the use of nails. There’s a complex of courtyards, monks accommodations, and temples. The stairs are all very steep (easier to push a foe down?) with thresholds at the top to keep evil spirits out.
Punakha Dzong (Palace of Great Happiness)
Built in 1637 at the confluence of the Phochu (father) and Mochu (mother) Rivers. This large building has three courtyards and a six-story tower. This is the second oldest and largest Dzong in Bhutan. There are sacred relics here from the ancient battle with Tibet and the resulting unified Bhutan as well as holy mummified remains. The greatest dangers are due to location– flash floods or ice racing down from high glacial lakes, earthquakes, and fires. This dzong is where the Wangchuck King’s of Bhutan are crowned and married.
Miraculously, a platinum statue of the Rimpoche inside the temple didn’t melt during the last fire in 1986. This is a glorious dzong, rebuilt after the disaster in the older style.
Chhimi Lhakhang Monastery
Built by the Divine Madman in 1499 after he trapped a demoness under the rock chorten near the entry. This wild lama, Drukpa Kunley, loved the phallus symbol which was probably used from an earlier religion since it signifys abundance and prosperity. Evidently, if you paint a penis on your house it will dispel the evil eye and stop gossip. In my town, this would act the other way around.
I was fortunate to witness the fertility ceremony where the almost four-foot tall phallic relic was carried by a young woman three times around the monastery. There’s a book of success stories inside the temple, if you remain a doubting Thomas.
I received the ancient bow blessing, but I’m not sure what’s supposed to happen. Maybe I should have asked first?
Paro Ringpung Dzong
A beautiful structure built high on a bluff in 1644, this dzong houses 14 shrines and temples. It is the center for the district monastic body as well as the government of the Paro District. On an even higher hill behind the dzong, is a seven-story watch tower that is now the National Museum. Some scenes in the movie “The Little Buddha” were filmed here.
Tiger’s Nest (Taktsang) Monastery
Located six miles outside of Paro, this spectacular monastery balances on a 3,281 foot cliff. It’s believed that Guru Rinpoche, the father of Buddhism in Bhutan flew on the back of a tiger from Tibet and landed here around the year 800. He lived in the eight cave complex with the first of many temples built in the fourteenth century. I saw one cave where women weren’t allowed. (Bummer) There are several nearby structures where various teachers live(d) and taught. Today, only three monks live here as caretakers. Getting supplies up would be a daunting task for a religous community.
There have been several devastating fires, the most recent from either a butter lamp or electrical malfunction in 1998.The King paid over 135 million to have the entire structure rebuilt in the old style.
All of these historic places are treasures. The art is magnificent–from statues to paintings, metal work and wood carvings. Take time to enjoy a Buddhist ceremony, complex yet so simple in theology. Cleanse your thoughts in incense. Listen to drums and chants, or bells ringing on the prayer wheels. Reflect on time past, present, and future, united in this single second.