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Unpacking Bhutan's Dzongs: The Fortresses of Spirituality and Politics

Bhutan is rich with unique cultural heritage, and one of the most recognizable symbols of this heritage is the dzong, a large fortified edifice that serves as a center of religious and political life. These structures can be found throughout the country and are still used as the headquarters of national and district administration, as well as the main base of state-affiliated monastic communities. The term "dzong" originally referred to a site that was difficult to access, but today it mainly refers to large built structures that can be roughly divided into three types corresponding to three political phases of national history.

Lingzhi Yügyal Dzong, Bhutan Photo by: Chris Fynn Saidpiece
Lingzhi Yugyal Dzong, Bhutan Photo by: Chris Fynn

The earliest types of dzongs were large structures built by lamas before Bhutan was unified by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel (1594-1651) in the 12th century. These dzongs, such as Jathel Dzong, Do-ngon Dzong (Blue-stone), Sumthrang Samdrup Chodzong, Lingshi Yugyel dzong, Tango Choying dzong, Dobji Dzong, and Lhadzong Tashigang, were mostly built on sites considered to have spiritual significance and were generally temple-like structures without architectural features that distinguished them from other religious structures. While some became homes for hereditary lamas, others were run by successive abbots and incarnations.

Paro Dzong saidpiece
Paro Dzong

The second type of dzongs were built by Zhabdrung and his followers or those who followed that architectural style. They were mainly fortified political centers that housed public administration and were heavily fortified due to being built in times of war. These dzongs often contained large storage spaces to hold the grains, dairy products, and animal products that were collected as tax, and had a central tower, large courtyard, and surrounding monastic residences and offices.

Yungdrung Choling palace  saidpiece
Yungdrung Choling palace

The third and last category of dzongs in Bhutan were built in the 19th and 20th century, mostly as royal residences. They drew on local domestic architectural traditions and relied heavily on the use of timber. Unlike previous generations, they were not heavily fortified and had more straight walls and use of wood for windows and cornices. They included provisions for courtiers, playgrounds, and horse stables, and were not portrayed as religious centers, though religious space was integrated within them. The third generation dzongs are mostly located in Bumthang and Trongsa, where the first two Kings ruled the country. These dzongs include Wangdicholing palace, Lamai Gonpa (Monastery), and Yungdrung Choling palace built under the first monarch, Tashi Choling, Kuenga Rabten, and Samdrup Choling by the second, Haa Wangchuck Lo Dzong and Tashi Choe Dzong by the third King

Dzongs are an important part of Bhutan's cultural heritage and serve as reminders of the country's history and traditions. Visitors to Bhutan should make a point to visit at least a few of these impressive structures, which are not only visually stunning but also provide insight into the country's past and present.

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