Our cultural tour of Bhutan began the day after we completed our 5-day trek from Paro to Thimphu (as described in an earlier post). Having hiked that first 35 miles, the remaining part of our tour of Bhutan would be by van, bouncing along the only roadway from the capital city of Thimphu to Wangdue. This two-lane, sometimes narrow and often unpaved road meanders through valleys and across high mountain passes, giving us a glimpse of central Bhutan’s remote rural landscape.
DZONGS AND CHORTENS OF BHUTAN
Architectural and engineered masterpieces, Bhutan’s Dzongs date back to the 16th Century, when they served as fortresses that were part of a defense network to protect the Kingdom against frequent invasions by Tibetans. Today, they represent the most distinctive and important structure in Bhutan, serving as religious, military, administrative, cultural and social centers of their District, and housing for the monks; and, they are often the site of an annual “tsechu” (religious festival). There are twenty Districts in the Kingdom, each with its own Dzong, built on a site chosen for religious significance, based on omens and visions. They were also well sited with regard to their function as defensive fortresses, usually located on hilltops or mountain spurs. Watchtowers were typically built above the main Dzong in order to keep the slopes above the Dzong cleared of enemy forces who might attack the exposed courtyard of the main dzong below.
Built by hand, without the guide of architectural plans or blueprints, Dzongs have stone foundations and walls of sand and clay bricks, and wooden beams, skillfully joined together without the use of nails or iron bars. The architecture is massive in style, with towering exterior walls surrounding a complex of courtyards, temples, administrative offices, and monks’ accommodation. Dzongs comprise heavy masonry curtain walls surrounding one or more courtyards. The main functional spaces are usually arranged in two separate areas: the administrative offices and the religious functions. The larger spaces such as the temple have massive internal timber columns and beams to create galleries around an open central full height area. Smaller structures are of elaborately carved and painted timber construction. The roofs are massively constructed in hardwood and bamboo, highly decorated at the eaves. They are open at the eaves to provide a ventilated storage area. The courtyards, usually stone-flagged, are generally at a higher level than the outside and approached by massive staircases and narrow defensible entrances with large wooden doors. All doors have thresholds to discourage the entrance of spirits. Temples are usually set at a level above the courtyard with further staircases up to them.