Dzong architecture

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Tashichho Dzong in Thimphu. Tashichho Dzong, Bhutan 02.jpg
Tashichho Dzong in Thimphu.

Dzong architecture is used for dzongs, a distinctive type of fortified monastery (Dzongkha : རྫོང, Wylie : rdzong, IPA:  [tzʱoŋ˩˨] ) architecture found mainly in Bhutan and Tibet. The architecture is massive in style with towering exterior walls surrounding a complex of courtyards, temples, administrative offices, and monks' accommodation.



Distinctive features include:

Regional differences


Dzongs serve as the religious, military, administrative, and social centers of their district. They are often the site of an annual tsechu or religious festival.

The rooms inside the dzong are typically allocated half to administrative function (such as the office of the penlop or governor), and half to religious function, primarily the temple and housing for monks. This division between administrative and religious functions reflects the idealized duality of power between the religious and administrative branches of government.


Gyantse Dzong Tibet Gyantse.jpg
Gyantse Dzong

Tibet used to be divided into 53 prefecture districts also called dzongs. [1] There were two dzongpöns for each dzong, a lama and a layman. They were entrusted with both civil and military powers and are equal in all respects, though subordinate to the generals and the Chinese amban in military matters, [2] until the expulsion of the ambans following the Xinhai Revolution in 1912. [1] Today, 71 counties in the Tibet Autonomous Region are called dzongs in the Tibetic languages.

Siting of dzongs

Trongsa Dzong, the largest dzong fortress in Bhutan. TrongsaDzong.jpg
Trongsa Dzong, the largest dzong fortress in Bhutan.

Bhutanese dzong architecture reached its zenith in the 17th century under the leadership of Ngawang Namgyal, the 1st Zhabdrung Rinpoche. The Zhabdrung relied on visions and omens to site each of the dzongs. Modern military strategists would observe that the dzongs are well-sited with regard to their function as defensive fortresses. Wangdue Phodrang dzong, for instance, is set upon a spur overlooking the confluence of the Sankosh (Puna Tsang) and Tang Rivers, thus blocking any attacks by southern invaders who attempted to use a river route to bypass the trackless slopes of the middle Himalayas in attacking central Bhutan. Drukgyel Dzong at the head of the Paro valley guards the traditional Tibetan invasion path over the passes of the high Himalayas.

Dzong at Wangdue Phodrang, Bhutan. Wangdue Phodrang Dzong.jpg
Dzong at Wangdue Phodrang, Bhutan.

Dzongs were frequently built on a hilltop or mountain spur. If the dzong is built on the side of a valley wall, a smaller dzong or watchtower is typically built directly uphill from the main dzong with the purpose of keeping the slope clear of attackers who might otherwise shoot downward into the courtyard of the main dzong below (see image at head of article).

Punakha Dzong is distinctive in that it is sited on a relatively flat spit of land at the confluence of the Mo and Pho Rivers. The rivers surround the dzong on three sides, providing protection from attack. This siting proved inauspicious, however, when in 1994 a glacial lake 90 kilometers upstream burst through its ice dam to cause a massive flood on the Pho Chhu, damaging the dzong and taking 23 lives.


Roof construction at Tongsa dzong. Bhutan architecture dzong roof.jpg
Roof construction at Tongsa dzong.

By tradition, dzongs are constructed without the use of architectural plans. Instead construction proceeds under the direction of a high lama who establishes each dimension by means of spiritual inspiration.

In previous times the dzongs were built using corvée labor which was applied as a tax against each household in the district. Under this obligation each family was to provide or hire a decreed number of workers to work for several months at a time (during quiet periods in the agricultural year) in the construction of the dzong.

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 - including temples and monks' accommodation. This accommodation is arranged along the inside of the outer walls and often as a separate stone tower located centrally within the courtyard, housing the main temple, that can be used as an inner defensible citadel. The main internal structures are again built with stone (or as in domestic architecture by rammed clay blocks), and whitewashed inside and out, with a broad red ochre band at the top on the outside. 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, and are constructed traditionally without the use of nails. They are open at the eaves to provide a ventilated storage area. They were traditionally finished with timber shingles weighted down with stones; but in almost all cases this has now been replaced with corrugated galvanised iron roofing. The roof of Tongsa Dzong, illustrated, is one of the few shingle roofs to survive and was being restored in 2006/7.

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.

Modern architecture in the dzong style

Larger modern buildings in Bhutan often use the form and many of the external characteristics of dzong architecture in their construction, although incorporating modern techniques such as a concrete frame.

University of Texas at El Paso

The campus architecture of the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) is a rare example of dzong style seen outside the Himalayas. Initial phases were designed by El Paso architect Henry Trost, and later phases have continued in the same style. [3]

UNESCO tentative listing

In 2012, the Bhutanese government listed five dzongs to its tentative list for UNESCO World Heritage Site inscription in the future. The five dzongs are Punakha Dzong, Wangdue Phodrang Dzong, Paro Dzong, Trongsa Dzong and Dagana Dzong. [4]

See also

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Wangdue Phodrang District is a dzongkhag (district) of central Bhutan. This is also the name of the dzong which dominates the district, and the name of the small market town outside the gates of the dzong—it is the capital of Wangdue Phodrang District). The name is said to have been given by the Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal who was searching for the best location for a dzong to prevent incursions from the south. The word "wangdue" means unification of Country, and "Phodrang" means Palace in Dzongkha.

Gasa District District of Bhutan

Gasa District or Gasa Dzongkhag is one of the 20 dzongkhags (districts) comprising Bhutan. The capital of Gasa District is Gasa Dzong near Gasa. It is located in the far north of the county and spans the Middle and High regions of the Tibetan Himalayas. The dominant language of the district is Dzongkha, which is the national language. Related languages, Layakha and Lunanakha, are spoken by semi-nomadic communities in the north of the district. The People's Republic of China claims the northern part of Gasa District.

Punakha District District of Bhutan

Punakha District is one of the 20 dzongkhags (districts) comprising Bhutan. It is bordered by Thimphu, Gasa, and Wangdue Phodrang Districts. The dominant language in the district is Dzongkha, the national language.

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Sankosh River

Sankosh is a river that rises in northern Bhutan and empties into the Brahmaputra in the state of Assam in India. In Bhutan, it is known as the Puna Tsang Chu below the confluences of several tributaries near the town of Wangdue Phodrang. The two largest tributaries are the Mo Chhu and Pho Chhu, which flow together at Punakha. The Punakha dzong, which is situated immediately above the confluence of the two rivers, is one of the most beautiful dzongs in Bhutan and the winter residence of the Dratshang Lhentshog. The upper reaches of the Pho Chhu are susceptible to ice blockages, and the dzong has been damaged on several occasions by glacial lake outburst floods. After it enters in India, it flows on the border of Assam and West Bengal. At Wangdue Phodrang, elevation 1,364 metres (4,475 ft), the river is joined by the west flowing Tang Chuu and it enters a precipitous gorge. The highway running south from Wangdue Phodrang to Dagana follows the river for much of its course. Near the town of Takshay is the confluence with the west flowing Hara Chhu. The last major Bhutanese tributary is the Daga Chhu.

Punakha Administrative centre in Punakha dzongkhag, Bhutan

Punakha is the administrative centre of Punakha dzongkhag, one of the 20 districts of Bhutan. Punakha was the capital of Bhutan and the seat of government until 1955, when the capital was moved to Thimphu. It is about 72 km away from Thimphu, and it takes about 3 hours by car from the capital, Thimphu. Unlike Thimphu, it is quite warm in winter and hot in summer. It is located at an elevation of 1,200 metres above sea level, and rice is grown as the main crop along the river valleys of two main rivers of Bhutan, the Pho Chu and Mo Chu. Dzongkha is widely spoken in this district.

Wangdue Phodrang Place in Wangdue Phodrang District, Bhutan

Wangdue Phodrang is a town and capital of Wangdue Phodrang District in central Bhutan. It is located in Thedtsho Gewog.

Architecture of Bhutan

Bhutanese architecture consists of Dzong and everyday varieties. Dzongs in Bhutan were built as fortresses and have served as religious and administrative centers since the 17th century. Secular lordly houses emerged as a distinct style in the late 19th century, during a period of relative peace in Bhutan. Throughout its history, Bhutan has mainly followed the Tibetan tradition of Buddhist architecture.

Penlop of Trongsa

Penlop of Trongsa, also called Chhoetse Penlop, is a Dzongkha title meaning "Governor of the Province of Trongsa (Chhoetse)". It is generally given to the heir apparent of the Kingdom of Bhutan. The most recent holder of the title was King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, who was then a prince. The current heir apparent is Prince Jigme Namgyel Wangchuck, because the title is reserved for the officially designated heir apparent, and is subject to change by the reigning king. Also, the reigning Druk Gyalpo may retain the office or award it to another person after coronation. The proper reference style is His Royal Highness Trongsa (Chhoetse) Penlop.

Punakha Dzong Administrative centre in Punakha, Bhutan

The Punakha Dzong, also known as Pungthang Dewa chhenbi Phodrang, is the administrative centre of Punakha District in Punakha, Bhutan. Constructed by Ngawang Namgyal, 1st Zhabdrung Rinpoche, in 1637–38, it is the second oldest and second-largest dzong in Bhutan and one of its most majestic structures. The dzong houses the sacred relics of the southern Drukpa Lineage of the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism, including the Rangjung Kharsapani and the sacred remains of Ngawang Namgyal and the tertön Pema Lingpa.


Dzongpen is a Dzongkha term roughly translated as governor or dzong lord. Bhutanese dzongpens, prior to unification, controlled certain areas of the country, but now hold no administrative office. Rather, dzongpens are now entirely subservient to the House of Wangchuck.

Trongsa Province Historical Province of Bhutan

Trongsa Province was one of the nine historical Provinces of Bhutan.

Paro Province

Paro Province was one of the nine historical Provinces of Bhutan.

Punakha Province

Punakha Province was one of the nine historical Provinces of Bhutan.

Wangdue Phodrang Province

Wangdue Phodrang Province was one of the nine historical Provinces of Bhutan.

Bumthang Province

Bumthang Province was one of the nine historical Provinces of Bhutan.

Thimphu Province

Thimphu Province was one of the nine historical Provinces of Bhutan.

Kurtoed Province

Kurtoed Province was one of the nine historical Provinces of Bhutan.

Kurmaed Province

Kurmaed Province was one of the nine historical Provinces of Bhutan.

Provinces of Bhutan

The Provinces of Bhutan were historical regions of Bhutan headed by penlops and dzongpens. Provincial lords gained power as the increasingly dysfunctional dual system of government eventually collapsed amid civil war. The victorious Penlop of Trongsa Ugyen Wangchuck gained de jure sovereignty over the entire realm in 1907, marking the establishment of the modern Kingdom of Bhutan and the ascendancy of the House of Wangchuck. Since this time, the provinces of Bhutan have been reorganized several times into what are now the twenty Districts of Bhutan (Dzongkhag). Provincial titles such as Penlop of Trongsa and Penlop of Paro carry on, however, wholly subordinate to the Royal House.


  1. 1 2 Le Tibet, Marc Moniez, Christian Deweirdt, Monique Masse, Éditions de l'Adret, Paris, 1999, ISBN   2-907629-46-8
  2. Das, Sarat Chandra. (1902). Lhasa and Central Tibet. Reprint (1988): Mehra Offset Press, Delhi, p. 176.
  3. For more details see the UTEP Handbook of Operations Archived 2012-02-10 at the Wayback Machine .

Further reading