The Majestic Winter Capital of Bhutan – Punakha Dzong

posted in: Asia, Bhutan, Heritage | 58

If the Tiger’s Nest Monastery in Paro is the landmark of Bhutan, the other place that you will on all memorabilia would be the Punakha Dzong. With its picturesque location of the Himalayas in the background and the two rivers converging around it, this Dzong is considered to be the prettiest among all in Bhutan. And it is not just the beauty of the place but its history and significance that makes it one of the most important places to visit in Bhutan.

Punakha Dzong in Bhutan
Punakha Dzong in Bhutan

Dzong in Bhutanese refers to a fortress. Every district in Bhutan has a Dzong but the two most important ones are the Thimphu Dzong and the Punakha Dzong. The first one is the summer capital of Bhutan while the picturesque Punakha Dzong serves as the winter capital. A heritage monument, this is the un-missable attraction of Punakha. And go you must – for there are plenty of secrets that you will find within.

History of Punakha Dzong

The Buddhist Guru Padmasambhava in the 8th century had predicted that a person by the name of Namgyal will come from Tibet and build a fortress where two rivers meet. In the 1630s, a Buddhist Lama – Ngawang Namgyal did come to Punakha post his visions and constructed this mighty fortress at the confluence of Pho Chhu River (Father River) and Mo Chhu River (Mother River).  He went on to become the Zhabdrung – the head lama of Bhutan and the first spiritual head of unified Bhutan. It remains his residence, for his mortal remains are still housed in this Dzong.

Monks walking down Punakha Dzong
Monks walking down Punakha Dzong

Originally called Pungtang Dewa Chhenbi Phodrang (Palace of Great Happiness), the Punakha Dzong was the capital of the country. This was the case till 1955, after which the official capital shifted to Thimphu. However, this Dzong continues to be the winter capital of the country for not just the administrative heads but also, the religious heads reside here to escape the chilling climate of Thimphu. It also continues to be the venue for all important royal events like the coronation of the King & his royal wedding. For me, as Indiana Jones, it became a site to discover new secrets.

The architecture of Punakha Dzong

If you liked the Thimphu Dzong, you will love the Punakha Dzong“. The words of my cabbie Suchit were quite prophetic. The first sight at the convergence of Pho Chhu and Mo Chhu rivers against the peeking snow-capped Himalayas had me dumbstruck. With its old bridge across the river and green sprawling lawns that were dotted by the red Buddhist monks, the Punakha Dzong made a picture perfect frame. They say that when the Jacarandas are in full bloom, the purple enhances it – but to me, even minus that, it was just amazing.

The 6 storied Utse or Watch Tower of Punakha Dzong as seen from outside
The 6 storied Utse or Watch Tower of Punakha Dzong as seen from outside

The most interesting facet of the architecture of Punakha Dzong was the fact that not a single joint or nail was used to make it. It was all earth, stones, and wood from the lands nearby. The Fortress has three distinct courtyards that were home to the administration, the religious head & his school and the royal temples. The interesting part of this Fortress is that everything is built in a straight line, quite unlike the Indian Forts that are built in a Zig zag manner. The center of the fortress has a tall 6-storied watchtower or Utse – one that shone out loud with its gilded roofs. If you notice the corner of the roof, they are golden dragons. From every angle, the Punakha Dzong promised me a treat and I just could not wait to get in.

The entrance to Punakha Dzong

Punakha Dzong seen from the retractable bridge
Punakha Dzong seen from the retractable bridge

The Punakha Dzong struck me as a fairytale castle that had those cantilever bridges drawn out to welcome you in. The wooden bridge lay open for me to walk across the Mo Chhu river while through every hole along its wall, the Punakha Dzong enticed me. The wooden bridge existed back from its first days until 1958 when it was washed away by the river. What I was walking on was a replacement to that – by no means any less beautiful than the original ones – well, that is what the guide said.

Old Dzong in Punakha
Old Dzong in Punakha

As you exit the bridge, on the left was the original Dzong – a simple structure with a temple. This existed till Zhabdrung Namgyal arrived and constructed the palatial fortress next to it. The first thing that struck me about the New Punakha Dzong entrance was – how high it was. The only way up was those steep wooden staircase – which was divided into three zones. The outer ones were for mere mortals like us while the central golden staircase was only for the King and Je Khenpo (the head of the central monastic body of Bhutan).

Main entrance of Punakha Dzong
Main entrance of Punakha Dzong
The makeshift stairs to Punakha Dzong
The makeshift stairs to Punakha Dzong

The fascinating part of this staircase was that it is make-shift. It can be drawn up and the main door closed in case of any attacks. Apparently, every night, the Dzong was locked for security and without the staircase, there was no way in for the enemy.

Prayer Wheel and Paintings at the entrance of Punakha Dzong
Prayer Wheel and Paintings at the entrance of Punakha Dzong

Don’t forget to turn around to see the gorgeous view of the rivers and the mountains. I specifically say this for you will otherwise get enthralled by the beautiful wall paintings and the lovely prayer wheels at the entrance, thereby missing the natural view.

First Courtyard of Punakha Dzong

The Stupa & Bodhi Tree in the first Dorchey of Punakha Dzong
The Stupa & Bodhi Tree in the first Dorchey of Punakha Dzong

Let’s use some traditional terms – shall we? The courtyards of a Dzong are referred to as Dorchey and there were three as I mentioned earlier. The first one that you step into was the administrative one. A lovely white stupa with a Bodhi tree lies at one end while at the other end, you come up, close and personal with the 1200 m long Utse (The Watchtower).

The Watchtower from the first courtyard of Punakha Dzong
The Watchtower from the first courtyard of Punakha Dzong

This Dorchey is also, the venue of the annual Punakha festival – Domche, that takes place in March every year. During this time, the Utse gets a make-over. A huge embroidered scroll is let down from the roof of the Utse. The scroll is said to be hand embroidered and has art depicting the culture and Buddhist history of Bhutan.

One section of the administrative section of Punakha Dzong
One section of the administrative section of Punakha Dzong
The Shrine of Nag Devi at Punakha Dzong
The Shrine of Nag Devi at Punakha Dzong

The ornate balconies with its Bhutanese windows and doors fought for my attention and while I itched to get closer to it, the guide took us along to the next interesting thing. A statue of Nag Devi (Snake Goddess) with numerous river stones beside it. Legend has it that when Zhabdrung Namgyal started his construction of the Punakha Dzong, the snake Goddess helped him by passing on various river stones for the construction. She aided him such that the entire construction of 180 m X 70 m Punakha Dzong was completed in a year. Now that might have been a celestial feat for those days!

The 2nd Dorchey with Utse

The Utse from the 1st Dorchey would seem just like a plain wall with decorative windows. However, pass through the narrow passages to the other side and in the 2nd Dorchey, you will see a more ornate form of the tower. Housed within are Bhutanese temples that only the locals can go and during the festival – some parts are turned into green rooms.

The Utse of Punakha Dzong from the 2nd Dorchey
The Utse of Punakha Dzong from the 2nd Dorchey

Another steep and tall staircase takes you to that temple which is flanked by ornate doors. The whole contrast of brown and gold against the white does make an impressive sight – not just from the front but also, through the carved doorways of its side passages.

The 2nd Dorchey of Punakha Dzong, Bhutan
The 2nd Dorchey of Punakha Dzong, Bhutan

The 2nd Dorchey is where the monks reside. This is their residence during the colder months of the year and come summer, they move to the Thimphu Dzong. In fact, they were packing to move when I visited here.

The Final Dorchey of Punakha Dzong

3rd Dorchey of Punakha Dzong in Bhutan
3rd Dorchey of Punakha Dzong in Bhutan

Almost like a Labyrinth, the last passage of the Dzong takes you through to a jaw-dropping sight. As you enter the third Dorchey, you feel you have entered a Bhutanese Wonderland. The entire courtyard is flanked by stunning temples in rich colors of browns, golds, reds and even blues. The main temple is the one that is open to the public. No pictures are allowed within the temple but to help you visualize something, here is what you can expect to see.

The Main temple of Punakha Dzong, Bhutan
The Main temple of Punakha Dzong, Bhutan
  • Gorgeous paintings in gold and color adorn the wall where you can well see important scenes from Bhutan Buddhist history
  • The central deities are that of Guru Padmasambhava, the future Buddha and the present Buddha. An idol of Zhabdrung Namgyal is also, a part of this. These idols are high up to the ceiling and quite overpowering.
  • Alongside those are the Protector deity idols
  • You can also, see the throne of the present day – Je Khenpo and the King here
One of the Windows of the Temple, Punakha Dzong
One of the Windows of the Temple, Punakha Dzong

The king’s coronation and marriage are said to have taken place in this temple itself. However, note that while this is open to the public, the one to its left ( if you are facing away from the entrance) is actually, the more sacred one. Out of bounds even to the locals, this is where the remains of the founder of Punakha Dzong – Ngawang Namgyal is kept in the form of an embalmed body. Only the Je Khenpo and the royal family are allowed to enter and visit these. Once in three years, the doors are flung open for the Bhutanese citizens to pay their respects.

The mighty Suspension Bridge of Punakha

Punakha Suspension Bridge, Bhutan
Punakha Suspension Bridge, Bhutan

It was almost time for the Punakha Dzong to close and thus, quite against my will, I had to head out. I could have poked around a few more corners but well, maybe if destiny has it, this Indiana will return. To overcome my disappointment, our cabbie suggested that we walk one of the longest suspension bridges of Bhutan. Originally made by the Zhabdrung, this one connects the town to the Dzong. A visit here got me closer to the more energetic river – Pho Chhu.

Monks near Punakha Dzong
Monks near Punakha Dzong

A 180 m long one, I expected a fragile version of what I saw. This one, however, was quite easy to walk on and did not really move much. Not as stable as the Living Root Bridges of Meghalaya, but fun nonetheless. Walk to the middle while the naughty kids and monks at either end tried to swing the bridge by shifting their weights. A walk on it did help me soothe my overheated senses of seeing the majestic Punakha Dzong and well, an ice-cream at the other end of the bridge, completely cooled me down. I stood there for a bit, looking out at the red clothed monks, walk their way below the bridge to the stunning Punakha Dzong. In some ways – I did envy them!

Getting here

  • Punakha is 85 km from Thimphu and around 128 km from Paro in Bhutan. The closest airport to it is in Paro.
  • The only way to get to Punakha is by road. You will need to either drive or take a cab or bus to the town.
  • Punakha Dzong is central to the town and can be got onto your mobile by clicking here. You can just ask your cab driver to take you here – there is no one in the town who does not know where it is.

Travel Tips

  • If you are a part of the Bhutan Travel package, then the entrance and a guide to Punakha Dzong is included in your daily fare. This is generally, the case if you are a foreign tourist. More on this coming up in my Bhutan travel guide.
  • For Indians, Bangladeshis, and Maldivians, you will need to pay an entrance of Nu 300 per person. Kids and Students have a concession on this fares. Remember to carry your student ID for the same.
  • Your ticket allows you a group guide. Check at the entrance and join the group of tourist guides to understand the Dzong better. You are not allowed to tour the Dzong without a guide. At the end of the tour, you can hand a small tip to the guide. Though the same is not compulsory, it is just a good gesture.
  • Punakha Dzong is a religious center too. Hence, please remember to wear clothes that cover your arms and legs. Footwear is allowed all through the Dzong, except in the temple.
  • Cameras are allowed in the Dzong except in the temple.
  • You will be subject to a security check at the entrance of the Dzong.
  • The Punakha Suspension bridge has no entrance fees. You can walk to it or just get your cab to go around the Punakha Dzong to reach it.
  • While the Suspension bridge is quite strong, avoid jumping on it or leaning too far over its edges.

 

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58 Responses

  1. Ankita

    How stunning! Your pictures are beyond beautiful 🙂
    Thanks for sharing. Now I have another addition to my travel bucket list!

    • Ami

      Thank you Jyotirmoy. Glad you liked the place and yes, you should pack your bags and head there now.

  2. Followingtherivera

    What an incredibly beautiful temple in Bhutan! I doubt I’ll be visiting there anytime soon, so I can live vicariously through your post! I’m in awe of the architectural style, and the colour scheme too. I won’t be forgetting this post anytime soon! Thanks Ami for another great read.

    • Ami

      I am so happy that you felt like a virtual tour on this post. I do hope that you can get there later next year – trust me as a destination, you will love it

  3. Jithin

    Never heard of Punakha Dzing before, such a beauiful place it is. Very informative article. Want to visit this place next time in Bhutan.

  4. Thelittlelai: Beyond limits

    I truly love how you were able to convey your travel experience and also sharing a bit about the history of Punakha Dzong. I haven’t been to Bhutan actually and only got familiar about Bhutan when I watch about the Zombie movie last year I guessed. I love the intricate design of the building and looks like architecture here are truly amazing.

    • Ami

      You will enjoy Bhutan for its lovely mix of culture and nature. You should look it up. This place did floor me with its colors and architecture. Am sure you will enjoy it in person too.

  5. noelmorata

    What an impressive set of buildings in this complex and considering no nails were used, it’s even more spectacular considering all the gorgeous details that built into the walls and other adornments. I would have loved to see some of these interior rooms..

    • Ami

      The only room that you can see is the temple where pics are not allowed. Trust me, it is quite a stunner as you might have read in my description. You should definitely plan a visit here, Noel.

  6. Ryan Biddulph

    How special Ami! I love the history behind it too. As Noel notes in the comments, the details are amazing. But then you have the Himalayan mountains in the background. Makes thing even more spectacular. Jaw-dropping. We are appreciating the mountain views more these days being by the Southern Alps in New Zealand. Thanks for sharing!

    Ryan

    • Ami

      I have a feeling you will love Bhutan. I hope after New Zealand, you hop to India and Bhutan. Thanks for your lovely comment. Cheers

  7. Marcus and Mel

    Great photographs, it is an amazing sight with some beautiful architecture, hard to believe that not a single nail was used in the structure. We are not too sure about the bridge, neither of us are that keen on heights but the the views make up for it.

    • Ami

      The bridge is harmless and quite wide. You will love it. The trick is to look up and walk. 😉 Nonetheless, I hope you can get to the Dzong. It truly is marvelous.

  8. Danik

    Oh WOW! The architecture is totally amazing. I would love to check out these buildings in the mountains, this is my sort of place to explore. Hope to get out there soon and if I do, I am here in a shot 🙂

    • Ami

      If you love the mountains, this is indeed the place to be. I hope you do get there soon, Danik.

  9. Marvi

    What an impressive fortress! I love how the fortress is painted gold. Is there a particular reason why? Amazing how the entire fortress was completed in a year too! Imagine being aided by the Snake Goddess to complete the construction. That in itself is indeed an amazing achievement for such an impressive structure!

    • Ami

      Gold is quite a popular color in this country. A lot of homes use it too. I frankly, did not think too deep about it but after your question, I should have tried to see why. Nonetheless, I am glad you liked the place. Thanks a ton for stopping by

  10. Medha Verma

    Punakha Dzong looks beautiful. Its true that only the Tiger Nest Monastery in Bhutan gets highlighted on most social media so I am glad that we are talking about other places now. This fortress (that’s what Dzong translated to, as you said) has really typical Bhutanese architecture, I love the colours and the fact that it was made from local stones, woods and earth, without a single joint or nails, is pretty cool! The suspension bridge is also quite intriguing. I can see why it was the winter capital, the setting of the place is absolutely breathtaking. Would love to read a detailed post on Thimphu Dzong as well!

    • Ami

      Coming up soon Medha. All about the Thimphu Dzong. Glad you liked this place though. Thanks for the lovely comment and I promise more on this amazing country soon.

  11. Stevo Joslin

    What a stunning sight! I’m glad the snake goddesses provided so many rocks, the dzong (am I pronouncing that right?) is impressive, to say the least. I love the fact that the entrance to this magnificent edifice is a set of makeshift stairs in case of attack. That’s how you build a great (former) capital! My wife and I will definitely have to travel here soon. Thanks for sharing!

    • Ami

      Oh, you will love this place Stevo. I just got back from there but I am still craving for more. I right now, envy you,

  12. Kirstie Saldo

    I love the pictures!!! The colors are all really lovely and everything showcases a lot about culture and history!!!

  13. Lisa Chavis

    Bhutan has been on our travel wish list for some time now and your gorgeous photos have certainly whetted our appetite! Thank you for sharing such an in-depth look at this spectacular area of the world!

  14. Fiona Maclean

    Punakha Dzong and the suspension bridge both sound amazing. I never knew there was a winter and summer fortress in Bhutan, let alone anywhere so beautiful. Can you tell me if there are English speaking guides?

    • Ami

      Thanks Fiona for stopping by. The guides mostly speak English, though they have a few foreign speaking ones too. I am sure you will love Bhutan for its quaint and lovely beauty.

  15. Ash

    Interesting bit of history of Punakha Dzong there. What struck me about the fortress is its architecture, no joints or nails were used in the construction and the distinct way it was built. Something modern planners and builders can learn from. The balconies were elaborately designed and that makeshift staircase was clever.

    • Ami

      So true. The modern architects can definitely take a leaf out of this book. Punakha Dzong truly is a marvel.

  16. Vasu Devan

    I loved reading this post. I have not been to Bhutan ever. Yeah, yeah , I know it is a shame. It so colorful that it sort of creates an illusion that it is not that cold.

    • Ami

      Never too late to go, Vasu. And i hope you do so soon. Nisha and you both , will love it.

  17. Ghia Lorenzo

    Wow! I am really amazed how beautiful Punakha Dzong is! I really enjoyed reaing your post for it has so many interesting and beautiful photos of Punakha Dzong. I really love the breathtaking the architecture of the temples and its detailed vibrant designs. I also love its relaxing location, there are mountains and a river around it. Wow! I wish I could also witness the beauty of Punakha Dzong.

  18. Archana Singh

    Bhutan reminds me of Sikkim. The architecture, nature and people look so similar. Even the legend sounds so similar what we hear in India. Bhutan is one place I am dying to visit. Hopefully I get to visit soon.

    • Ami

      I believe it is quite close to Sikkim. Guess the proximity of the place is what makes it so.

  19. Indrani

    Knowing about this winter capital for the first time and loved it a lot. The place has its grandeur intact.
    The suspension bridges is so photogenic. Very helpful tips on travel to this place.

    • Ami

      It was fun discovering it, Indrani. And I am sure you will love exploring it too. Thanks for stopping by

  20. Karla Ramos

    All earth and stones?! It’s really amazing what men can do and how resourceful we can be. Punakha Dzong does not only let us marvel about it’s beauty, it also reminds us of what we are capable of.

    • Ami

      Indeed. It is a fair reminder of what we can really do. Thanks for stopping by Karla.

  21. Sandy N Vyjay

    The Tiger Nest Monastery is the which has achieved iconic status with its pictures. But indeed the Punakha Dzong is a magnificent structure in its own right. Always fascinated by Buddhist folklore and the legends about Guru Padmasambhava. The Punakha Dzong seems to be permeated with an aura of spirituality which are so typical of the monasteries in places in Sikkim, Nepal and Bhutan. Your pictures have captured the vibes of the place in lovely tones.

    • Ami

      Learning about the Bhutanese history of Buddhism was indeed an interesting experience. It is a lot different and yet similar to the Indian one. Punakha Dzong did add to that understanding. Of course, its beauty has its own tale to tell.

  22. Sangeeta

    The place looks so beautiful. Monasteries surrounded by mountains and lakes – must be so serene and peaceful.

    • Ami

      Very very serene and gorgeous. You should experience it – it is beyond words.

  23. Madhu

    A fabulous account of this splendid place Ami. Hard to pick a favourite from your amazing gallery. Bhutan has been on our radar forever, but keeps getting sidelined for some reason. Need to get there before we get too old to handle the altitude 🙂

    • Ami

      Thank you Madhu. Trust me, I had a tough time even picking the pics for the post. There were just too many that I clicked and yet I felt I missed some.

Would love to know what you think