Tashichho Dzong: More than just the Summer Capital of Bhutan

posted in: Asia, Bhutan, Heritage | 32

Summer Capital? Winter Capital? Does Bhutan have two capitals? Politically no, but in terms of monastic capital – yes. Where Punakha is the Winter Capital, it is Thimphu that becomes the Summer capital. The chief monastic body of Bhutan – Dratshang resides in the lower altitude, warmer Punakha during the freezing months of the year while they come to the Thimphu Dzong in the summers. However, that is not all that makes the Tashichho Dzong in Thimphu important. It is its illustrious history, delightful architecture & peaceful vibes that make Tashichho Dzong a very important place to visit in Thimphu.

Thimphu Dzong - where you can get a guide as a part of your entry ticket.

In an earlier post, I told you that Dzong refers to a Fortress. Every district in Bhutan has one Dzong which becomes its royal, political and religious headquarters. It is widely acknowledged that the Punakha Dzong is the prettiest of all the Bhutanese Dzongs and I too, add my vote to that. However, the Thimphu Dzong or the Tashichho Dzong will still charm you as much as its winter capital. Located on the banks of Wang Chu River, surrounded by the green looming mountains, here is what you can expect when you visit it.

The History of Tashichho Dzong

The name Tashichho Dzong means the “Fortress of the Glorious Religion”. The original Dzong is actually above the present day structure.  It used to be called the  Do Ngon Dzong or the Blue Stone Dzong. It was in 1216 that Lama Gyalwa Lhanangpa  – one of the prominent monks who established the Drikung Kagyu branch of Buddhism, build the old structure at a slightly higher level from the present day one. Later in the 1640s, Zhabdrung Rinpoche – the Bearded Lama took over the fortress and renamed it to Trashi Chho or Tashichho Dzong.

The present-day, bigger Tashichho Dzong in Bhutan

Zhabdrung Rinpoche (also, called Ngawang Namgyal) made this fortress the center for monastic and civil services. However, the original structure being a small one, it was difficult to accommodate all. A new and bigger structure came into existence below the old Dzong. The place was enlarged by the succeeding Lamas in the 1700s and has been around since then. It underwent a lot of modifications over time but the most important was the changes in the layout made by the third king- Jigme Dorji Wangchuk. The current Thimphu Dzong has survived over 4 fires and one earthquake. Only the Utse (Watchtower), the Lhakhang Sarp (main temple) and the Gonkhang (protector temple) remain from the original construction by the King.

You will be hearing a lot of the other important Dzong of Bhutan – Punakha Dzong. Located at the confluence of two rivers with the snow-capped Himalayas behind it, the Punakha Dzong is almost like a landmark in Bhutan. Bigger than the Thimphu Dzong, you will find plenty of interesting stories attached to it. Discover this majestic Punakha Dzong right here. 

Ever since the official political capital of Bhutan moved from Punakha to Thimphu, the Tashichho Dzong has been the powerhouse of Bhutan. It has all the important offices including the Throne Room, the secretariate and various ministries.  As for the old building – it still exists but as a monastery school called Dechen Phodrang monastery. You can still visit the same but after you are done with the lovely Thimphu Dzong.

The picturesque location of Thimphu Dzong

Picturesque setting of the Tashichho Dzong

If the Punakha Dzong was picturesque in its location at the confluence of Mo Chhu and Pho Chhu river, the Thimphu Dzong was like one of those landscapes that we drew as a kid. By the gurgling Wang Chhu River liest this artistic fortress. Surrounding them both were the tall mountains of Bhutan. All that is missing in this landscape kid drawing is a boat .

Wang Chhu River by the Thimphu Dzong

The Spring flowers in their full bloom further enhanced the beauty of this Dzong. The only sound I could hear was that of chirping birds and flowing water. It was this musical silence that tugged my heart and made me fall in love with Tashichho Dzong.

The Architecture of Tashichho Dzong

The uniform 2-storied building ending in a three-storied structure

A large 5-storied watchtower or Utse rises from the center of the Tashichho Dzong. Two storied buildings run around the boundary of this layout. The corners of this rectangular plot have a three-storied building. The shimmering Gold, white and red buildings are not the only fascinating thing about the place. It is the manner of construction that honestly, had me in awe of it. There are no joints or nails used in the building.

Entrance to the Tashichho Dzong

There are two separate entrances to the Tashichho Dzong. The first one is out of bounds for visitors. It is the 2nd one at the far end of the layout that allowed me in. A long walk to it allowed me to experience and admire the flowing river by its side.

The Monastic Dorchay of Tashichho Dzong

Deity at the entrance of Tashichho Dzong

Fearsome protective Gods ushered me through the entrance to a beautifully painted corridor. The Dzong guide introduced some of the figures in the wall painting as the former Kings of Bhutan.  The corridor fought for attention with what lay outside in the courtyard or the Dorchay. Thankfully, the incoming crowd made the decision for me as to what to experience first.  The Monastic courtyard it was.

The native pigeons that add sound to the silent Tashichho Dzong
Monks walking along the Prayer wheels at Thimphu Dzong
The Monastic Dorchay at Thimphu Dzong

Flocks of pigeons kept flittering around the large courtyard. Soothing tinkles from the spinning prayer wheels created a very serene atmosphere – one that helped me keep calm as I took in the lovely windows, doors, brackets, roof and wall art around the place. I followed a few monks to the buildings opposite to the entrance.  The guide stopped me at a point for I was not allowed beyond it. He explained the flurry of red movements as preparation as the rest of the monastic body from Punakha were to come here in a week or so.

The monk quarters at Tashichho Dzong
The temple at Tashichho Dzong

At the place where I stood, rose one of the older buildings – the Temple with its assembly hall. There was massive renovation taking place within and I was again left standing outside.  A quick glimpse through the partially open doors using my zoom lens, showcased large statues of Buddha along with a pretty elaborate ceiling. With the obvious wall paintings outside and the intricately carved doorway of the temple, I could quite imagine how rich the interiors might have been.

The elaborate artwork of doors, walls and brackets at the Thimphu Dzong Temple
Entrance to the temple with the Protective Gods

Adjoining the main temple, a line of Prayer Wheels led to another temple which I could not enter. This was the temple of Protective Gods – yet another old structure of the place. The Bhutan dragons decorated the wooden frames around the temple while idols of the temple guardians held the roof or frame up. For the first time, even though I was not allowed in, I felt a little satisfied just being around this dorchay.

The doors that accentuated the plain Dzong walls

The Utse of Thimphu Dzong

The central watchtower was unmissable owing to its height. With the golden peak as its roof, you did not really have to get into the Tashichho Dzong to see it. It could be spotted from miles away. In fact, that was my mark to recognize Thimphu when I returned back from Punakha.  Up close, the bottom half of the watchtower looked pretty normal with its white exterior. It was the brown and gold windows and doors that enhanced the look. Again, entry is restricted here but the guide says that the rooms upstairs have idols of the protective Gods within. During the Thimphu festival called Tshechu, a large Thangka art is unfurled from the top.

The Utse towering over the other structures

The dorchay that I was standing in was used for performances of various masked dances during this festival. In the same place, I stared back at the tall Utse imagining a roll of Thangka opening up. My guess is that I would have my mouth open and eyes popping out. Maybe I would have forgotten to clap.

Administrative blocks of the Dzong

The long line of colored windows of Tashichho Dzong

The area on the other side of the Dzong is a VIP area with its throne room and the Secretariat. Naturally, I wasn’t that important to get the special privilege to get there. My guide was smart to turn my attention to the same entrance block that I had entered. He pointed to the colorful windows and remarked that what I might have seen on the other side was similar to this. I suppose that was true for the same line of colored windows continued till my eyes could see them.

Close up of the Windows at Thimphu Dzong

I continued to follow the line of windows but from the outside. As I exited the Dzong and walked past them, I felt satisfied that what the guide told me did seem true.

Compared to the Punakha Dzong, this did seem a lot more simple but it sure was as elegant. If you are in the capital, it is definitely worth your while to add this to your things to do in Thimphu. Not just for its beauty, but for its history and the little details within. So go on, and pin Tashichho Dzong to your Bhutan attractions.

 

Getting here

  • The closest airport to Thimphu is Paro. It takes around one hour by road to cover the 50 km between them. This is an international airport.
  • The best way to get around Bhutan is to hire a cab. You can hire one at the airport itself.
  • My Bhutan Travel guide advises you on the best way to enter Bhutan. Do have a look to understand the permit and visa requirements.
  • Thimphu Dzong is within the city and your cab can get you there.

Where to stay in Thimphu?

  • You can find a hotel in Thimphu for any kind of budget that you might have. I stayed in Hotel Shantideva which is quite central to the city and is mid-priced.

Travel Tips

Here is a treasure trove of information on Bhutan. From Visas to permits, conveyance, places to visit, what to eat and more – I have captured it all in this master Travel Guide to Bhutan. All required to plan your trip here. 

  • Please note the opening timing for Tashichho Dzong.  If you are here on weekdays, you can visit it between 4 pm to 5 pm only. On weekends, you can visit it from 8 am to 6 pm. I visited the same on a weekend and so, got a lot of time here.
  • The entrance fee for the Dzong for SAARC countries is Bhutan Rupees 300. Foreigners do not have to pay this there as it is included in their Government package. You can understand more about this in my Travel Guide to Bhutan.
  • It is always a little chilly in Bhutan. The area around Tashichho Dzong is also, very open. Expect it to be quite cold anytime you visit here. Hence, do dress accordingly.
  • Avoid shorts here as there is a temple that you might not be allowed in.

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