The Majestic Winter Capital of Bhutan – Punakha Dzong

posted in: Bhutan, Asia, 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

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

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 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

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

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
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

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

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

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
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

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 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

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
  • 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

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

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

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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