Bhutan’s finest architecture can be seen in castle-like dzongs perched on hilltops, monasteries hanging from cliffs, and temples and stupas found in every village and town. The most noteworthy and famous structures in Bhutan are associated with religion — namely Tibetan Buddhism. All Bhutanese districts have dzongs (fortified castle-like monasteries), which house district religious headquarters. Every village has a temple (lhakhang) where people gather for religious ceremonies. Hundreds of gompas (monasteries) and chotens (monuments containing religious relics) dot the Bhutanese landscape. Many temples and dzongs are centuries-old repositories of priceless treasures and works of art. paintings, carvings, mandalas (mystic diagrams) and thangkas (religious scrolls). [Sources: Karma Phuntsho, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, Thomson Gale, 2006; John Scofield, National Geographic, November 1976]

There are laws mandating obedience to national architecture standards. By royal decree, even new buildings must be decorated with traditional carved wood and mythical creatures. Emily Wax wrote in the Washington Post: “Bhutan is clinging hard to its traditions...The country's fortress-style architecture is the only construction allowed, and even gas stations have pagoda-like roofs. [Source: Emily Wax, Washington Post, March 23, 2008; Barry Petersen and T. Sean Herbert, CBS News April 17, 2016]

Arthur Lubow wrote in Smithsonian Magazine: Ngawang Namgyal is revered today as a saint. Fleeing a power struggle in Tibet in 1616, he settled in western Bhutan,and began the system of dzongs — the fortresses that combine religious and civil jurisdiction in each district. The characteristic style of Bhutanese architecture, with its bay windows and elevated, pitched roofs, stemmed from the Zhabdrung's desire to distinguish the country from its expansion-minded neighbor Tibet. [Source: Arthur Lubow, Smithsonian Magazine, March 2008]

According to Bhutan’s Ministry of Works and Human Settlement: “The traditional approaches to building and architecture are still very much alive in Bhutan especially in the rural villages. “However, with the advent of modern development and exposure to external influences, these traditions are not shielded from challenges to its future. Bhutanese architecture and its future rest mainly on the understanding of values attached to it and consequent concrete actions taken to promote and develop these values. [Source: Ministry of Works and Human Settlement, Royal Government of Bhutan, 2014]

Traditional Architecture of Bhutan

Traditional Bhutanese buildings often have brightly colored wooden beams and shingles kept in place on the roofs with stones. According to Bhutan’s Ministry of Works and Human Settlement: “The traditional architecture of Bhutan is one of the most beautiful expressions of the ancient culture of the people of Bhutan. Harmonious proportions and graceful designs that reflect and mirror the integration of the simple daily lives of the Bhutanese people with the breath-taking landscapes of peaceful valleys and soaring mountains is a key nature of Bhutanese traditional architecture. [Source: Ministry of Works and Human Settlement, Royal Government of Bhutan, 2014]

“Large fortresses (called Dzong), temples (Lhakhang), monasteries (Goenpa), stupas (Choeten), palaces (Phodrang), bridges (Zam) and vernacular housing (Yue Chim) that dot the countryside of Bhutan form diverse examples of traditional Bhutanese architecture. According to recent records, the oldest standing buildings in Bhutan are Jambay Lhakhang in Bumthang, and Lhakhang Karpo and Nagpo in Haa. They are said to have been built around the 7th century.

“Within Bhutanese building traditional practice, local carpenters (Zow) and masons (Dozop) managed the design and construction of buildings. It is often said that they were so experienced and skilled that they constructed buildings without the use of any design drawings on paper. Their legendary skills are also reflected in the fact that indigenous buildings were constructed in the past without the use of a single metal nail, bolt or screw. The use of simple yet ingenious timber joinery techniques allowed them to achieve this way of construction.

“The most distinctive elements of architecture of traditional Bhutanese buildings lie in following elements: 1) The use of gentle tapering heavy walls made of stone or rammed earth and whitewashed in lime. 2) The light “flying” gable timber roofs that hover in layers above the building. 3) The design of light frames with elaborate timber windows and Rabsel built on the top floors over heavy walls below. 4) The multi -tiered trefoil timber windows with Horzhu. 5) The colourful timber lintels and cornices known as Bogh that mark the level and crown of each floor, window and door. 6) The touch of local artists in the colourful floral, iconographic and spiritual paintings that embellish the interiors and the elevations of buildings.

“Traditional architecture in Bhutan adapted over many centuries to suit the local environment, climate, materials, technology, and more significantly, cultural traditions and spiritual beliefs. Architecture in Bhutan was consequently adapted to satisfy not only functional and economical needs but also social and spiritual requirements. Inspired by nature, local natural materials such as earth, stone, timber, and bamboo are the core construction building blocks of traditional Bhutanese architecture.

Traditional Bhutanese Houses and Yue Chim (Farmhouses)

Traditional houses in Bhutan are built of blocks or layers of stone set in clay mortar, with roofs formed of pine shingles kept in place by heavy stones. Roofs are gently inclined and formed of pine shingles kept in place by heavy stones. Sharchop houses of stone and timber were sometimes built on hillsides. In the southern areas inhabited by Nepalese, Assamese, and Bengalis, housing was more likely to consist of bamboo and thatched roof houses and mud and thatch dwellings. The construction of housing often was a cooperative task of the community.

According to Bhutan’s Ministry of Works and Human Settlement: “Secular architecture in Bhutan finds its main form in traditional farmhouses that form small clusters in tiny villages. A Bhutanese home is not only a residential unit but also a social, economic and religious unit. Apart from providing a home for the family and shelter for domestic livestock, it was also an extension of the religious space of a temple. [Source: Ministry of Works and Human Settlement, Royal Government of Bhutan, 2014]

Bhutanese housing has a distinct character from that of other Himalayan countries. Relatively spacious compared with those of neighboring societies, houses took advantage of natural light and, because of the steep terrain, were usually built in clusters rather than in rows. Timber, stone, clay, and brick were typical construction materials in upland Ngalop areas. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]

Among Buddhism's contributions to Bhutan were its rich architectural embellishments. The walls of residences and public buildings, inside and outside, were subject to colorful decoration, as were furniture, cupboards, stairs, window frames, doors, and fences. Wooden shutters rather than scarce glass were used throughout the 1980s. Buddhist motifs and symbolic colors also were extensively used.

According to Bhutan’s Ministry of Works and Human Settlement: “The arrangement of spaces within an indigenous Bhutanese house is extremely functional. An ideal traditional house was one that had three main floors and an attic, with each level having distinctive functions. Spaces usually flow organically from one room to the other in a relationship that brings the residents together. [Source: Ministry of Works and Human Settlement, Royal Government of Bhutan, 2014]

“Spaces due to functional demarcations were normally laid out in a vertical hierarchy, which start from the simple lower ground floor spaces used for sheltering livestock, to the storehouses for products from the farms in the middle level to the sacred upper level spaces, used for sleep, family, guests and spiritual rituals. Spaces in traditional Bhutanese homes are designed to be functional yet flexible. “

“The division of spaces are typically arranged as follows: a) The Compound / courtyard - Gagona; b) The Ground Floor - Wothok; c) The Middle Floor - Barthok; d) The Upper Floor - Taenthok; ) The Kitchen - Thabsang; ) Deck - Nyimchu; ) The Living room - Yuelkha; ) The Prayer room - Choesam; e) The Attic - Yotoka;



Dzongs (fortified monasteries) have been called Bhutanese castles. They function much like a medieval castle except they have traditionally housed monks as well as noble men. Today, they contain both offices with district civil servants and monasteries with religious leaders. Peasants in "loose communities formed around the dzong, “ a Jesuit priest told National Geographic in the 1990s. "You have to understand, by and large, most of this country still exists in the time of King Arthur." [Source: Bruce W. Bunting, National Geographic, May, 1991]

Dzongs were mostly built during the 17th century when Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel was in the process of unifying the country under one law. Dzongs served as fortresses as it was strategically built on hilltops overlooking the valley. Dzongs became necessary to protect the country with several invasions from the north, mostly from the Tibetans and the Mongols. [Source: Bhutan Tourism Corporation]

There are dzongs serving as centers of government and religion in each district in Bhutan. According to a report submitted to UNESCO: A dzong “is a complex of fortified building which served as a principal seat of Buddhist school. Most of the Dzongs were built to be strategic footholds for gaining influence of particular Buddhist schools and controlling over the region under the power of the schools. [Source: Bhutan National Commission for UNESCO, 2012]

Brook Larmer wrote in National Geographic: “Hubs of royal and religious authority, dzongs like this one in Thimphu have long served as regional arms of the central government. The monarchy may have been fortified by an old Bhutanese proverb: "When there are too many carpenters, the door cannot be erected." [Source: Brook Larmer, National Geographic, March 2008]

According to Bhutan’s Ministry of Works and Human Settlement: “Dzongs in Bhutan are in use today as they were for many centuries as centers of administration and religious practice. Each Dzong in a Dzongkhag therefore houses the offices of the local Government and residences of the local monastic body. They are therefore not silent static museums. [Source: Ministry of Works and Human Settlement, Royal Government of Bhutan, 2014]

Dzongs sites of important religious rituals and are considered treasure houses of magnificent paintings, murals, carvings, sculptures, ancient hand printed manuscripts, rare artefacts, and textiles. Some of the best examples of Bhutanese artistic achievements, paintings and craftsmanship are thus found in the Dzongs. According to a report submitted to UNESCO: A large number of national treasures, including the remains of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel and the small self-created figure of Avalokitesvara from the remains of Tsangpa Gyaray (the founder of Drukpa-Kagyud Buddhist School) are inherited and housed in the Dzongs. Buddhist rituals and festivals are uninterruptedly being performed by the monk body. Therefore, these Dzongs have formed the main center of spirituality of the nation.” [Source: Bhutan National Commission for UNESCO, 2012]

Dzongs and the History of Bhutan

According to Bhutan’s Ministry of Works and Human Settlement: “In terms of historical importance, Dzongs are the most significant tangible symbols of the history of Bhutan. Dzongs were the seats of powerful leaders and often, great historical battles and events took place in or around a Dzong. They thus played vital roles in establishing the identity and independence of the Bhutanese. A particularly important association that Dzongs epitomise is the historic dual system of governance and power shared harmoniously between a secular leader and a religious leader that still exists today. [Source: Ministry of Works and Human Settlement, Royal Government of Bhutan, 2014]

“The main Dzong that stand today are attributed to the great historical and religious leader Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel (1594-1651) who is credited with the construction of some of the greatest Dzongs in Bhutan including the Semtokha Dzong, the Punakha Dzong, and the Trongsa Dzong. According to a report submitted to UNESCO: The history of Bhutan’s Dzongs reflects the dynamism of Bhutanese history and culture since the unification of the country. Many important historical events had taken place in these Dzongs. Several renovation, alteration and expansion works of the Dzong structure are still traceable and are evidence of crucial roles played by these Dzongs as the center of government and culture in the course of history of Bhutan. They are the living witness to the successive social development and cultural evolution of the country. [Source: Bhutan National Commission for UNESCO, 2012]

“It is said to be the medieval period in the 12th century when Dzongs were started to be built in "the southern land (Bhutan)" by clergies of different Buddhist schools established in Tibet. It was in 1616 when Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel, the linage holder of Drukpa-Kagyud Buddhist School arrived at the southern land escaping the conflict over recognition of the principal abbot of the School in Ralung, Tibet. He, later becoming the unifier of Bhutan, started constructing several Dzongs in the process of gaining control over the country, which was at that time dominated by clergies and leaders of different Buddhist schools.

“Strategic location of the Dzongs is one of the main factors that have led the successful unification of the country. It is much elaborated in old literatures describing the prophecies of ancient saints and auspicious events how the location of the Dzongs was determined. These Dzongs built by the charismatic leader Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel who is believed as the re-birth of Tsangpa Gyaray, the founder of Drukpa-Kagyud School and also an emanation of Avalokitesvara have great spiritual significance to the people of Bhutan.

“Among the Dzongs founded by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel, five Dzongs notably took crucial roles to uphold the authority instituted by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel. After the unification of the country, he established the unique dual government system headed by Je Kenpo (the Head of religious affairs) and Desi (the Head of temporal affairs). Those Dzongs built as fortress during the power struggles faced by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel in the process of unifying the country were later expanded and modified by his successors in order to adapt court of clergies and administrators under the dual system of government.

“There are a number of historical documents and literatures narrating the stories or events associated with these important Dzongs existing today. It includes literatures written and authenticated by the successors of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel. Therefore, the historical accounts of these Dzongs are clear and reliable.”

Dzong Architecture

It has been said that dzongs are modeled after the famous Potala Palace in Lhasa. They have many similarities with the Potala but Bhutanese tend to highlight their more unique features. Dzongs have massive white walls and colorful roofs They are constructed of stone and wood without plans or nails. A red stripe below the eves indicate buildings that are religious structures.

According to Bhutan’s Ministry of Works and Human Settlement: “ Dzong are architectural masterpieces and are by far some of the most impressive and majestic forms of architecture in Bhutan The Bhutanese word Dzong loosely translates as "fortress". With its primary objective of defence, the site selected for a Dzong was usually a commanding one, generally on a strategic ridge overlooking the entrance to a valley. “As the most prominent building in a region, Dzongs were, and continue to be architectural trendsetters for other buildings in Bhutan. [Source: Ministry of Works and Human Settlement, Royal Government of Bhutan, 2014]

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “Dzongs are built on strategic locations such as on hill tops overlooking the valley or at a confluence of rivers providing military vantage. These Dzongs basically consist of Shabkhor, which are buildings rectangular in plan enclosing flat stone paved courtyard, and a most prominent towering structure called Utse standing at the inner courtyard containing the shrines of guardian deities and Buddhist masters. These Dzongs were later altered and extended in order to accommodate the functions under the dual government system. This has presumably led to development of two very distinct facades of the Dzongs; the outer facades formed by high and massive battered stone masonry fortification walls of Shabkhor and the inner façades consisting of sophisticated wooden structure often finished with elaborate carvings and paintings, creating ambience suitable for space for civil and state affairs. The Dzongs illustrate the peak of collective architectural achievements of the people of Bhutan. [Source: Bhutan National Commission for UNESCO, 2012]

Architectural Layout of a Dzong

According to Bhutan’s Ministry of Works and Human Settlement: The layout of a Dzong was typically designed as a simple square or a rectangle based on the terrain and space available on site. The central towering structures in the center of a Dzong known as Utse are usually built up to three or more floor levels in the center of courtyards enclosed by rooms spread on all sides to form a secure enclosed structure. Deviations from this pattern were generally due to differences in terrain. [Source: Ministry of Works and Human Settlement, Royal Government of Bhutan, 2014]

“The structure of a Dzong consists usually of heavy load-bearing walls of stone masonry, gradually tapering up from the foundations to the roof. Timber was the main material used in all other architectural elements including the windows, doors, flooring, railing, stairs, ceilings, and roofing structure. The Utse, located in the center of the courtyard, forms the core of a Dzong and is where the main temples are usually located.

“Along the sides of the courtyard, the outer structure of the Dzong is usually two or three storied with decorated arcades facing the courtyard. These structures house the living quarters and other spaces for the monks in one part of the Dzong and the administrative offices of the local government in the other side. As there is a clear division between the monastic and administrative parts of the Dzong, there is sometimes one courtyard for each part.

Important Dzongs

Dzongs — the center of temporal and religious authorities (Punakha Dzong, Wangdue Phodrang Dzong, Paro Dzong, Trongsa Dzong and Dagana Dzong — was placed on the UNESCO Tentative List of World Heritage sites in 2012. Sharing the name of the districts they are located in they . 1) Punakha Dzong (N27 35 28 E89 52 38); 2) Wangdue Phodrang Dzong (N27 30 00 E90 10 00); 3) Paro Dzong (N27 26 00 E89 25 00); 4) Trongsa Dzong (N27 29 58 E90 30 17); 5) Dagana Dzong (N27 4 12 E89 52 47)

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “Punthang Dechenphodrang Dzong in Punakha built in 1637 had served as the principal seat of Drukpa-Kagyud Buddhist School and thus, accommodated the Central Government. One year later, Wangduephodrang Dzong was built to put Sha-Dagyad (eight eastern regions adjacent to Punakha) under control of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel. Other three Dzongs were built as the bases to extend the supremacy to different regions in the country. Rinchenpung Dzong in Paro built in 1646 looked after the western regions, Trongsa Dzong built in 1647 for the eastern regions, and Daga Trashiyangtse Dzong built in 1651 for the southern regions. These three Dzongs headed by the appointed administrators titled Penlops gained immense power as a result of ruling vast areas. [Source: Bhutan National Commission for UNESCO, 2012]

“The above five Dzongs had been stage for significant political events and cultural development throughout the history of Bhutan after its unification. These Dzongs have witnessed important events not only in the olden times but also in the modern era. Punthang Dechenphodrang Dzong served as the birthplace of the monarchy with the enthronement of the First King of Bhutan in 1907. The recent history of these Dzongs is marked by continuous efforts of adjusting their physical structures to the dynamism of governmental and social changes in the modern times. Due to such successful adaptation, these ancient Dzongs even today hold a significant status in the country as the center of temporal and religious authorities amid rapid socio-economic development, which primarily began from 1960s, and more recent change of government from monarchy to constitutional democratic government system in 2008. These five Dzongs presently house the offices of the respective district authority and a number of temples, and serves as the residence of the district monk body.

Tongsa Dzong

Tongsa Dzong (160 miles from Thimphu, 3½ hour from Phobjika Valley) is one of the most impressive dzongs in Bhutan. Nestled in a saddle of a mountain overlooking several valleys, it is a massive, many-leveled Tibetan-style structure that spills down the slopes of a hill and has buildings with bright yellow roofs and elaborately-adorned courtyards. The road to the dzong is carved into a cliffside with drops of several thousand feet. The magnificent gate in the western wall is pierced only by a hiking trail.

Built by Ngawang Namgyel in 1648 and later enlarged and decorated by successive rulers, Tongsa is the ancestral home of Bhutan's royal family. It was built on the main east-west caravan route, and was key to maintaining control of eastern Bhutan.

The nation's first hereditary monarch, and his successor, King Jigme Wangchuck were crowned here. A painting of the 1926 coronation shows emissaries bringing gifts of elephant tusks, leopard and tiger skins, guns, gems and rare fruit to the king. All four Bhutanese kings have held the position of Tongsa Penlop prior to being officially crown. The present king was appointed Penlop in 1972 shortly before his succession to the throne.

Inside the walls, the dzong resembles a medieval village. Courtyards and cobblestone alleys connect more than 20 temples, administrative offices and boarding facilities for 600 monks. Some of the building are seven stories high and have porches, walkways and window and door frames painted with elaborate red, green, blue, yellow and orange floral and geometric designs.

Some of the shrines have fallen into disrepair, and others have corrugated iron roofs instead of traditional hand-split shingles, but many of the buildings remain impressive. The Temple of Chortens, for example, features 2,500 sitting Buddhas painted on a wall to honor the lama Ngagi Wangchuk. Some of the floorboards have impressions of footprints left behind by the monks who have meditated here everyday for centuries.

Monasteries in Bhutan

There are over 2,000 lhakhangs (temples) and gompas (monasteries) in Bhutan. Monasteries (gompas) and convents are common throughout Bhutan. A typical gompa monastery is comprised of a one or multiple storey temple building in the center of a simple courtyard flanked by structures used for the living quarters of the monks. King Jigme Dorje Wangchuk established a commission to maintain the country’s monasteries.

Kurje Monastery (Bumthang Valley) is one of the most sacred sites in Bhutan. It contains three temples and impressions of the body and fingerprints of Guru Rimpoche in a solid rock face. Kurje is said to have built in the 8th century. But in actuality the oldest temple was built in 1653 around the rock face with the fingerprints. It contains 1,008 meditating Buddha statues of altars lined with burning incense and yak butter lamps.

Many monasteries and temples sites have things contained Guru Rimpoche (Padmasambhava), the master of Tantric Buddhism, also known as the second Buddha, who introduced Buddhism in Bhutan in the 8th century. The queen mother of Bhutan told the Times of London: “In almost every valley in Bhutan, you will be shown a rock or a cave where Guru Rinpoche has left his footprint, handprint or some other sign...Visitors might view these with bemusement or skepticism but not a Bhutanese.”

Tiger’s Nest Monastery

Tiger’s Nest Monastery (in the Paro Valley) is one of the most spectacularly situated temples in the world. Nestled on top of a cliffside ledge at an elevation of 2,590 meters (8,500 feet), it is reached by pony or on foot on a series of challenging, hair-raising trails and steps carved into the cliff that rises 915 meters (3,000) feet above the Paro Valley floor. The monastery is built around a cave that Guru Rimpoche—and later his follower Dubthok Singye—reportedly used for meditating. The Guru is said to have arrived here on a winged tiger in the 8th century, bringing Buddhism to the Himalayas.

Taktsang (Tiger’s Nest) Monastery is one of the oldest and best known Buddhist shrines. Regarded as Bhutan’s most spectacular monument, it has existed in some form since the 9th century. Inside the red roofed temple is a statue of Guru Rimpoche (also known as Padmasambhava). The caves around the monastery contain flickering yak butter lamps and burning incense. In one retreat monks take turns mediating for three years, three months, three weeks and three days. From the monastery there are good views of the pine and spruce forests and small villages and rice fields in the valley.

In the late 1990s, the monastery was completely destroyed by fire. An effort was made to carry buckets of water to the site but it was too little, too late. The fire is believed to have been started by an overturned butter lamp. Many thangkas, holy relics, sculptures and one of the finest set of old Buddhist paintings were destroyed. A monk who was acting as a caretaker died.

Tamzhing Monastery

Tamzhing Monastery in Bumthang (Coordinates: N27 35 15 E90 44 15) was placed on the UNESCO Tentative List of World Heritage sites in 2012. According to a report submitted to UNESCO: Guru Padmasambhava, prophesied in the 8th century that there will be five Terton (treasure discoverer) kings and one hundred great Tertons, who would later discover treasures hidden by Guru Padmasambhava. Terton Pema Lingpa, born in the mid 15th century (1450-1521) in Chel Baridrang ofTang valley under Bumthang district in Bhutan is one of the five Terton kings. [Source: Bhutan National Commission for UNESCO, 2012]

“Pema Lingpa acquired great knowledge and miraculous powers, and as prophesied by Guru Padmasambhava, he revealed many treasures benefiting the Dharma far and wide in Bhutan. Terton Pema Lingpa was well known for instituting several religious dances, and for his skills in various crafts, such as metal works and wooden carved block for printing scriptures, which are found in several monasteries in Bhutan. There are many sites including monasteries, temples and pilgrimage sites associated with Terton Pema Lingpa, which continue to sustain the Peling tradition in Bhutan. These sites are the center for religious services for the local communities and the education center for the young monks in Bhutan.

Out of these sites, Tamzhing monastery under Bumthang district is the principle seat of Pema Lingpa. Tamzhing monastery was built in 1501 by Pema Lingpa. This temple is well known for most unique mural paintings. This temple also has unique statues and several other important cultural properties, which are of high importance to the history of Bhutan and the Peling traditions. Pema Lingpa died at the age of seventy-two in 1521 at Tamzhing monastery. The monastery continued to be looked after by the descendants of Pema Lingpa, and from 1960s onwards some of the monks from Lhalung in Tibet, who followed the Peling tradition, established their learning center at Tamzhing. Even to this day, Tamzhing monastery continues to be the main seat of Pema Lingpa and the monks residing in this monastery continue to perform religious services for the well being of the local communities and the country.

Tamzhing is the original home of unique sacred dances that are celebrated during traditional Tshechu (festivals) throughout Bhutan. Religious dances are the living tradition by which Pema Lingpa sought to teach Buddhism in Bhutan. Furthermore, these dances continue to remain as his legacy among the monks and local communities residing at Tamzhing monastery. Tamzhing monastery is also the site from where the sacred dances of Peling traditions originated. Since these dances are strongly associated to the living cultural tradition of Bhutan, it is a very important site to Bhutan in the context of tangible as well as intangible heritage.

“Tamzhing monastery represents an outstanding example of a unique type of architectural style in Bhutan. It was established in place where Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava) had meditated. For many centuries, Tamzhing monastery has been well preserved and protected by the local community and his descendent. The monastery continues to house several records with regard the construction of the temple and institution of the religious sacred dances. The biography of Pema Lingpanarrates the construction of temple including the fabrication of wooden kachen (pillar) and of the iron chain suit, which can be still seen inside this monastery. From the perspectives of form and design, materials and substance, location and setting, use and function, as well as spirit and feeling, the monastery has high authenticity value. The monastery continues to retain the original design and fabric, including the ancient exquisite mural paintings as mentioned in the biography.”

Temples in Bhutan

Temples are called lhakhang in the Himalayan regions of Bhutan and Nepal. They house sacred objects and host religious activities. Lhakhang means "the house of gods", which is meant to including enlightened beings such as the Buddha. In Bhutan lhakhang can be found on many mountain tops. Although they are not as big and impressive as dzongs, many lhakhang and gompa are older than dzongs, with some dating as far back as the seventh century. [Source: Ministry of Works and Human Settlement, Royal Government of Bhutan, 2014]

Usually, within a village, the lhakhang is the most prominent building. In addition Besides being religious centers, they also play important social and cultural roles. Nearly all village cultural events are held there. Layout-wise, a lhakhang is usually a simple hall with an entrance foyer and a main hall with the main altar, where often there is an image of the Buddha. Some have simple buildings with rooms for the monks.

Karma Phuntsho wrote in the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”:“The two oldest places of worship in Bhutan are Jampa Lhakhang in Bumthang and Kyichu Lhakhang in Paro, thought to have been built by the Tibetan emperor Srongtsen Gampo in the seventh century. Kurje Lhakhang, where Padmasambhava is believed to have left an imprint of his body on the wall of a cave, is revered. Another sacred place is Taktsang (Tiger's Lair) monastery, which hangs precariously on a cliff in Paro; Padmasambhava is believed to have visited there on a tigress's back.

Jampa Llakhang (near Kurje Monastery) is one of 108 temples reportedly built in the Himalayas in the 7th century by a Tibetan king who shot arrows into the sky and built the temple where the arrow landed. Before the temple was built the area was inhabited only by “ngang” swans. Pilgrims walk on a path around the temple and spin the temples 23 prayer wheels as they go. Kyichu Lhakhang is one of Bhutan's oldest and most sacred temples in Bhutan. It houses an impressive statue of Chag Tong Chen Tong, a goddess with 1,000 hands and 1,000 eyes. Chime Lhakhang (30 miles from Thimphu) is a temple in built in 1499. It is sought by women who want to receive a fertility blessing. It was built on sight blessed by the great Bhutanese saint Drukpa Kunle. Even foreign women who thought they had no chance of getting pregnant did become pregnant after receiving a blessing at the temple.

Zangdok Pelri

According to Bhutan’s Ministry of Works and Human Settlement: “The Zangdok Pelri temple is a special type of temple design that looks like an amalgamation of a Lhakhang and a Choeten (Stupa). The design of the temple is representative of the celestial palace of Guru Padma Sambhava. Zangdok means copper coloured and Pelri means mountain or palace. The Zangdok Pelri building consists of the following:

1) Ground Level The Ground Floor of a Zangdok Pelri represents the “Outer level” of celestial palace called the Nirmanakaya. In this hall is usually where the main statue of Guru Padma Sambhava seated on a lotus throne is surrounded by his eight manifestations is installed in the center of the room. [Source: Ministry of Works and Human Settlement, Royal Government of Bhutan, 2014]

“2) Middle Floor The Middle Floor of a Zangdok Pelri represents the “Inner level” of the celestial palace known as the Sambhogakaya Mansion. The space here usually houses the statue of the Avalokiteshvara (Chenrigzig) surrounded by the Eight Noble Bodhisattvas.

“3) Upper Level The topmost floor of a Zangdok Pelri represents the “Inner most” of the celestial palace, which is the “Secret” level known as the Dharmakaya Mansion. The upper level is where the statue of Lord Vairocana surrounded by the Family of Five Primordial Buddhas is installed

Choeten (Stupas)

Chortens are Tibetan and Bhutanese versions of the Indian stupas. They range from simple rectangular "house" chorten to complex edifices with ornate steps, doors, domes, and spires. Some are decorated with the Buddha's eyes that see in all directions simultaneously. These earth, brick, or stone structures commemorate deceased kings, Buddhist saints, venerable monks, and other notables, and sometimes they serve as reliquaries. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991]

According to Bhutan’s Ministry of Works and Human Settlement: “With over ten thousand Choeten, these traditional structures are the most common spiritual heritage structures found in Bhutan. Choetens were built to represent receptacles of the relics of the Buddha and important saints and monks. They were also built in places where negative energies and spirits needed to be turned into positive forces. Choetens are found practically everywhere in Bhutan. They are found located mainly on high mountain passes, on roads, on approaches to important locations and buildings, and even on bridges. [Source: Ministry of Works and Human Settlement, Royal Government of Bhutan, 2014]

“Choetens range from as small as 2 meters to over 10 meters in height. Choeten are sometimes linked by long thick walls called Mani (prayer) walls, which are inscribed with religious paintings and prayers. Choetens are built mainly of stone and mud mortar. The inner part of the structure of a Choeten is usually kept hollow and filled with important and sacred elements including a square post called Sokshing (post or tree of life) which is made of timber that is inscribed with prayers and religious illustrations.

“Choetens can be designed in a very basic way without any embellishment or decorations. They are also designed in very elaborate ways with slate carvings, carved cornices, and embossed gold frames and pinnacles. Although there are many different types of Choeten in Bhutan, the typical Bhutanese Choeten is known as Khangzha and is square in shape with a hip roof of stone. The Square Bhutanese Choeten is always marked with a red band called Keymar around the upper level of its walls to signify its spiritual status.”

Palaces (Phodrang) in Bhutan

Palaces are called phodrang in Bhutan. According to Bhutan’s Ministry of Works and Human Settlement: “The architecture of Phodrang is very similar to the architecture of Dzongs. The most famous palaces that stand today were built during the time of the first and second Kings of Bhutan. These include the Wangduecholing and Lami Goenpa Palaces in Bumthang, Ugyen Pelri palace in Paro, Kuenga Rabten and Samdrupcholing palaces in Trongsa. The Dechencholing Palace in Thimphu, which was built during the time of the third King of Bhutan, is also known for its beauty and graceful serenity. [Source: Ministry of Works and Human Settlement, Royal Government of Bhutan, 2014]

“The layout of a typical Phodrang included a main temple within the central Utse in the center of a courtyard with chambers for the King, the royal family and main officers and attendants around the courtyard. The quarters for the servants and stables were usually built outside the main palace building. The palaces of Bhutan are known for their graceful beauty and have some of the finest and unique designs, craftsmanship, paintings and carving

Wangduecholing Palace in Bumthang which was built around 1857 by the great historical figure Gongsar Jigme Namgyal, the father of the first King of Bhutan and Trongsa Penlop, is known for its unique architectural beauty and historical significance. When Gongsar Ugyen Wangchuck was crowned the King of Bhutan in 1907, it became the palace of the King and the first courts of the Wangchuck dynasty were started there.

Sacred Sites Associated with Phajo Drugom Zhigpo

Sacred Sites associated with Phajo Drugom Zhigpo and his descendants in Paro, Thimphu, Wangdue, Punakha and Gasa Districts was placed on the UNESCO Tentative List of World Heritage sites in 2012. They are: 1) Jago Dzong (N27 38 59.99 E91 09 00); 2) Yangthe Thuwo Dzong (N27 28 0.00 E89 38 30); 3) Taktshang (N27 30 00 E89 20 00); 4) Tango (N27 28 00 E89 38 30); 5) Gomdra (N27°30' 00 E89 20 00); 6) Thujedra (N27 28 00 E89 38 30); 7) Draphu Senge gyaltshen (N27 28 00 E89 38 30); 8) Tshechudra (N27 55 00 E89 40 59); 9) Tsendong dowaphu (N27 30 00 E89 20 00); 10) Langthangphu (N27 28 00 E89 38 30); 11) Sengyephu (N27 35 28 E89 52 38); 12) Gawaphu (N27 35 28 E89 52 38); 13) Hungrelkha (N27 35 28 E89 52 38); 14) Changkhag (N27 35 28 E89 52 38); 15) Wachen (N27 30 00 00 E90 10 00); 16) Dodeyna (N27 35 28 E89 52 38);

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “The Drukpa-Kargyu Buddhist tradition was first introduced to Bhutan in the 13th century by Phajo Drugom Zhigpo, who travelled to the southern land (Bhutan) from Ralung, Tibet to propagate the teaching, as prophesized by Tsangpa Gyaray Yeshe Dorji, the founder of Drukpa-Kargyu tradition. [Source: Bhutan National Commission for UNESCO, 2012]

“The sites identified and included in this list are the places blessed by Phajo Drugom Zhigpo and also centers of the Drukpa-Kargyu School established by Phajo Drugom Zhigpo and his descendants in the different regions of the western Bhutan. It was from these centers that the influence of the Drukpa-Kargyu School in the region gradually gained strength by prevailing over groups of other Buddhist traditions. Later in the 17th century, these sites took the significant roles becoming strategic footholds during the consolidation and unification of the country under the one rule by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal who is believed to be the re-birth of Tsangpa Gyaray and also an emanation of Avalokitesvara.

“These sites include the key twelve sites of Phajo Drugom Zhigpo; four Dzongs (fortress), four Drags (cliff) and four Phugs (caves) scattered within Thimphu, Paro, Punakha and Gasa districts. Phajo Drugom Zhigpo meditated at these sites to fulfill his wish to salvage sentient beings from sufferings through teaching of Drukpa Kargyu. The story saying that he visited the twelve sites following the visionary instruction by Guru Rinpoche, the great Buddhist saint in the 8th century who is considered as the second Buddha, gives further spiritual importance to the sites. Dzongs and monasteries were built in and around some of these sacred sites by successors of the Drukpa-Kargyu tradition lineage.

“Other five sites had been the regional centers of the five clans of Phajo Drugom Zhigpo's descendants who controlled over different regions; Hungrelkha in Paro, Dodeyna and Changangkha in Thimphu, Wachen in Wangduephodrang and Goen Sangmey in Punakha. Many of these sites have greatly transformed in terms of physical state and functions, which reflects dynamism of the socio-political changes in the western Bhutan. For instance, the main foothold of Hungrelkha was replaced by magnificent fortress of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal and only a few related important sites are remain including a shrine of the deity who was believed to be subdued prior to constructing the ancient foothold, while Wachen has maintained a medieval Dzong in state of ruin. Changangkha is considered to be an important temple of a protective deity in the region and is frequented by the inhabitants of Thimphu.

Importance of Sacred Sites Associated with Phajo Drugom Zhigpo

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “These sacred sites of Phajo have played crucial roles in the continuity and evolution of the unique Bhutanese culture and traditions since the sites became key footholds during the unification of the country. The Dzongs and monasteries built at the sites by successors of the tradition have instituted Buddhist schools and meditation centers, which are still active today. [Source: Bhutan National Commission for UNESCO, 2012]

“It is in the medieval period that various leaders and clergies from Tibet established their footholds in the southern land (Bhutan) to propagate new Buddhist schools that flourished in the central Tibet and expand their supremacy and domains. However, the above described sites associated with Phajo represent the uninterrupted history of one school starting from the power struggles among various Buddhist schools in the medieval time, which eventually led to the unification of the country. Thus, the dynamic interchange of religious, political and trade system in the medieval time of Bhutan can be traced through studies on this group of sites. Importance of the sites in the above context is further highlighted realizing that medieval history of Bhutan is still known in very vague manner.

“Historical accounts of sacred sites associated with Phajo and his descendants are found in the ancient biographies of Buddhist saints, including biography of Phajo Drugom Zhigpo, and oral narrations, which have been documented and authenticated by successors of the Drukpa Kagyu School. The sites have been successively kept under best custodian of the School and represent great historical and spiritual significance for the nation.

Architecture of the Sacred Sites Associated with Phajo Drugom Zhigpo

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “he existing temples and other structures of these sacred sites of Phajo, which show traces of repeated construction and extension over the centuries, help us understand adaptation of architectural design and technique with geography and climate, local traditions and social systems in the process of expanding Buddhist influence in the country. These buildings have great potential for information and knowledge for understanding and developing Bhutanese architectural chronology. [Source: Bhutan National Commission for UNESCO, 2012]

“The buildings exiting at these sacred sites are categorized into various building typologies built in different periods. Each building is the representative of architectural designs and construction techniques of different building types and period. For instance, the ruin of Wachen Dzong is rare example of medieval Dzong. The temple at Tango, one of the four Dzongs of Phajo is one of the masterpieces of architecture in the late 17th century and also has old mural paintings of exceptional quality. Phajoding, one of the four Drags of Phajo has many temples built in different times and some are unique examples of temple architecture in the 18th century.

“There is no similar property on the World Heritage list. There are many buildings in Bhutan with similar architecture but these are the only sites which can be grouped into a series of sites identified and used by one Buddhist school linage since medieval time. Although a certain similarity is possibly shared with some Tibetan examples, the OUVs focus on the unique architectural adaptation and Bhutanese history associated with the sites.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourism Council of Bhutan (, National Portal of Bhutan, the Bhutan government’s main site (, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated February 2022

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