Bhutan – The Enchanting Architecture

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Paro Valley

Bhutan is situated in the fertile valleys of Himalayas. The valleys are separated from one another by eastern Himalayan ridges extending across the country from north to south. The nature has painted Bhutanese canvas with various hues of greens and blues.

Bhutanese architecture stands out on this canvas with its Dzongs (forts) painted in white and red ochre stripes, wooden houses in natural shades of brown and walls painted white, Lhakhangs (Buddha temples) filled with prayers and compassion, Chortens to keep reminding you the presence of Almighty, and prayer wheels everywhere so that you can recite mantras and prayers on the go. And, one cannot miss the bridges necessary for crossing the rivers and ravines. The traditional cantilever bridges and suspension bridges add to the beauty of Bhutanese architecture.

Bhutanese architecture is strongly influenced by Tibetan tradition of Buddhist architecture. A glance into the history tells us that Bhutan always had close links with Tibet. Bhutia, the largest ethnic group in Bhutan, are the descendants of Tibetan immigrants who came southward into Bhutan beginning about the 9th century. Buddhism was introduced in the 7th century by the Tibetan King Songtsen Gampo and further strengthened by the arrival of Guru Rimpoche, a Buddhist Master that is widely considered to be the Second Buddha.

The history of Bhutan and Tibet is replete with periods of civil and religious wars. The country was first unified in 17th century by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel. After arriving in Bhutan from Tibet he consolidated his power, defeated three Tibetan invasions and established a comprehensive system of law and governance.

The living conditions were always tough even in peaceful times. The security measures were a must for a layman or a lama. Dzongs (or forts) is the manifestation of these security measures.

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Thimpu Dzong

Dzongs are the local fort complexes where people would seek protection during warfare. They were strategically located, and in early times they were usually on hilltops. Here they were the means for expansion and control for various rulers, and contributed to the domination of territories. During the Yarlung dynasty (7th-9th C.) the districts were subject to the authority of the local forts.

Dzongs in Bhutan have served as religious and administrative centers since the 17th century. The architecture is massive in style with towering exterior walls surrounding a complex of courtyards, temples, administrative offices, and monks’ accommodation. The rooms inside the dzong are typically allocated half to administrative function (such as the office of the governor), and half to religious function, primarily the temple and housing for monks. This division between administrative and religious functions reflects the idealized duality of power between the religious and administrative branches of government. Some Dzongs (e.g. Punakha) have additional courtyards for memorials or Lhakhangs (Temples).

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Punakha Dzong with three courtyards. First for Administrative Offices, Second for religious offices and third, the Lhakhang.

Tourists to note that many of the dzongs can be visited only after the office hours in the evening after administrative office are closed. Only religious quarters can be visited. Administrative quarters are off the limits.

Being a fort, the walls are high and inward sloping without any windows in the lower section. They are made up of bricks and stone and painted white. The entry doors are massive and made-up of wood and iron. There is a red ochre stripe near the top of the wall.

Houses: Bhutanese houses have timber frame structure assembled with a system of pegs. Windows with glass panes are seen in cities but the traditional houses have sliding wooden shutters. Countryside houses have a country yard in the front and are multi-storeyed. The living quarters, kitchen, family rooms and prayer rooms are normally on the upper storey.

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Traditional village houses

The exterior of any new building must have traditional look though internally it can be very contemporary.

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Modern City House in Thimpu
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Thimpu City Center

Lhakhangs are Buddha temples. They are simple single storied structures with a courtyard and a protection wall around them.

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Kyichu Lkakhang –  Originally built in 7th century, considered to be one of the four border taming temples. It is believed that Guru Padmasambhava has concealed many spiritual treasures here.

Chortens: The basic structure of a Chorten consist of a square foundation symbolizing the earth, a dome symbolizing water, and thirteen tapering steps of enlightenment symbolizing the element of fire. These steps lead to a stylized parasol, the symbol of wind, which is topped in the ethereal sphere by the well-known ‘twin-symbol’ uniting sun and moon, which is the shimmering crown of the Chorten.

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Chorten or Stupa

Pilgrims and locals circumambulate chortens in order to gain merit.

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Chortens at Kharbandi Gompa

There are different styles of chortens. The native Bhutanese style is a square stone pillar with a khemar near the top, sometimes accompanied by a ball and crescent to depict the sun and moon. This indigenous style represents a kind of reduced form of the classical stupa. Yet another style of chorten is supported on two pillars, under which people pass to gain merit.

The National Memorial Chorten in Thimphu was built in 1974 by Queen Ashi Phuntsho Choden in memory of her son the Third Dragon King of Bhutan Jigme Dorji Wangchuck.

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National Memorial Chorten

You will find many old people circumambulating the chorten and praying within the campus.

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We were told that the working couples leave their old parents in the campus in the morning while going to work and then pick them up in the evening and take them home. The aged people pray and spend time with their friends in the campus during the day.

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Old people spending the day praying at National Memorial Chorten
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Spending time with friends at Memorial Chorten
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Sharing the moments

Dochula Pass Chortens. You will find 108 chortens at Dochula Pass. The Druk Wangyal Khang Zhang (red band) Chortens were built as a memorial in honour of the Bhutanese soldiers who were killed in the December 2003 battle against Assamese insurgents from India.

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This blog cannot be complete without the mention of prayer wheels and bridges.

Prayer Wheels:

The prayer wheels are omnipresent. A prayer wheel is a cylindrical wheel on a spindle made from metal, wood, stone, leather or coarse cotton. Traditionally, the mantra Om Mani Padme Hum is written in Sanskrit on the outside of the wheel. Also sometimes depicted are Dakinis, Protectors and very often the 8 auspicious symbols Ashtamangala. At the core of the cylinder is a “Life Tree” often made of wood or metal with certain mantras written on or wrapped around it. Many thousands (or in the case of larger prayer wheels, millions) of mantras are then wrapped around this life tree. The Mantra Om Mani Padme Hum is most commonly used, but other mantras may be used as well. According to the Tibetan Buddhist tradition spinning such a wheel will have much the same meritorious effect as orally reciting the prayers.

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Prayer wheels outside a shop

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A large prayer wheel under construction outside a college campus
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Wooden prayer wheel outside a village house

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Small prayer wheels available in market

Bridges:

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The wooden cantilever bridge near Punakha Dzong

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The wooden cantilever bridge on river Mo Chhu at Punakha
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Suspension bridge on river Wang Chhu

The distinctive architecture of Bhutan gives a spectacular get up to its natural beauty. One must keep sufficient time aside to study this architecture and appreciate it.

 

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4 thoughts on “Bhutan – The Enchanting Architecture

  1. Amazing Photos. I had been following your travels on FB. But the write up along with these photos makes it much better than just posting them on FB. Bhutan has always been on my list. You have just pushed me a bit further. 🙂

    1. Saee, nice to see you visit my blog. FB is for people who do not have patience to read. Plan your Bhutan trip carefully. Please read my previous blog on Bhutan so that you can manage your expectations. Thanks again for appreciation.

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