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Understanding The Architecture in Bhutan

The true culture of a country is reflected in its festivals and of course, the architecture. Architecture tells an unheard tale about the history of that place like no one else. The ancient walls of a minaret or the marble ceiling of a monument are more than just fascinating. They are the true representation of the architect, the people and the country itself.

Globally renowned for its unique culture, the architecture in Bhutan is a marvel to behold. In ancient times, architects never used to plan the construction and design of dzongs or lhakhangs on a paper or board. It was all in their mind! A clear picture of their building in mind and using their skills, they used to design everything. The peculiar architecture and colours used are in accordance with the climate of Bhutan.

Architecture in Bhutan
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Not just the tourist attractions and famous buildings, but even the common houses make use of colourful wooden framework which gives towns a very picturesque view.

Architectural Style of Bhutan

To keep the ancient style of architecture of Bhutan intact, it is made necessary for the architects to design all the buildings with slanted roofs, small windows and colourful wooden doors, just like the traditional buildings. This makes sure that there is a uniformity in the architecture style of buildings throughout the country. This unity in construction method and design gives the cities of Bhutan a scenic view, just like the glorious landscapes. Given the large influence of Buddhism in the country and its long history with Tibet, the main architectural style of the buildings here is that of the Tibetan Buddhist style. Iron bars and iron nails are strictly not used in the construction, which makes the architecture of Bhutan different from the rest of the world. Moreover, sky-high buildings and towers are not prevalent in Bhutan. Most buildings are two or three-storied. To make the building look more exquisite, the size of windows is kept small for the first storey and it gradually increases as one ascends on upper floors.

Traditional Bhutanese building, Architecture of Bhutan
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Dzongs

Originating in the 12th century, dzongs were constructed on mountaintops to serve as the watchtowers and fortresses during wars. Dzongs were the safe shelters where people were brought together for protection from sudden, violent attacks by enemies. Dzongs have always been an important part of the architecture of Bhutan because they are not just administrative centres, but also an important religious site. Typically, half of the area is used for administrative purposes and the other half is used to house the monks and other religious activities.

The dzongs are mostly built of stones and mud after which the walls are white-washed for a fine look. Traditional dzongs have only one entrance gate. Every dzong has a central tower temple called 'Utse' which is surrounded by a courtyard. The walls of the dzong are slanted inwards which give them a great look. The windows are painted black, giving a very sharp contrast against white walls. There is a red band called 'Kemar' on top of the dzong representing the sanctity of the site. Ngawang Namgyel was the first person to have constructed a large number of dzongs in the country. Zhabdrung Rinpoche is also a renowned name in the history of dzongs. It is believed that he used to get omens about the location where the dzong should be built. Many of the ancient dzongs have now been destroyed due to fire or floods, but most of them have been restored to their former glory, thanks to the government's constant efforts.

Tashichho Dzong, Architecture in Bhutan
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The roofs of the dzongs have a gentle slope and a small square shaped golden coloured structure on the top. These golden structures are placed on the corners of the roof and such roofs are known as 'Jabzhi' roof. The Jabzhi roofs are not allowed to be constructed on common houses or buildings. They are specially reserved for dzongs which distinguishes them from any other building. The interior of the dzongs is a splendour to eyes, with its magnificent religious paintings, valuable inscriptions and artefacts. The pillars are also beautifully carved with images of nature and pictures related to the history of Bhutan. In many of the traditional dzongs, one can often see the use of swastikas and phallic paintings which are truly mesmerizing. Paro Dzong, Tashichho Dzong and Punakha Dzong are a few of the majestic dzongs where one can see the explicit glory of Dzong architecture in Bhutan.

Interior of Paro Dzong, Architecture in Bhutan
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Houses

While inexpensive construction materials such as cement and concrete are readily available, houses are constructed using traditional methods only. Timber and rammed earth are significantly used in the construction of houses in Bhutan. The walls of the houses are built using mud and rammed earth. In eastern regions of the country, however, houses are constructed using stone because of the climatic and geographical conditions. In lower altitudes, houses are made up of bamboo and wood, while the use of stone becomes more frequent in higher altitudes.  The interior of houses is generally decorated using paintings and wooden handicrafts. There is a lot of timber used in the construction of houses due to its easy availability.

To facilitate easy ventilation, a lot of gaps are left between the roof and walls of the houses. Everything is very technically designed, keeping in mind the extreme weather conditions.

Bhutanese House, Architecture in Bhutan
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Religious Structures

Lhakhangs and Goembas are designed much like dzongs having white coloured walls and Jabzhi roofs, a traditional style of the architecture of Bhutan. They are smaller in size but the design is more or less the same as that of dzongs. Their interiors are a marvellous sight, where one can not help but tirelessly adore the cultural paintings, intricate structures and religious inscriptions on the walls and pillars, giving the monastery a very noble look.

Drametse Lhakhang, Architecture in Bhutan
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Chortens are grand religious structures which are believed to be blessed. Taking rounds around a chorten in a clockwise direction is considered very auspicious and people do it out of religious belief and faith. Chortens represent five major elements of the Universe namely water, earth, fire, air and space. The base of chortens is constructed in a square shape with a dome above it. They are made of mud and stone and painted white, like the dzongs and lhakhangs.

National Memorial Chorten, Architecture in Bhutan
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Bridges

Due to Bhutan's contoured topography, the majority of the places in the country are connected solely by large wooden bridges. With rapid rivers flowing through the city, a strong bridge is sometimes the only element that connects these areas. The bridges seen here are mostly cantilevered - they have no vertical supports below but are connected to the land or the terrain it starts from. This is due to the fast flowing rivers that might weaken the strength of the vertical supports if any were provided. Due to this, there are many suspension bridges as well. With the supports along the vertical members that connect the bridge upwards. Known to be one of the strongest bridges, these very bridges have a history of carrying numerous people, animals and industrial traffic. 

Architecture in Bhutan Bridges
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The joy of witnessing the intricate stonework and touching the walls of smartly built houses is beyond imaginable. Any amount of words can only partially justify the glorious architecture of Bhutan. Its beautiful architecture is undoubtedly the best memory which Bhutan blesses us with.

This post was published by Tina Garg