Punakha Dzong

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Timings : March - September: 8:30 AM - 5:00 PM October - February: 11:00 AM - 5:00 PM

Time Required : 1 hour

Entry Fee : Nu 300. If you are a student, carry your student's ID card to avail 50% discount.

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Punakha Dzong, Punakha Overview

Punakha Dzong is the second oldest and second largest dzong in the country. It was here that the first national assembly was held in 1953 and it remained the seat of the Government of Bhutan until 1955. Not only does this dzong boast of Bhutanese architectural marvel, but it also remains culturally important for housing sacred relics of the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism and the sacred remains of Ngawang Namgyal, the Tibetan Buddhist lama and unifier of the country of Bhutan.

Located at the intersection of the Pho Chuu and Mo Chuu rivers in the Punakha Valley, Punakha Dzong was constructed in 1637 by Ngawang Namgyal. It is over 180 metres (590 feet) long and 72 metres (236 feet) wide having six towers surrounding it and the only way to reach the dzong is by crossing the bazam (bridge).

It was built within a year of construction and interestingly, it was built without the use of any nails. Punakha Dzong is listed in Bhutan’s tentative list for UNESCO inclusion for its cultural, religious, and architectural significance in the region. Moreover, Punakha Dzong’s altitude of 1,200 metres provides relief while adjusting to altitudes in the region, making this an ideal location to begin a journey in Bhutan.

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Architecture of Punakha Dzong

Punakha Dzong was one of 16 dzongs built by the Zhabdrung during his rule. It has three courtyards instead of the standard two courtyard layout like other dzongs in Bhutan. The first courtyard is used for administrative functions and houses a large Bodhi tree and white-washed stupa.

It was built-in 1638 by the Namgyal who was prophesized by the Padmasambhava that he will find out an auspicious location for the construction of the fortress. The location was discovered by the Zhabdrung who laid the foundation stone of the temple.
Punakha Dzong Bhutan
Entrance to the Punakha Dzong (Source)

In the second courtyard are the residences of the monks. The halls here hold great historical significance as the location of Ugyen Wangchuk’s coronation and the ceremony in which the King became the Knight Commander. The third courtyard contains the well-preserved remains of Pema Lingpa and Ngawang Namgyal which is closed to the public.
Punakha Dzong
Punakha Dzong (Source)

The dzong has defensive fortifications that were built to protect it from any attacks from enemies. There is a wooden stairway, and the heavy wooden door closed at night, along with a draw-bridge which is the only way to enter. The central tower here, called the “utse”, is around 1,200 metres (3,900 feet) tall which was once a look-out spot against threats.

The utse includes a stunning gold dome. In the south zone of the dzong is the “hundred pillar assembly hall” (although there are less than 60 pillars in it) which hold commissioned murals of the life of Buddha and gold panelled pillars. In the north zone is a cremation ground marked by a large chorten.
Interiors of Punakha Dzong Bhutan
Inside the Punakha Dzong (Source)

The six-storey watchtower is the most extensive feature of the dzong. It has several courtyards and defence fortifications to protect the building from the enemy. The different courtyards serving different purposes are made from wood and stone with the intriguing wood and stonework in the interiors of the place. A separate courtyard has been built for the monks which have a capacity to house 600 monks. It is also the destination for a royal wedding where the wedding of the former princes of the Wangchuck dynasty took place. It is a miracle in itself that the second largest Dzong of Bhutan just took one year to complete.

Punakha Dromche Festival

Punakha Domche is a popular festival held at the dzong that attracts people from all across the district. An image of Avalokitesvara is kept in the dzong and displayed for five days. This festival, typically held in late February or early March, displays many images to the public from Buddhist texts and Bhutan’s history, most importantly the theatrical re-enactment of the Tibetan invasion of Bhutan in 1639.

It includes a mock throwing of a relic into the Mo Chuu river at the end of the performance. On the final day, images of the Zhabdrung are put up along with dance performances in the main courtyard by groups as large as 100 dancers. These dances are called “cham”.
Cham Dances of Bhutan
Cham Dances of Bhutan Source

The dancers wear majestic costumes of silk and brocades. They are dressed as warriors, daunting deities, or even animals and end their performance at the front entrance with whistling and shouting. The dance is said to protect the place of performance from demonic spirits. The monastery’s monks then lead a procession to the Mo Chuu river. Oranges are sometimes thrown into the river during this procession as an offering to the nagas living in the river.

Legend of Punakha Dzong

The legend of Zowe Palep
According to local legend, the architect Zowe Palep was ordered by Ngawang Namgyal, the 1st Zhabdrung Rinpoche, to sleep under a small structure that contained a statue of Buddha known as Dzong Chug or “small Buddha”. While sleeping there, he had a vision of this palace. Without any pen or paper, he had a clear image in his mind and thus began building the dzong in 1637 with the blessing of Ngawang Namgyal.

The legend of Padmasambhava
In another legend, sage Padmasambhava prophesied of a man who will be named Namgyal, and will “arrive at the hill that looks like an elephant”. Ngawang Namgyal was that man who found this peak, which looked like the trunk of an elephant and built the dzong in those very hills. The dzong was consecrated in the name of Pungthang Dechen Phodrang. The Zhabdrung set up a monastery here with 600 monks brought from Thimphu and he stayed here with them until his death.

Punakha Dzong
Punakha Dzong (Source)

Punakha dzong remains important to the royal family even today – it was the site of Ugyen Wangchuck’s (the first Druk Gyalpo) coronation in 1907 and the location of the wedding of Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck and Jetsun Pema in October 2011.

How To Reach Punakha Dzong

It is located on the banks of the confluence of two rivers which is later known as Puna Tsang Chhu. One needs to cross the Bazam bridge to reach the complex of the Dzong. 
Punakha Dzong is located at the confluence of the Pho Chuu and Mo Chuu in Punakha valley. The closest airport to the valley is Paro International Airport. From Paro airport, it takes around 3 hours driving northeast to reach Punakha via Thimpu.

From Thimphu, the distance to Punakha is around 70 kilometres (2 hours). One can hire a car or taxi for this journey. It’s a beautiful drive – after just half an hour from Thimphu, one gets to see the spectacular views on Dochula Pass and other Bhutanese-style traditional houses on the way. The roads to Punakha are well-maintained.

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