Punakha Dzong

Bhutan travelogue: Chapter 15 | Read other chaptersSee photo gallery

Exploring the Punakha dzong, the former capital of Bhutan

↑ The mighty Punakha dzong, large, strong and beautiful

By the time we reached Punakha, it was almost 15:30 and the dzong was going to close in another 1.5 hours. Hurriedly, we went in to show our papers at the security office – they check your Travel permit and Special Area permits.

“Oh, you are from Mumbai?” (big pause, shaking his head in disapproval)
“We all deeply regret what happened in Mumbai, everyone is talking about it. Why did they attack and kill the innocent people?” he said as his peers looked at us.
My eyes got a bit moist, pained by the incidents that happened in Mumbai and guards’ gesture of genuine concern.

We heard the news only briefly on the radio – my home city Mumbai was attacked by terrorists (26/11 or November 26, 2008) from Pakistan yesterday. What a sad thing to happen, we felt guilty for being on vacation.

“Let me come in and show you. You don’t have a guide”

↑ Punakha dzong, first courtyard (administrative) and Mo Chhu river, seen from the giant utse (tower)


Punakha Dzong was the seat of Bhutan’s government until Thimphu was established as the new capital in 1961. Building of this dzong was foretold by Guru Rinpoche in 8th century. Construction of the dzong begain in 1637 and was completed in one year. It was expanded in 1639 to celebrate victory over invading Tibetan army. Frequent fires, glacial burst and an earthquake damaged the dzong and it has since been repaired and restored.

↑ Crossing the Mo Chhu to enter the dzong


The dzong can be entered by crossing the Mo Chhu (Mo river) on the beautiful little bridge seen above. In addition to its strategic location at the confluence of two rivers – Mo Chhu (Mother river) and Pho Chhu (Father river), the dzong has provisions to protect it from invasions.

↑ Grand entrance to the Punakha dzong


The dzong has three docheys1 or courtyards. The first (northern) courtyard is for administrative functions and houses a huge chorten with a Bodhi tree. The second courtyard houses the monastic quarters and is separated from the first by an utse2. The third (southern) courtyard has the main temple. Sacred remains and relics are placed in a closed room inside the temple and only the two guardian Lamas, the King and the chief Aboot of Bhutan (called Je Khenpo) may enter the room.

↑ Punakha dzong, second courtyard (housing for monks).

The dzong is massive and the towering whitewashed walls of the utse felt very intimidating to me. 🙂 After the guard left us to explore the place ourselves, I climbed to the top of the first utse (tower) and looked at the beautiful view below. I don’t know how they built such a high structure and as I climbed it, it reminded me of another 11-storey structure I had seen at Shringi Vatika, Himachal Pradesh.

↑ Punakha dzong, first gigantic utse (central tower)

It was almost 16:30 and they had already closed the main temple. But Bhutanese hospitality is not just lip service. A young Lama, seeing our predicament (we were trying to push open the temple door not realizing that it was locked), went away and fetched someone that had keys to the temple.

The Buddha spoke to me?

The door was opened for us, and as we stepped in, the grand interiors of the temple seemed mesmerizing. The huge central statue of Buddha was so beautiful, powerful an engaging, that I automatically bowed to it out of sheer respect. For a moment, it felt that there was nothing else in my life except the grand statue of Buddha, in fact I lost a sense of existence and surroundings. The statue was speaking something to me and I think I was standing there simply looking at, without being aware of it. I didn’t wake up from this trance until my friend nudged me. The feeling was surreal and incomprehensible to my otherwise rational self.

↑ Punakha dzong, third courtyard

We got out at 17:00. The guards handed back our luggage and offered us water as we spinned the last prayer wheel at the Punakha monastery. A huge building but an humbling experience.

1. Dochey: Inner courtyard of a dzong. Punakha dzong has three docheys
2. Utse: The central tower inside a dzong that houses a temple. The two Utses in Punakha dzong were very tall and overpowering.