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Tashichhodzong: The Fortress of the Glorious Religion

“Thimphu Dzong is older than Paro Dzong, but it has been recently renovated, painted and extended and has the appearance of being a more modern structure.” This is what His Majesty Jigme Dorji Wangchuck (1929-1972) expressed to his visitor Nari Rustomji during a personal tour of the Tashichhodzong in 1955.

Seven years later, in the spring session of the 1962 National Assembly, His Majesty the Third Druk Gyalpo, articulated his intention to renovate the Dzong, citing that in “earlier times, the Dzong had been severely damaged in a fire accident and ninety three years had elapsed since its renovation.”

Fondly revered as the ‘Father of Modern Bhutan’, His Majesty had moved the capital from Bumthang to Thimphu to honor the last wish of his father the Second Druk Gyalpo. His Late Majesty wanted to renovate Tashichhodzong to make it the seat of the modern government that he was creating.

In 1962, much of the old Dzong was pulled down because His Majesty found that the walls supporting the structure were poorly built. The disassembly took two years. Except for Lhakhang Sarp, Utse and the Dukhang on the western side of the monastic courtyard the rest of the structures were pulled down. Dzongpon Kunzang Thinley built the Lhakhang in 1907. The Utse and the Dukhang may date to the 1870s and are probably the oldest structures in the complex.

Without any heavy machinery the demolishing team laboriously pulled down massive buildings and stripped the outer fortification of the Dzong.

The Dzong renovation was His Late Majesty’s pet project and has been compared in skill and scale to the demolition and rebuilding of a medieval European cathedral. To get an idea of the scale of the operation, the timber used was so large that it took 90 men to transport just one beam. The reconstruction took five years.

This riverside Dzong is not only an archicetural marvel but also an engineering feat, especially considering the absence of modern technology use at the time. It houses the Golden Throne Room and for almost five hundred years, the Dzong has served as the summer seat of the Central Monastic Body.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Dzong’s reconstruction. The story pays obeisance to the Father of Modern Bhutan, celebrates our rich architectural heritage, and salutes all the men and women who toiled to build the magnificent Dzong.

 

The Architect

His Late Majesty handpicked Yoser Lhendup as his chief architect and engineer. In the same year the work commenced, Yoser received the da-gyenof nyikelma with the title of Zorig Chichap.

Popularly known as Dasho Pap Yoser, the old master builder has been described as a  “dignified bearded figure who invariable wore a sword of office and had complete confidence in the traditional methods.”

Dasho Yoser engaged two architects, Namchu Babu and Uttari who translated His Majesty’s ideas into blueprints, making it the first dzongto have a drawing. Later Nidup Dorji and Lobsang Thondup spent two months redrawing and labeling the blueprint in Dzongkha.

The National Assembly debated on ways to recruit the large work force needed for the project. In 1969, during the 31st Session, some national assembly members proposed that five masons from each major gewogs and three or four from minor ones should be conscripted. However, the proposal did not stand as some gewogs could not send a single mason.

In the end, the work was executed through the traditional self-help system of Shabto Lemi. This successful traditional system promotes people’s participation in the process of development. At any given time, there were 2,000 Bhutanese participating in the construction.

The area around the Dzong bustled with life as the encampments for the army of workers were built nearby. All empty spaces were turned either into carpenter sheds or workshops for the country’s best black smiths and metal workers. The carpenters prefabricated most of the wooden features of the Dzong on the banks of the river.

 

Progress of the Dzong

Winters in Thimphu were so cold that works had to be suspended for three months during the season. Despite that and a general shortage of manpower, the work progressed swiftly.

In 1966, three years before the completion of the project, satisfied with the progress of the reconstruction work, His Late Majesty awarded Dasho Pap Yoser the prestigious Druk Nor medal.

Kuensel, the only national newspaper then, maintained good records of the re-construction process. For example, in July 1967, it reported that the “work on the Tashichhodzong is now nearing completion. The Dzong woma, or the wings where the Central Secretariat of the Government will be located has been fully furnished and painted and occupied by the officers concerned. Dzong gongma, which will house the lamas and monks are fast nearing completion. The painting works in the northern section of the Dzong is in full swing.”

 

Sacred Treasures

Like all Dzongs, Tashichhodzong is a sacred architecture with many sacred treasures inside including complete sets of the Kanjur and the Tenjur; the core of the Buddhist teachings. The Kanjur literally means the ‘translated words’ of the Buddha while the Tenjur is the commentaries on those teachings.

In 1693, the fourth Desi Tenzing Rabgay (r.1689-1694) borrowed the Sakyapa’s Tenjur from Tibet and personally participated in the copying of it.  According to some sources, these holy texts were brunt in a fire accident of an unknown date.

Later, the sixth Desi Ngawang Tshering (r.1701-1707) commissioned the writing of the Kanjur manuscripts in gold letters on black paper and made elaborate wooden covers for them. These replaced the previous ones lost in the fire. The Desi had brought a Tenjur set from Tsang in Tibet to copy. However, another fire broke out at the time and of the 100 volumes of the Kanjur, fifty-one were burnt.

Much later in 1966, His Late Majesty commissioned the replacement of those burnt fifty-one volumes of the Kanjur in gold letters. Sixty-seven clerks, many of whom are still living, were employed. As per His Majesty’s command, 200 volumes of Tenjur were also written in gold. This was a first. Both the writing projects were executed under the able supervision of Kilkhor Lopen of the Central Monastic Body.

 In Buddhism, gold, both as a color and metal, is considered significant, representing the sun or fire. Gold is widely used in murals, statues, and also on the sertog or turrets of sacred buildings.

 For the Tashichhodzong, 3,200 tolas or thirty six kilograms of gold were used, both to adorn the Dzong and to gild various treasures inside it; 2,000 tolas for gliding images and installing the sertog and the remaining 1,200 was used to write the Kanjur and the Tenjur. His Majesty personally contributed 31% of the gold.

Earth Bird Year

Five years after commencing the renovation project, in 1969, corresponding with the Earth Bird Year, the Dzong was consecrated. His Holiness the Je Khenpo Yonten Tarchen (r.1968-1971)and one of the former Je Khenpos presided over the ceremonies. The four senior Lopens assisted the two Je Khenpos in performing the three-day ceremonies.

 The astrologers chose June 24, 25, and 26, coinciding with the birth anniversary of Guru Rinpoche (25th June). The prayer ceremonies were held in three different places; the Royal Chamber, the National Assembly Hall and the Kunrey or the assembly hall.

 The celebration was done in a manner befitting the splendour of the architectural masterpiece and the master architect, His Late Majesty. In the Dukhang, after His Majesty ascended the golden throne, Their Holinesses, Government officials, and the Special Officer of India to Bhutan, offered the eight auspicious symbols to His Majesty, followed by biews or offerings.

Dorji Lopen Nyizer Trulku Thinley Lhendup addressed the august gathering and offered scarves to Dasho Pap Yoser and Tsilon, the Finance Minster, on behalf of the Government. After the formal Shugdey ceremony concluded, His Majesty hosted a luncheon for all the guests.

The grand finale of the celebrations was an archery match held in the Changlimithang grounds on 27 June; Dasho Zori Chichap’s team emerged victorious over the Officer’s Team.

The Norwegian scholar, Dr Ingun B. Amundsen recorded lot of information from the people who were involved in the project. In her book, ‘Context, on Sacred Architecture’, she states that the reconstruction of Tashichhodzong cost four million rupees and engaged 2,000 workers.

The project was largely funded by His Late Majesty and when completed, became the proud seat of the Bhutanese Government. In the fifty years since its renovation, the Thimphu Dzong remains an architectural marvel. The eight triple layered roofs with gilded tops along with one off-centered sertog of the Utse, house many national treasures.

The Fortress of the Glorious Religion is a spectacular archicetural masterpiece. The Tashichhodzong is the legacy of the Father of Modern Bhutan and is a symbol of the unbroken link to our past.

Contributed by  Tshering Tashi

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