Dzongs or Bhutanese fortresses originated in 12th century and their main purpose was to fend off enemy’s attacks and be the seat of central authority. Thus, they were mostly built strategically on a mountaintop, overlooking a valley or confluence of two rivers, from where the enemy can enter. Whenever there was an attack, the people from the entire valley could be accommodated safely within the fortified walls of these dzongs. Dzongs have always served both as the centers of administration and also as centers of religion and culture. Most dzongs have monasteries that serve as residence for monks and give them religious training. However, administrative section of a dzong and the monastic section are clearly separated. The chief architectural elements of a Dzong are its massive stonewalls leaning slightly inwards, intricate woodwork on windows and wooden cornices.
The oblong or square dzong enclosed a large courtyard and a tower like temple known as ‘utse’ in its center with several storeys and a square base. Each storey houses temples known as ‘lhakhangs’ or ‘gonkhangs’. The temple used to dominate the entire complex. Dzongs were usually made of stone and pounded mud, had only one entrance and their super structure was generally made of timber. The administrative offices, arsenals, residences for the monks and the storerooms were built in the outer walls of the dzong or the fortress. The pillars supporting the arcades are richly decorated with motifs such as clouds, lotus flowers and the head of a sea demon named Makara. A wide red stripe called the ‘khemar’ just below the roof the building emphasizes the religious nature of the building. The roofs of the dzong have a gentle slope and are raised one or two meters high above the last storey and form broad overhanging eaves.
Bhutanese dzongs are fortresses are architecturally magnificent and house some of the finest murals, carvings and sculptures, ancient hand printed scripts, rare artifacts and textiles. The stonewalls of a dzong are massive, painted in white and steep with high windows that are totally inaccessible from outside. The windows are painted in black. Lowest windows are very narrow and let in only a little light while the upper ones are wider and open into the living quarters. The large stone flags known as ‘dochen’ pave the courtyard. In Tibet, ‘dzongs’ mean barrack-like buildings used by local administration and army. When dzongs were first built in Bhutan, large and powerful families used them as their ‘royal castles’ for centuries.
In the first half of the 17th century, Ngawang Namgyel built a new set of fortresses or dzongs that were used as relays for the central authority, as a seat of administration and to fend off any attacks on the borders of the country. They also acted as monasteries and thus, played a significant role in the religious life of the people. Bhutanese dzongs are much more elaborate than their Tibetan counterparts in terms of architecture and are important part of Bhutan’s history and independent society. The oldest dzong is the Simtokha Dzong, which was built in 1629. Most of the dzongs are built in similar design but there are regional variations due to the landscape and environment of the place. Trongsa Dzong is the most impressive dzong of Bhutan with its 20 temples that are stunning examples of Bhutanese architecture. It is built into the hillside in several stages and overlooks the river below.