Pungthang Dewachenpoi Phodrang or the Punakha Dzong has five gilded pinnacles. It stands at the confluence of the Phochu and Mo Chhu rivers in Punakha. The Dzong has been damaged several times over the centuries. The raging fires in 1780, 1789, 1802, 1831, 1849 and 1986, a massive earthquake in 1897 and a devastating flash flood in 1994 almost devastated the Punakha dzong. The Dzongchhung housing the images of the Jhou and Dupthob Nagi Rinchhen was nearly washed away in the flood. The construction of the Punakha Dzong led to the revival of the 13 traditional arts of the Zorig Chusum and best craftsmen and artisans from all over the country were invited to display their skills and train a new generation of Bhutanese craftsmen as the fortress was made.
During repairs and restoration work, Machen Lhakhang housing the sacred relics of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, Kuenrey or Congregation Hall, Tsen Chhorten housing eight sandalwood chhortens, Je Zimchung and monks' living areas, had to be reconstructed entirely while the Central Tower or Utse and the Kuenreys of the Drabi and Tshennyi divisions of the central monk body needed major restoration. Landscaping was done around dzong and the banks of the rivers were made secure to prevent any major floods in the future.
The three-storey Machen Lhakhang was built out of Cyprus wood with four entrance pillars intricately embossed with religious symbols in gold and silver. The inside of the lhakhang has been decorated with intrinsic and rich murals and frescos depicting the teachings of Lord Buddha. The images of seven incarnations of the Zhabdrung were also installed in the lhakhang. An ornate 15-foot Kudung Chhorten was installed, made of sandalwood and encased in silver and gold and adorned with jewels like corals, pearls, turquoise, and other precious stones. It was constructed by 20 craftsmen over four years. The Kuenrey, which was on the verge of collapse, was reconstructed on a grand scale. This great hall now features 12 30-foot cyprus pillars adorned in gilded brass plates embossed with elaborate religious sculpture. In the Kuenrey sits the main 35-foot image of Buddha Shakyamuni, crafted out of a mixture of five menjim (precious substances) and medicinal clay. The back wall carries images of the 16 arhats. The Buddha is flanked, on the right, by a 28-foot image of Guru Padmasambhava and, on his left, by a 28-foot image of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal. Along the left wall of the Kuenrey sit 48 three-foot images of the spiritual masters of the kagyu lineage. On the right side are 48 three-foot images of dongyu zinpa (lineage holders).
Time and natural elements as well as human weaknesses had thus taken their toll on this proud edifice. By the late 1980s many lhakhangs were on the verge of collapse because the wooden structures of the dzong had decayed. Precious images and manuscripts had been damaged and destroyed with losses estimated at millions of Ngultrums. It was then that His Majesty the King commanded the reconstruction of the dzong. Under His Majesty's personal supervision, Bhutan's centuries-old building and artistic traditions came together and, over the past 12 years, thousands of carpenters and wood sculptors, metal and clay sculptors, masons, painters, fresco experts, electricians, blacksmiths, goldsmiths, silversmiths, tailors, and monk artisans re-lived history as they worked on the Punakha Dzong Renovation Project.
The home ministry was given the overall responsibility with the Tenso Lapon, Dasho Wangchuk, as site supervisor. Tenso Lapon Dasho Wangchuk is the recipient of the Druk Thuksey for his outstanding contributions in the renovation of the Punakha Dzong and restoration of lhakhangs and monasteries. The five lhakhangs above the Kuenrey were all re-built and new sacred images installed: Neten Chudrung, Goengkhang, Lhamo, Rigsum Gompo, and Phurpai Lhakhang. In accordance to prophesy a 10-foot Guru Dorji Droley image was installed in the Droley Lhakhang facing the confluence of the Phochu and Mochu rivers. The Tsen Chhorten was reconstructed as a two-storey building and the Je Khenpo's residence expanded into a four-room apartment with a choekhang. All the woodwork of massive beams, joists, pillars, floors, doors and windows - in the five floors of the Utse was changed, with timber brought in from different dzongkhags. So were the wooden structures on the roof of the dukhang. New kitchen and restrooms for the monks were constructed outside the dzong to reduce the risk of fire.
In 1994 a catastrophic flood damaged the Dzongchung although the Jhou (Buddha image) was miraculously saved. Originally built in 1374 by the great sage Dupthop Ngagi Rinchhen, the dzongchung was restored in 1996 and consecrated by His Holiness, Geshe Gueden Rinchhen, the 69th Je Khenpo. Besides enlarging the plinth area to 1,500 square feet from the previous 590 square feet a large retaining wall, 25 to 35 feet in height, was constructed around the Dzongchhung, using stone masonry and cement mortar. More than 200 new images crafted for the dzong represent some of the finest masterpieces available in the country. The Shakyamuni Buddha, Guru Rinpoche, and Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal in the Kuenrey, the life-size gilded images of Mahakala and Pelden Lhamo in the goenkhang, and dozens of larger-than-life images are unique works of art achieved through meditative focus and concentration.
The Yeshey Semba (essence of primordial wisdom deity) for the numerous lhakhangs, chhortens, altars, and images in the dzong are invaluable treasures offered by His Majesty the King and the royal family, lams and trulkus, and devotees from all parts of the country. Punakha Dzong was the seat of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal's rule during which he unified the country, protected it from external invasion, strengthened the teachings of the Dharma, and established the tenets of the Bhutanese identity. On December 17, 1907, it was in this dzong that the Dratshang, Ponlops and Dzongpons, on behalf of the Bhutanese population, put their seals on the historic genja and unanimously elected Gongsar Ugyen Wangchuck as the first hereditary monarch of Bhutan. With the completion of the project it has been enriched in religious treasures, in structural endurance, and in the beauty of traditional Bhutanese architecture and artwork by the fourth Druk Gyalpo. The Dewachenpoi Phodrang is, today, the sacred impregnable monument that Guru Rinpoche prophesied and Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal established. The Dratshang performs the consecration ceremony in the Kuenrey The Pungthang Dewachenpoi Phodrang.
Completely restored as one of the most important monuments of Bhutan’s religious, cultural, and political history, and now enriched with new Lhakhangs, more than 200 new religious images, and numerous other treasures, the Punthang Dewachenpoi Phodrang was sanctified and its pure spirituality immortalised with the sacred rabney ceremony on the 12th, 13th and 14th day of the third Bhutanese month (May 13, 14 and 15, 2004).
His Holiness the Je Khenpo and the monks of the Dratshang (central monk body) performed the dechog khorlo dombi kechog to sanctify the majestic Dzong built on the site of a sacred nye (abode) of dechog khorlo domba, the supreme yidam (tutelary deity) of Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal.
The rabney ceremony was attended by His Majesty the King, His Royal Highness the Crown Prince, Their Majesties the Queens and the royal family, Lams and Trulkus from all Buddhist traditions in Bhutan, ministers and senior government officials, officers of the Bhutanese service forces, ambassadors and dignitaries representing the international community, and the people of Bhutan.
On May 15, the rabney concluded with the unique Tashi Ngasol ceremony with His Majesty and His Holiness leading the entire gathering in an elaborate procession to circumambulate the Dzong. The procession, representing all life forms, carried the Tashi tagye (eight lucky signs), Tashi Zegye (eight precious objects), and the Geyse Nga-duen (seven treasures of a universal King), and offered prayers in the ultimate celebration of the auspicious occasion.
The religious ceremonies were conducted in the new Kuenrey of the Dzong where the Dratshang offered the Tashi Ze-gye, the Geyse Na-duen, and the Ku-Sung-Thuk-Ten Mendrel to His Majesty the King.
For the large gathering that represented all sections of the Bhutanese population, the rabney of the historic Punakha Dzong was a re-enforcement of the priorities and values that had survived and strengthened over the centuries.
The Tshennyi Lopon of the Dratshang said that, as His Majesty and the royal family, all sections of the government and the people merged in Punakha, the occasion was an auspicious and significant moment in Bhutanese history. “The restoration of the Punthang Dewachenpoi Phodrang established by Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal to unify the country will ensure that our nation enjoys peace, stability, and prosperity, and that the dharma will flourish forever,” he said.
For the elderly people, it was a pilgrimage that was possible only after several centuries and an opportunity that very few devotees could ever hope to experience. Seventy-year old Pasa Zom walked all the way from Laya and, for her, it was worth every step of the five-day journey. Bidha, 77, of Paro Tsento had always regretted the fact that she had not been able to afford to go on pilgrimage to India when many of her friends did so every winter. Not any more. She now believes that she has received the most sacred blessing that she or any Buddhist could hope for.
“Our Lam Shabdrung is here,” said Gyeltshen of Shengana. “We are safe from our enemies. Just as Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal repelled our enemies, we will withstand whatever threat we face today.”
The occasion brought Bhutanese history alive for most students. “I understand that what is happening today is what happened before, as written in our school books,” said a Class 10 student, Tandin. “The only difference is that this is so much more colourful, so much more beautiful. But history will mean much more to me now.”
For the Resident Coordinator of the UN agencies, Renata Dessallien, it was an “extremely memorable experience”. “I’ve worked all over the world for the UN over many years,” she said. “This was the most memorable and spiritual occasion that I’ve had the honour to attend. All the foreign nationals here were very fortunate to participate in this and witness such a special event.”
With the government of India having contributed Nu 437 million for the restoration of the Punakha Dzong, the Talo Monastery, the Dzongchung, construction of bridges and river protection work after the 1994 floods, His Majesty the King, on behalf of the government and people of Bhutan, and His Holiness the Je Khenpo, on behalf of the Central Monk Body, expressed their deep appreciation to the government and people of India.
The Indian ambassador, Mr K S Jasrotia, who was presented a Buddha image by the Je Khenpo as a token of Bhutan’s appreciation, said that he found the solemnity of the occasion overwhelming.
“The function reflects the vitality and vibrance of Bhutan’s religious and cultural traditions,” he said. “ India and Bhutan have old historical and cultural ties and the government and people of India feel privileged and honoured to be associated with this historical occasion and with the renovation of one of the most sacred dzongs of Bhutan. We are happy to be associated with a process that is helping to perpetuate and sustain Bhutan’s rich traditions and customs.”
The ambassador said that the government and people of India were also happy that their small contribution had been useful. “The renovation of the Dzong is a monument to Indo-Bhutan cooperation,” he said. “I congratulate the people of Bhutan and wish them Tashi Delek.” For the people who were involved in the construction work it was not just a professional experience, but an opportunity to earn merit and a true blessing.
The Tenso Lapon, Dasho Wangchuck, said that the reconstruction of the Punakha Dzong had been a great opportunity for traditional craftsmen from all parts of the country to learn the skills of the zorig chusum. It was a revival of this ancient Bhutanese tradition.
“They were able to learn from the handful of real masters in these ancient crafts like wood carving, masonry, metal work, painting, and many other skills,” he said. “We now have a new generation of craftsmen and the zorig chusum tradition is already much stronger than it was a few years back. In fact, now that we have restored the Punakha Dzong to its full glory, we are prepared to undertake other major renovation work on Dzongs and Lhakhangs and other architectural heritage.”
Bhutan is endowed with ancient and historical Dzongs and numerous sacred Lhakhangs which are centuries old, representing the kingdom’s spiritual wealth and rich cultural heritage. With the changing times and modernisation, the traditional skills of the zorig chusum are required to preserve and maintain these sacred treasures. The Pungthang Dewachenpoi Phodrang is a national treasure to be preserved and cherished for the future generations.