50 Years Since The Renovation Of Tashichhodzong - Fortress Of The Glorious Religion In Bhutan

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In the fifty years since its renovation, the Tashichhodzong remains an architectural marvel.

Masked dance during the Thimphu Tshechu (Festival) held at the compounds of the Tashichhodzong. (Source: Druk Asia)

 

By Tshering Tashi Kuensel

“Thimphu Dzong (Monastery) 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 was what His Majesty Jigme Dorji Wangchuck (1929-1972) expressed to his visitor Nari Rustomji during a personal tour of the Tashichhodzong (Thimphu Dzong) 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 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 honour the last wishes of his father the Second Druk Gyalpo.

His Late Majesty had wanted to renovate the 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 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 (temple) in 1907 but the Dukhang is believed to date back to the 1870s and is probably the oldest structure in the complex.

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

The project was largely funded by His Late Majesty and when completed, became the proud seat of the Bhutanese Government.

 

Source: Youtube/TOUR IN THE WORLD

 

In the fifty years since its renovation, the Tashichhodzong (Fortress of the Glorious Religion) 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 Tashichhodzong is the legacy of the Father of Modern Bhutan and a symbol of the unbroken link to Bhutan’s past.

The massive scale of the Dzong renovation

The Dzong renovation was His Late Majesty’s pet project and it has been compared in both ‘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 a sight to behold but its construction is also an engineering feat, especially considering the absence of modern technology use at that 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.

 

Photo: Seemasearth

 

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

History of the process of constructing the Tashichhodzong

His Late Majesty handpicked Yoser Lhendup as his chief architect and engineer. In the same year the work commenced, Yoser received the ‘dagyenof 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 invariably wore a sword of office and had complete confidence in the traditional methods.”

Dasho Yoser engaged two other architects, Namchu Babu and Uttari who translated His Majesty’s ideas into blueprints, making it the first dzongto have a drawing.

Subsequently, Nidup Dorji and Lobsang Thondup spent two months redrawing and labelling the blueprint in the language of 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 the minor ones should be conscripted. However, the proposal did not stand as some gewogs could not even 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 of the Tashichhodzong.

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 blacksmiths and metal workers while the carpenters prefabricated most of the wooden features of the Dzong on the banks of the river.

 

Photo: Andreas Walsh

 

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. 

Sacred Treasures found inside the Tashichhodzong

Like all Dzongs in Bhutan, the Tashichhodzong is the repository of many sacred treasures such as the complete sets of the ‘Kanjur and the Tenjur’ - the precious core of 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 burnt in a fire (date unknown).

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 manuscripts which were lost in the fire. The Desi had brought a Tenjur set from Tsang in Tibet to copy. However, another fire broke out 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 alive today, 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 competent supervision of Kilkhor Lopen of the Central Monastic Body.

In Buddhism, gold - both as a colour and metal is considered significant. It represents 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.

2,000 tolas were used for decorating the images and installing the sertog while the remaining 1,200 were used to write the Kanjur and the Tenjur. His Majesty personally contributed 31% of the gold.

Consecration of the Tashichhodzong in the Earth Bird Year

Five years (corresponding with the Earth Bird Year) after commencing the renovation project in 1969, the Dzong was finally consecrated.

 

Photo: Kuensel

 

His Holiness the Je Khenpo Yonten Tarchen (r.1968-1971) and one of the former Je Khenpo presided over the ceremonies. The four senior Lopens also assisted the two Je Khenpos in performing the three-day ceremonies.

The astrologers chose the dates – 24 to 26 June, which coincide with the birth anniversary of Guru Rinpoche on 25 June for the special ceremonies.

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 Minister, on behalf of the Government.

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

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.

After the formal Shugdey ceremony concluded, His Majesty hosted a luncheon for all the guests.

 

This article first appeared in Kuensel and has been edited for Daily Bhutan.

 


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