TRONGSA DZONG

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Overlooking the Mangdechhu River, the Trongsa Dzong is a testimony of Bhutan’s architectural heritage, political history, rich traditions and culture. This magnificent structure, witness to various significant events which have shaped Bhutanese history, has a rich legacy, echoes of religious and political leaders from the 16th century onwards.

Druk Minjur Choekhor Rabten Tse later became the Dzong’s name at the order of Chhoje Minjur Tenpa, which translated literally means “the Dzong built on the tip of a Dungkhar (conch), of the never-changing country of Druk where the dharma is everlasting”

The origins of the Trongsa Dzong date back to the time of Yongzin Ngagi Wangchuk, a descendant of Ngawang Chhogyal and a revered follower of Kuenkhen Pema Karpo; who meditated at the village of Yueli, in Trongsa in 1541 (1543), a few kilometers above the present Dzong. One night during his meditation, Yongzin Ngagi Wangchuk caught glimpse of a butter lamp light up below the ridge of the present Goenkhangs, housing Bhutan’s guardian deities: Palden Lhamo (Mahakali), Yeshey Gembo, and Leki Goenpo. A visit to the site revealed the footprints of a steed and the Lhatsho (sacred pond) of the guardian deity, Palden Lhamo. Considering the place to be a Nye (sacred site) he built a meditation quarter (tshamkhang).

While meditating in his new dwelling a vision of the deity Pelden Lhamo appeared and she prophesied that in the future this place would play an integral role in spreading the teachings of Buddha. This led him to construct a small temple which he named Mondruple. Over the years Yongzin Ngagi Wangchuk’s disciples built smaller meditation centers near the Mondruple Lhakhang which soon began to resemble a small village. The people of Yueli named this new settlement ‘Trong-sar’ (new town).

In 1647, Chhoje Minjur Tenpa was appointed by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal as the first Trongsa Penlop and Zhabdrung’s representative in Trongsa. During his tenure Chhoje Minjur Tenpa constructed a Dzong which resembled a fort. A watch tower was also built.

Geography

The Dzong and the small town surrounding it are situated on a spur, a wild rocky area, above the ravines of the Mangde Chuu valley with the scenic backdrop of the Black Mountains on its southwest. The Dzong is located above the fast flowing Mandge Chu in a unique setting that has been described as “the most spectacularly sited dzong in Bhutan with a sheer drop to the south that often disappears into cloud and mist”.

Chorten in Nepalese style at Pele La on the foot track to Trongsa Dzong.

Approach to Trongsa, till 1970, was only from the upper reaches of the Mangde Chu valley, starting the descent to the Trongsa town and the dzong from the location of two small chortens at Chendebji (One built by Lama Shida in Nepali style in the 18th century and the other a new one built in Bhutanese style in 1982)), which is 14 kilometres (8.7 mi) away along foot tracks, after crossing the Pela La pass (3,330 metres (10,930 ft)). This track route traverses through farms, deciduous forests, crosses side streams, raises to Tangsibji village before descending to the Mangde Chu valley. The vegetation seen along the route consists of shrubs of edge worthia (high altitude dwarf bamboo), which are used for making paper. Fauna encountered on this route are mainly brown monkeys – the rhesus macaques. En route at Tashiling, a new Potala Lhakhang could be seen alongside a wrathful statue of Guru Rinpoche. The Potala Lhakhang was built in 2005 and is housing a 9 metres (30 ft) high statue of Chenresig. Arriving at the head of the valley brings a spectacular view of the very large white Trashi Dzong.

From Thimphu, the capital city on the west, the journey is by road, of about 7 hours, passing through mountain ranges on the east and west directions. The road is aligned above the Dzong, passes through a vegetable market and then through a small palace. This palace is where the late king Jigme Dorji Wangchuk (the third king of Bhutan) was born in 1928.

History

Trongsa means “the new village” in Bhutanese, which comprises retreats, temples and hermitages of monks. Its rich history is traced to the founding of a temple in the area by the Drukpa lama, Ngagi Wangchuk, ancestor of Zabdrung Namgyal, who came to this place from Ralung in 1541, and built a small meditation room in 1543. One day he had been meditating nearby in a village called Yuling and witnessed a light (“from a body of lamps”) at the furthest point of the spur. He believed this to be an auspicious sign and erected a temple on the spot, on a mountain spur high above the gorges of the Mangde Chhu, at an altitude of 2,200 metres (7,200 ft). Note: the altitude is given as 2,300 metres (7,500 ft) by Dorje. Another version for building a temple here is that Ngagi Wangchuk saw self manifest hoof prints of a horse that belonged to the Protector deity Palden Lhamo. He then decided to build a small meditation centre, a tshamkhang, at that location. One more version of the legend states that Ngagi Wangchuk after witnessing the lights from lamps went into a cave nearby for meditation where he found a small spring. He also visioned that the spring had been used by the Mahakali (Peldon Lhamo) for sacred ablutions with other dakinis. He then built a small temple, which has now become the main temple Gunkhang. He also developed it into a small village with several houses and the place thus came to be known as drongsar (“new village”) and popularly known in the local dialect as ‘Trongsa’. He further inferred from the shape of the rocky hill, that it was in the form a conch shell with concentric rings (in clockwise direction) and hence named the monastery as Choe-Khor-Rab-Ten-Tse or by a shorter version as Chotse that represents ” the temple fixed firmly at the tip of the dharma wheel-the conchshell”. The original temple site is today located at the end of the dzong, at the Temple of Chortens.

Panorama of Trongsa Dzong.

In 1647, the great-grandson of Ngagi Wangchuk, Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, noted for the building of several other prominent buildings in Bhutan, began constructing a dzong in Trongsa, given its strategical importance. He named it the Chokhor Rabtentse Dzong and it was the seat of power of the Wangchuck dynasty before they became rulers of Bhutan in 1907. The rulers of Trongsa, the penlops of the Wangchuck dynasty, who resided at Trongsa Dzong were very powerful, exerting influence over all of eastern and central Bhutan, controlling east-west trade for centuries. The only road connecting eastern and western Bhutan (the precursor to the modern Lateral Road), passed through the courtyard of the dzong. By the 19th century, the penlops, ruling from Trongsa Dzong, had become so powerful that Trongsa had effectively become the capital of Bhutan, although never officially so. Its strategic location added to its importance on the east-west trade route and was a source of revenue to the Trongsa penlop. They later became the monarchs of Bhutan that rule to this day.

Sir Ugyen Wangchuk, the first ruler of Bhutan was the Penlop at Trongsa before he was crowned the King of Bhutan in 1907. However, he retained the position of Penlop as well.

In 1652, Minjur Tempa, the then Penlop of Trongsa, had the dzong enlarged. In 1715, the Penlop Druk Dendrup built the Chenrezig (Avalokiteshvara) Lhakang and in 1765, PenlopZhidar established a monastic community of around 50 monks at the dzong. In 1771, a whole complex, including the Maitreya (Jampa) temple was added to provide for the monks. In 1853, the 10th Penlop of Trongsa, Jigme Namgyal,who was the father of the first king.erected the Demchog (Cakrasamvara) Lhakhang, in the central section of the dzong.

Trongsa Dzong was heavily damaged following the 1897 Assam earthquake. It underwent major repair and was restored by both the 1st king, Ugyen Wangchuck and the 2nd king, Jigme Wangchuck in 1927, who renovated the Chenrezig Lhakhang in particular. In 1999, funding from Austria led to extensive restoration works and was deconsecrated in October 2004, coinciding with the enthronement of the Crown Prince.

The old village of Trongsar is located below, but there is a new village of Trongsar,which has been under construction on the mountainside since 1982. Tibetan immigrants settled in the valley in late 1950s and early 1960. The shopkeepers are mainly of Bhutanese and Tibetan origin.

Interior courtyard in Trongsa Dzong.

Trongsa Dzong is a powerfully built fortress and is exemplary of dzong architecture. The Trongsa Dzong is an extensive complex; the largest in all of Bhutan, and is set on many different levels. It consists of a maze of court yards, passage ways and corridors and the complex contains as many as 25 temples. The most important temples are those dedicated to the Tantric deities of Yamantaka, Hevajra, Cakrasamvara and Kalacakra. The Maitreya (Jampa) temple was erected in 1771 and today contains a clay statue of the Buddha of the Future, donated by King Ugyen Wangchuck in the early 20th century. The Temple of Chortens is located on the spot where the original 1543 temple had stood. It contains the funerary chorten of Ngagi Wangchuk and has 16 paintings of the Arhats and of the Buddha Akshobhya (Mitrugpa). The watch tower of the fortress, named Ta Dzong, towers above the gorge to the east side of the dzong. The watchtower is narrow and has two wings that project in a v-shape from the main

part of the building. It also contains a temple, established in 1977 to honour the warrior god, King Gesar. In 2008, a museum was added to this complex, following Austrian donations. The interior decorations in the temples are attributed to the time of the reign of the first ruler, king Ugyen Wangchuk. However, the Dzong has undergone renovations in recent years with assistance provided by an Austrian team. The original design of the northern assembly hall, an original court scene with mural paintings of the guardians of four directions, Phurba statue in the main hall, a mural replica of Swayambunath temple of Nepal and a pictorial map of Lhasa are retained.

Ta Dzong, the watch tower, that was in the past a stronghold against internal insurgencies, towering over the east side of the dzong, has since been converted into a state-of-the Art Museum (National Museum) with technical and financial support provided by Austria. The tower also houses a chapel dedicated to the Jigme Namgyal who was penlop in the 19th century. It is also stated that in the dungeon of the tower two British soldiers were imprisoned during the Duar War. The Ta Dzong tower originally was a highly fortified six-storied tower, with numerous galleries in the thick walls for defense. Further fortifications in the form of three independent towers were added at a higher elevation in close vicinity of the Ta Dzong.

Aside from its central administrative offices, Trongsa is a major monastery and today houses around 200 monks. They are also affiliated Kurje Monastery in the Choekhor Valley of Bumthang and some of them often spend their summers at Kurje. An important printing house is also located at the dzong, where printing of religious texts is done by traditional woodblock printing.

FFESTIVALS

A five-day festival known as the Trongsatsechu is held in the northern courtyard of the temple during December or January. Every monastery in Bhutan observes this festival, which celebrates the arrival of Guru Rimpoche to Bhutan in the 8th century, a mark of triumph of Buddhism over evil. It is held in spring and autumn seasons according to the Bhutanese calendar and masked dances are a popular feature along with the exposition of a very large thanka (religious painting) on cloth of Guru Rimpoche and other figures called the thongdrel. A fire blessing in the form of people running though “an archway of blazing straw” is also witnessed.