A cultural tragedy in Bhutan: the destruction of the Wangdue Phodrang Dzong

30 06 2012

Monk, alone
Monk, alone

The fire
Between 4-5pm (local time) on Sunday 25th July a fire started around the entrance to the Wangdue Phodrang Dzong in Western Bhutan. Fanned by high winds the fire rapidly destroyed the administrative offices before spreading to the rest of the complex. A chilling video on Facebook shows the entrance already destroyed and the fire raging in the main religious centre of the dzong. The mostly wooden structure was destroyed but fortunately no lives were lost. The cause of the fire is as yet unknown, although there is some speculation that an electrical fault was to blame.

Destination Dzong

To be restored
Following the fire the Prime Minister Jigmi Y Thinley made a statement that the dzong would be re-built. Whilst the building was destroyed it is reported that, thanks to the actions of the monks and fire-fighters, all the sacred relics were saved and that even some of the wall paintings survived the fire. There is more on the fire and the rescue operation here.

Bhutan does have some experience in this type of restoration as on April 19 1998 the Tiger’s Nest Monastery (Taktsang Palphug), perhaps Bhutan’s most iconic site, was also destroyed by fire. Restoration work was difficult, as the monastery is 900m above the floor of the Paro valley, but it was re-opened in 2005. Whilst no photographs are allowed to be taken inside this picture shows the quality of the re-built monastery.

A most unreal structure
No longer standing

The building destroyed is a dzong, found only in Bhutan and Tibet, which is a type of ornate fortress. Defence, however, is only one of its functions as it is equally an administrative and religious complex with courtyards, temples, offices, and monks’ accommodation. The Wangdue Phodrang was founded in 1638, when dzong architecture was at its zenith, and in this case was probably built originally for defence being on a high ridge, described as a ‘sleeping elephant’ above two rivers. The dzong has been destroyed by fire before, in 1837, and badly damaged by an earthquake in 1897. There is more on the origins and history of the dzong at Kuenselo Online.

Watching from the balcony
A balcony

The visit
We visited Wangdue Phodrang Dzong in March 2011 in the middle of a major renovation project, partly funded by the Government of India, which was started in May 2009 and was due to finish in June 2013. The pictures below give some impression of the architecture and working of the dzong.

Architectural features

golden doors
Golden doors


happy jack
Happy jack

Wall painting

Chatting on the balcony
On the balcony

Around the dzong

Are you in or are you out?
In or out

Wheels, both small and large
Prayer wheels

Red etched gold
On the wheel


We can only hope that some of these have been saved.

You can see further pictures from our Bhutan trip here and here.

— words by Paul
— pictures by Paul & Elizabeth




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