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The Paro Dzong is one of Bhutan’s most impressive and well-known dzongs, and perhaps the finest example of Bhutanese architecture you’ll see. The massive buttressed walls that tower over the town are visible throughout the valley.
The dzong’s correct name, Rinchen Pung Dzong (usually shortened to Rinpung Dzong), means ‘Fortress on a Heap of Jewels’. In 1644 Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal ordered the construction of the dzong on the foundation of a monastery built by Guru Rinpoche. The fort was used on numerous occasions to defend the Paro valley from invasions by Tibet. The British political officer John Claude White reported that in 1905 there were old catapults for throwing great stones stored in the rafters of the dzong’s veranda.
The dzong survived the 1897 earthquake but was severely damaged by fire in 1907. It was formerly the meeting hall for the National Assembly and now, like most dzongs, houses both the monastic body and district government offices, including the local courts.
The dzong is built on a steep hillside, and the front courtyard of the administrative section is 6m higher than the courtyard of the monastic portion. The road to the National Museum branches down to the dzong’s northeastern entrance, which leads into the dochey (courtyard) on the 3rd storey. The utse (central tower) inside the dochey is five storeys tall and was built in the time of the first penlop (governor) of Paro in 1649. To the east of the utse is a small lhakhang dedicated to Chuchizhey, an 11-headed manifestation of Chenresig. The richly carved wood, painted in gold, black and ochres, and the towering whitewashed walls reinforce the sense of established power and wealth.
A stairway leads down to the monastic quarter , which houses about 200 monks. The kunre , which functions as the monks’ classroom, is in the southeast corner (to the left). Look under the vestibule for the mural of the ‘mystic spiral’, a uniquely Bhutanese variation on the mandala. The large dukhang (prayer hall) opposite has lovely exterior murals depicting the life of Tibet’s poet-saint Milarepa. The first day of the spring Paro tsechu is held in this courtyard, which fills to bursting point. The views from the far windows are superb.
Outside the dzong, to the northeast of the entrance, is a stone-paved area where masked dancers perform the main dances of the tsechu. A thondrol – huge thangka (painted or embroidered religious picture) of Guru Rinpoche, more than 18m square, is unfurled shortly after dawn on the final day of the tsechu – you can see the huge rail upon which it is hung. It was commissioned in the 18th century by the eighth desi (secular ruler of Bhutan), also known as druk desi, Chhogyel Sherab Wangchuck.
Below the dzong, a traditional wooden covered bridge called Nyamai Zam spans the Paro Chhu. This is a reconstruction of the original bridge, which was washed away in a flood in 1969. Earlier versions of this bridge were removed in time of war to protect the dzong. The most picturesque pictures of Paro Dzong are taken from the west bank of the river, just downstream from the bridge.
The dzong courtyard is open daily, but on weekends the offices are deserted and most chapels are closed.
An interesting side note: scenes from Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1995 film Little Buddha were filmed here.