Trongsa Choekhor Rabtentse Dzong, 2004

Trongsa Choekhor Rabtentse Dzong, 2004

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Trongsa Dzong is Bhutan's largest monastery-fortress. A temple was first established at the location in 1543 by the Drukpa lama, Ngagi Wangchuk.

 

In 1647, his great-grandson, Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, the founder of Bhutan, built a massive dzong to replace it.  Trongsa provides a strategically central location to control the country.  For centuries it was the seat of the Wangchuck dynasty who ruled over much of eastern and central Bhutan, and from 1907 have been Bhutan’s Kings.

During the 5th King’s tour when he was Crown Prince and the nation was celebrating his investiture, he stopped for several days in Trongsa where he was declared Penlop, Governor of his ancestral realm. He entered Trongsa on foot, the narrow road lined with villagers offering special dishes and home-brewed drinks.  The Prince stopped to taste each family’s offering and return words of thanks. In the afternoon he played basketball with the local high school team.

That night, after a late meal, I stood on the upstairs landing of the Oyster Hotel, Snooker Parlour, Bar and Restaurant with my dinner partner, Friedrich Falch, looking over the valley at the Trongsa Dzong. An Austrian master at castle renovation, Falch spent five years restoring the Trongsa Dzong, completing just before Penlop’s investiture. Over dinner, he held me spellbound with his ingenious engineering innovations, while describing the army of traditional Bhutanese master craftsmen and the unseen high-tech solutions that went into the project. The Dzong sustained massive damage in the 1897 Assam earthquake and Herr Falch said that one of his biggest challenges was finding an image of the original structure. Patched, expanded and cobbled for centuries, no one knew what the Dzong restored to the original should look like.

“The government wanted authentic work and the lack of documents was a serious problem. But we finally solved it,” said Falch, pausing with a smile.

“Where did you find drawings?” I asked.

“Take a look in your wallet,” he said.

I opened my wallet. “Do you have a fifty Ngultrum note? Okay, there. Turn it over.” On the back of the banknote was an 18th-century etching of the Trongsa Dzong, the exact image of the castle across the valley, bathed in soft light.

“That banknote was our blueprint!” grinned Herr Falch. “The only one we could find.”

From BHUTAN: Hidden Lands of Happiness, by John Wehrheim (Serindia 2011)