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Wangduechhoeling Palace: the birthplace of Bhutan's Monarchy.

WANGDUECHHOELING PALACE IS PERHAPS THE FINEST REPRESENTATION of 19th-century Bhutanese architecture. Historically known as Wangduechhoeling Dzong, it is an extraordinary example of traditional Bhutanese building and craftsmanship that continues to inspire and influence contemporary architecture in the country. Although referred to as a dzong (fortress-monastery), the structure lacks most of the defensive features found in other dzongs throughout the country. The palace was the first large structure to be built as a residential mansion and not as a fortress (figure 1).

Wangduechhoeling Palace bears historic significance as a powerful symbol of the establishment of monarchy in Bhutan, and represents the beginning of an era of peace and stability in the country. The palace was once the central political, social and cultural hub in Bhutan. Today it remains largely empty and neglected (except for the presence of about 20 novice monks who serve the altar and perform daily rituals but who are not permanent residents), without any attempts having been made to maintain the building for over 50 years.

The palace is situated in the geographical and historical heart of the country, a kilometre to the northeast of Jakar Dzong in the dzongkhag (district) of Bumthang, on the banks of the Chamkhar chu (river), at a place formerly known as Samkhar (27[degrees]33'n, 90[degrees]44'e, altitude 2,600 m). Today the site is surrounded mainly by farms. A small cluster of traditional rural farmhouses lies close by on the eastern side of the palace grounds, while on the western side is a luxury hotel that was built in 2001.

Traditional Bhutanese Architecture

The climatic conditions and the abundant forests in Bhutan gave rise to its unique architecture, distinct from that of Tibet and the Western Himalaya. Besides the use of earthen bricks and stone, Bhutanese carpenters and artisans contributed timber details and features, which have become an important component of the country's architecture. These features include strongly developed cornices, intricately carved wooden pillars and highly decorated window frames. The development of other elements such as sloping roofs was necessitated by the abundant rainfall, in contrast to the drier conditions on the Tibetan Plateau and Western Himalaya. Monumental dzongs as well as smaller vernacular forms of architecture demonstrate these distinct characteristics.

The castle-like dzongs have been regarded as a distinctive form of religious architecture in Bhutan. They capture all that is considered central and unique to traditional Bhutanese architecture. Wangduechhoeling Palace presents an adaptation of dzong architecture (figure 2), following a similar layout, but situated in the main valley of Bumthang as opposed to the typical strategic locations of dzongs on mountain ridges and peaks.

What is a Dzong?

A dzong is a massive architectural structure comprising two main elements: a monastery and a fort stronghold. The word dzong, in Bhutan's official language Dzongkha, is understood to mean a core sanctuary of refuge and protection against negative energies. Dzong architecture with its combination of spiritual and temporal elements is a very tangible representation of this concept. While dzongs were first constructed in Bhutan as early as the 12th century, most were built in the 17th century under the leadership of Zhabdrung (a title signifying a personage at whose feet one submits) Ngawang Namgyal, a crucial historical figure in the unification of the country. He is believed to have introduced the dzong system of administration in Bhutan and given it a character distinct from other Himalayan Buddhist states. Today dzongs in Bhutan are large complexes that house the dual system of government (religious and civil) where the civil leader and the chief abbot or religious head (Je Khenpo) are accorded equal status. There are 14 dzongs in Bhutan that were built more than 100 years ago and remain in more or less original condition. All 20 districts in Bhutan have dzongs, but most were built in recent times.

No original plans of any of the dzongs exist but the structures exhibit similar layout and features. The typical dzong complex is square or rectangular in shape, consisting of thick stone masonry walls that run around the periphery enclosing an elevated courtyard in the middle. The tallest structure within the dzong complex is a prominent tower (utse) built in the centre of the courtyard. The utse serves as an inner sanctum housing important relics. The walls of the dzong and utse taper from a square solid base with narrow openings to the upper floors with larger windows.

The layout of a dzong follows the model of a mandala, the Buddhist cosmological order. An elaborate design of concentric and diametric arrangements of spaces originates from the centre emanating the power to unite and harmonize. By structuring the physical layout of the dzong according to the principles of the mandala, the building is seen to exist on a spiritual plane relating to, and deriving power from, the Buddhist universe.

The Birth of Monarchy

In the latter half of the 19th century, Bhutan slowly emerged from years of civil strife and political instability. Jigme Namgyal (1825-81) became the de facto ruler of Bhutan and the chief negotiator in its dealings with the British in India. He is recorded in history as a legendary leader, renowned for his physical stamina, valour and political shrewdness, and credited with consolidating the warring feudal regions, and laying the foundations of the monarchy (Phuntsho 2013). Though a theocratic system of government existed in Bhutan, Jigme Namgyal rose rapidly in his career and was installed as the Trongsa Ponlop (district governor) at the age of 28.

The post of Trongsa Ponlop was the most coveted in Bhutan, as this Ponlop enjoyed greater benefits than others in the country--being excluded from paying annual monetary tribute to the government, and having the prerogative to appoint senior officials and the authority to retain the income of the Assam Duars (this continued even after the British came to power in India). With the rise of Jigme Namgyal the post of Tringsa Ponlop began to signify even greater power and authority. In 1857 a war erupted for the position, pitting Jigme Namgyal against the former Trongsa Ponlop, Tshokye Dorji, and his son Tsondru Gyaltshen who was the Jakar Dzongpon (regional administrator), supported by the ruling Desi (civil leader) Kuenga Palden (referred to by the British as Deb Raja). Jigme Namgyal stationed his troops on the plains of Samkhar, which later would become the site of his royal palace, Wangduechhoeling.

The war lasted nearly two years and Jigme Namgyal emerged victorious in 1858. To mark his victory, he expanded his original residence on the battlefield of Samkhar and named it Wangduechhoeling Palace--wangdue meaning "gathering of power" and chhoeling "a place that is sacred or religious". This victory was a significant step towards consolidating power in the country and establishing Jigme Namgyal's supremacy. The palace marked the beginning of the era of peace and unification. The incessant, complex feuding within the country and the external attacks from Tibet eventually came to an end.

Jigme Namgyal built the utse of the Wangduechhoeling Palace in 1857 (figure 3) and resided there until his death in 1881. He went on to establish the royal court of the Wangchuck dynasty in the palace, adding further historical prominence to the structure as the first seat of power for the monarchy. His son, Ugyen Wangchuck, who was born in 1862 and raised in this palace, was elected (by an assembly comprising representatives of the monastic community, officials and the common people) as the first King of Bhutan (r. 1907-26). Ugyen Wangchuck, however, left Wangduechhoeling after the death of his mother, Ashi (princess) Pema Choki, to live at Lamai Goempa Palace in Bumthang.

The second king, Jigme Wangchuck (r. 1926-52) moved to Wangduechhoeling Palace after his marriage and resided there for the remaining part of his life. During his time at Wangduechhoeling in the late 1920s, Jigme Wangchuck built the shakor (surrounding structure around the utse enclosing a courtyard). He is also believed to have built the Linga Lhakhang (temple/monastery).

The third king, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck was born in Thruepang palace in Trongsa in 1929, but he also spent a significant part of his life at Wangduechhoeling in the service of his father, the second king. After his father passed away, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck (r. 1952-72) moved the royal court to Thimphu in the early 1950s while Ashi Pema Dechen, the younger queen mother, continued to reside in the palace along with her children--Ashi Choekey, Ashi Deki Yangzom, Ashi Pema Choden and Namgyal Wangchuck who became the Trongsa Ponlop of Paro. In 1967, Ashi Pema Dechen moved to Thimphu after handing over the palace to her eldest daughter, Ashi Choekey.

The last members of the royal family who lived in the palace were Ashi Choekey's family; they moved their base to Thimphu, the new capital of the country, in 1971. Since then the palace has been in a constant state of neglect. In the early 1990s, Ashi Choekey handed over the palace and the land remaining within the palace complex to the government of Bhutan.

The Seat of Power

Wangduechhoeling Palace is a unique adaptation of dzong architecture with the central tower (utse) surrounded by an outer structure (shakor) on all sides enclosing a courtyard. The central tower, designed and built by Jigme Namgyal, houses the main shrine of the palace. The surrounding structures are residential units. Since the palace was constructed as a residential mansion, the structure does not have the khemar (red) band symbolizing a religious function that is usually found on dzongs.

The palace is a virtually square, symmetrical structure with four facades of roughly dressed stone and mud mortar. The main entrance is entirely of timber construction, from foundation to roof level, supported by wooden pillars (figure 4). The palace complex includes extensive gardens surrounded by low stone masonry boundary walls. Besides the palace, other structures within the palace grounds include a temple (Linga Lhakhang), an ancient red stupa (Choeten Maap) and five chukor manis, religious structures that house large Buddhist prayer wheels. These prayer wheels are moved by paddles powered by a small stream of water that runs along the northern side of the grounds. During Ashi Choekey's time a separate weaving house also existed within the palace complex, between the Linga Lhakhang and the chukor manis, for the weaving of Bhutanese textiles.

The main entrance to the palace was originally from the north wing of the shakor, which was connected to the old national route that ran along the river. But after the advent of paved roads in Bumthang in 1965, a new motorable road leading to the palace was built along the western side of the palace. The entrance from the west wing of the shakor leading to the archery range was remade into the main entrance (figures 4 and 5). The old entrance to the palace and the trading route along the river were eventually forgotten, although traces of the old trading route, covered with undergrowth, still exist along the eastern side of the palace.

The Utse

The utse stands ground plus three floors tall with a square base that tapers towards the top. The walls are made of roughly dressed stone and mud mortar with narrow windows. The facade consists of elaborate wooden frames for windows extending from the second to the third floor. Massive pillars of stone and mud support the inner timber frame and floors consisting of huge wooden planks. The shrine of Jigme Namgyal is located on the third floor and houses the protective deity of the palace.

Jigme Namgyal is said to have resided on the second floor of the utse. The other two floors and the attic were used mainly for storage. The ground floor contained impressively large wooden boxes of salts traded from Tibet and India. An inner room served as an armoury containing poisoned arrows, ammunition, swords and shields. Bamboo baskets with large quantities of cow horns were also stored in this room. The horns were powdered and cooked to a broth in times of war and famine.

The Shakor

The shakor is two-storeys high on three sides and three-storeyed on the southern side facing the river, including a basement that opens into the horse stable. The eastern and western wings of the shakor also have attics in addition to the two floors.

The top floor of the western side of the shakor was the residence of Ashi Pema Dechen (queen of the second king) with her chamber at the southern end. The ground floor was used for storing food items and was easily accessible from the top floor, with wooden ladders connecting these storage spaces directly to the queen's chamber above. According to attendants of the court during the second king's reign, a fireproof room encased in earthen walls existed on the ground floor to store coins and treasures (Gayleg and Choden 2012).

The second king, Jigme Wangchuck, occupied the eastern wing of the shakor, with the top floor as his residence. His chamber, like the queen's, was at the southern end overlooking the landscaped garden, the Choeten Maap, and the national highway next to the river. The ground floor of his chamber was used as an additional storage space for precious items while part of the attic space was used as an office. Dasho Shingkhar Lam, who served the second king at Wangduechhoeling, remembers the attic being the main office space where he worked with other colleagues on keeping inventories and royal accounts including the country's trading records (Ura 1995). Some part of the attic above the king's chamber was used for preserving meat. Even today one can find seals on the doors of these storerooms listing the items once contained within.

The north and south wings of the shakor, that connected the chambers of the king and the queen, served as additional living and storage spaces. The ground floors of these wings were mainly used for storing food items, handwoven textiles, silk brocades and other commodities imported from Tibet, China and India.

The top floor of the shakor has cantilevered timber structures on three sides--north, south and east (figure 6). In each of the toilets there was a depression cut out in the timber floor which held a timber pipe that conveyed the waste water into the ground below. Given the extensive use of timber elements, fire was an ever-present danger. Safety measures included large urns filled with water placed at each corner of the attic in the utse as well as in the courtyard.

Linga Lhakhang

The Linga Lhakhang is located in the northern part of the Wangduechhoeling Palace grounds, facing the original entrance to the palace. The lhakhang was built as an additional space for conducting religious rituals for the country during Jigme Wangchuck's time. Every year on the 21st day of the ninth month of the Bhutanese lunar calendar, a seven-day religious ritual is carried out in this lhakhang.

The Chukor Manis

The five chukor manis that house prayer wheels powered by water are located on the eastern side of the palace facing the river just off the former national highway. The oldest chukor mani is believed to have been built either before or during Jigme Wangchuck's time. It was later renovated and four additional ones were built nearby by Ashi Choekey (the sister of the third king) and her family.

Apart from their traditional role in accumulating merit for those who turn the prayer wheels in the clockwise direction, the chukor manis served as the main marker of the entrance into the royal court for people visiting the palace. Visitors dismounted from their horses near the chukor manis, muffled their horse bells and removed their caps/hats as a sign of respect before ascending the gentle slope to the palace entrance (figure 8). The chukor manis also served as storage place for the royal family's supply of betel leaves, as the flowing water kept the leaves cool and fresh.

Choeten Maap

The Choeten Maap or red stupa, adjacent to the shakor on the southern side of the palace, is believed to be one of the oldest structures in the palace complex--contemporary with or following the utse. It seems that the location of the shakor was adjusted during construction to accommodate this stupa. The second king's chamber overlooked the stupa. A few elderly retainers of the court remember that offences were punished by flogging next to the stupa.

According to my grandmother Kunzang Choden (whose father was a royal attendant, Sepon Tari) she often played as a child in the garden near the stupa. The second king would watch the children playing and throw them treats from his chamber window. Sometimes he would give a child who performed some remarkable antic a special prize.

Archery Range, Gardens and Fair Grounds

The bachu (archery range), located at the western side of the palace next to the current entrance, was a popular sporting ground when Wangduechhoeling was the seat of the Wangchuck dynasty. Members of the royal family practised archery there (Ura 1995).

The area around the bachu is said to have once been beautiful landscaped gardens (Gayleg and Choden 2012). Kunzang Choden (a Bhutanese writer and descendant of Tshokye Dorji, a former Trongsa Ponlop) still remembers visiting the palace as a child and being mesmerized by the picturesque flower gardens, orchards and ponds around which peacocks roamed (Gayleg and Choden 2012). The palace grounds were also the location for the annual festival and fair held in the seventh month of the lunar calendar, initiated by the second king. People came from all over the country and as far away as Tibet. Stories are still told of the second king being driven across the grounds in a chariot on festive occasions (Ura 1995).

A Window to the Past

The lack of maintenance over the last half-century has left Wangduechhoeling Palace in a vulnerable state, and much in need of restoration. Some of the timber partition walls are broken, mud plaster works have fallen off and the timber flooring in some rooms is disintegrating. The stunning paintings on the facade and walls of the palace and the remarkable stone masonry are rapidly deteriorating and in danger of being damaged beyond repair.

Development is also encroaching on the heritage site, with tourist resorts and modern infrastructure sprouting around the area impinging on the historic archery range and the ancient gardens. The palace is in danger of losing its prominence as an iconic heritage monument in Bhutan's cultural hub, Bumthang.

Nevertheless, the paintings and the intricate architectural details in this building continue to serve as reference points for many new constructions in the country (figure 7). The need for documentation and restoration of this unique architecture is urgent. The Ministry of Home and Cultural Affairs has embarked on a restoration and adaptive reuse project for the Wangduechhoeling Palace in partnership with the Bhutan Foundation. Initial documentation and planning has been completed with financial support from the U.S. Ambassador's Fund for Cultural Preservation from the American Embassy in New Delhi, India, and the Bhutan Foundation in the United States. The project envisions that Wangduechhoeling will provide a window to the past for the people of Bhutan and other visitors. Because the palace has had so little changed from its original construction, the restored structure will enable people to imagine and engage with Bhutan's past.


Amundsen, Ingun Bruskeland. "On Bhutanese and Tibetan Dzongs", Journal of Bhutan Studies, Vol. 5, No. 2 (Winter 2001), pp. 24-31.

Department of Works, Housing and Roads (Royal Government of Bhutan). An Introduction to Traditional Architecture of Bhutan, Singapore: Wah Mee Press, 1993, pp. 76-77.

Gayleg, Sonam and Ugen Choden. Wangduechhoeling Palace: A Historical Treasure, New York and Thimphu: The Bhutan Foundation and the Division of Conservation of Architectural Heritage Sites, Ministry of Home and Cultural Affairs, 2012.

Phuntsho, Karma. The History of Bhutan, New Delhi: Random House, 2013.

Ura, Karma. The Hero with a Thousand Eyes: A Historical Novel, Bhutan: published by the author, 1995.

Yangki, Dorji. "Sacred Fortresses of the Himalayas: Dzong Architecture of Bhutan", Orientations, Vol. 39, No. 1 (January/ February 2008), pp. 55-61.

Caption: 1 A view of Wangduechhoeling Palace, the first large structure in Bhutan to be built as a residential mansion and not a fortress-monastery. Photograph [c] Bruce Bunting.

Caption: 2 The northern facade of Wangduechhoeling Palace forms a part of the rectangular structure built following the general layout of dzong architecture. Photograph [c] David Taggart.

Caption: 3 The utse or central tower is believed to be the earliest structure in the Wangduechhoeling Palace complex, built by Jigme Namgyal in 1857. Photograph [c] Bhutan Foundation.

Caption: 4 The western facade of Wangduechhoeling Palace: timber is used for windows and entrances from foundation to roof level. Photograph [c] Tshering Yangzom.

Caption: 5 The western entrance of Wangduechhoeling Palace, traditionally leading to the archery grounds, now serves as the main doorway to the palace interior. Photograph [c] Bhutan Foundation.

Caption: 6 The interior facade of the shakor of Wangduechhoeling Palace displays the heavy use of timber in Bhutanese architecture. Photograph [c] Tshering Yangzom.

Caption: 7 The blue painting on this doorway and many other parts of Wangduechhoeling Palace is unique and has been popularly replicated in modern structures. Photograph [c] Bhutan Foundation.

Caption: 8 Visitors to Wangduechhoeling Palace dismounted from their horses, muffled the bells and removed their hats at the five chukor manis located just before the palace entrance. Photograph [c] Bruce Bunting.


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Title Annotation:PERSPECTIVES
Author:Choden, Ugen
Publication:Marg, A Magazine of the Arts
Date:Jun 1, 2015
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