“In 1965, when His Majesty the Fourth Druk Gyalpo was 10 years old, we were staying in the beautiful Ugyen Palri Palace in Paro. In this Palace His Majesty was blessed with a wonderful and auspicious dream.”
Her Majesty Gyalyum Ashi Kesang Choeden Wangchuck shared the dream of the young Crown Prince in the preface of the book, “The Bodhisattva King.”
Narrating the story, Her Majesty wrote that the young Crown Prince had seen in his dream, the image of Demchok Padma Vajra Yab-Yum or the Cakrasamvara Padma Vajra, red in colour and surrounded by flames.
Her Majesty said that, that the next morning, the 69th Je Khenpo Gedun Rinchen (1926-1997), then known as Geshey Bjaku, came to see her in the Paro Palace.
When Her Majesty related the Crown Prince’s dream to him, Geshey Bjaku became exceedingly elated.
His Holiness confirmed that the Crown Prince had definitely seen the protecting deity, the red Yeshey Gonpo Chazhipa (Mahakala with four arms) that had also appeared 330 years before in Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal vision while he was at Chimi Lhakhang.
According to the oral account, at the time of Zhabdrung’s visit to Chimi Lhakhang there was no bridge to cross the river. After spending a night at Chimi Lhakhang and having this vision, it is said that the villagers of the area built a cane bridge and offered it to Zhabdrung Rinpoche and making it possible for Zhabdrung to cross the river to enter the Punakha valley.
In the preface of “The Bodhisattva King,” Her Majesty recounts how His Holiness, Je Gedun Rinchen took the dream as a cue to undertake a three-year retreat which he immediately began, meditating on Yeshey Gonpo for the long life of the Crown Prince. His Holiness spent his three years retreat at Kungacholing monastery in Paro and finally completing the retreat in 1968.
Je’s biography “The Smiling Moon,” corroborates the story. It states that during the three-year retreat, Gendun Rinchen observed the wrathful Dorji Phurpa (Guru Vajra Kilaya) practice that includes the thirteen aspects of Buddha Mitrugpa (Absobhya) and Bhutan’s guardian deity the Yeshey Goenpo (Mahakala).
While into the practice, stories are told of how an unkindness of ravens would encircle the monastery- this is a sign of spiritual accomplishment as ravens are considered the attendants of guardian deities.
When Her Majesty shared the account of her son’s dream with His Holiness Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche (1910-1991) and the Eighth Khamtrul Rinpoche Kalzang Dhongyud Nyima (1931 -1980), both these great Buddhist masters confirmed that the Crown Prince had been blessed with the vision of Demchok Padma Vajra.
With the blessings of Khyentse Rinpoche, Her Majesty and her mother Mayum Rani Choni Wangmo Dorji (1897-1997) built the beautiful Demchok Khorlo Lhakhang in the Dukhang.
The sacred congregation hall is the chief site for the performance of the annual Zhabdrung Kuchoe observed on the 10th day of the third Bhutanese month every year, marking the day when the Zhabdrung passed away at the Punakha Dzong in 1651.
In 1978, the Demchok Khorlo Lhakhang was completed. Sculpted by the master Jinzop Damcho, the temple has some of the most exquisite statues with the holiest relics. The temple was consecrated three times.
His Eminence the Eighth Khamtrul Rinpoche carried out the first rabnay (consecration), performing the Demchok ritual with 60 deities in accordance with the Nyingma tradition.
His Holiness the 67th Je Khenpo Nyinzer Trulku Ngawang Thinley (1921-2005) carried out the second consecration, performing the Demchok ritual with 13 deities in accordance with the Drukpa Kagyu tradition.
Khyentse Rinpoche carried out the final consecration. His Holiness performed the Dorsem Dubchen (accomplishment of Vajrasattva) in accordance with the Nyingma tradition.
Upon the request of Mayum Choni Wangmo Dorji, Khyentse Rinpoche established the annual Demchok Dubchen in the new Lhakhang of the Punakha Dzong in the autumn of 1979. Rinpoche presided over the first Demchok Padma Vajra Dubchen in the newly built temple.
The Dechog Padma Vajra Drubchen is the “mind treasure” of the great Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo. Rinpoche presided over it for 13 years till 1990.
After Khyentse Rinpoche passed away in September 1991, Her Majesty requested His Holiness Je Khenpo Gendun Rinchen to perform the Drubchen by offering it to the Zhung Dratshang. Since then, the Central Monk Body has been conducting the annual ritual without fail to this present day.
The Punakha Dzong
Built on the holy site of the Demchok Khorlo Dompa (Cakrasamvara), Punakha earned the name Pungthang or, “On the ground of the Heaped Jewel.” The Dzong is known as Dechen Phodrang or, “The Palace of Great Bliss.”
From historical records, it is said that after crossing the Punakha River on the bamboo cane bridge Zhabdrung eventually laid the foundation of the dzong that fell on the eighth day of the eighth month of the Fire Ox Year in 1637. The construction of this marvel is steeped in mystery and magic.
The Punakha Dzong is the most important dzong that Zhabdrung built and it played a crucial role in his life. Constructed as his central seat in lieu of his spiritual and temporal seat in Ralung in Tibet, it was designed to accommodate 600 monks.
The dzong is not only the most sacred space in the country but it also has great historical significance and is considered the epitome of Bhutanese architecture.
The preserved body of Zhabdrung and his son Jampel Dorji are both kept in the Dzong. While the earthly remains of the Zhabdrung are kept in the Marchen Lhakhang, which is completely devoted to his memory, the remains of his son are kept in the Utse (central tower).
Another sacred and national treasure, the Rangjung Kharsapani, is also kept in the Dzong for a good part of the year. Zhabdrung brought this sacred relic with him when he fled Tibet. It is a self-manifested image of Avalokiteshvara, from vertebrae of the founder of the Drukpa lineage, the great Tsangpa Gyare (1161-1211).
Historically, the Punakha Dzong served as the main seat of both the secular and temporal government for many centuries. Our first Druk Gyalpo’s coronation in 1907 was held there. Since then, all our Druk Gyalpo’s and Je Khenpos that followed begin their reigns by receiving the blessed five-coloured scarf from the inner sanctum of the sacred Marchen Lhakhang.
In addition to serving as the first capital of Bhutan, our first National Assembly meeting was held in this magnificent dzong in 1953.
The Punakha Dzong is an architectural marvel. It represents the finest Bhutanese craftsmanship. One of the unique features of the Dzong is the Utse that has a Chinese style golden roof like the Tashichhozong Utse. Both were built by the 13th Desi.
Constructed on what is believed to be on the trunk of an elephant the dzong is built on the banks of the two rivers. It is believed to be a geomantic power place.
The Dzong has captured the imaginations of many people and continued to do so. For example, in 1688, King Sangay Tenpa of Derge asked Bhutan’s monk ambassador Jamgon Ngawang Gyeltshen (1647-1732), to describe the architecture of Punakha Dzong.
As a celebrated artist, Jamgon was able to describe the dzong in detail in the form of versified praise for the magnificent Dzong. The Derge King was so impressed with the description that he drew a beautiful thangka of the Dzong and its panoramic surroundings based upon Jamgon’s eulogy.
While the dzong was an impregnable fortress, it suffered from many devastating fires. From historical records, we know that “The Palace of Great Bliss, was ravaged by fire mainly triggered by civil strife. The dzong was destroyed by fire at least six times in the years 1780, 1798, 1802, 1831, 1849, and 1986.
The tragic fire of 1780 that razed the dzong much of the dzong was but the first of many in the years following its construction in 1637.
Dr Karma Phuntsho reproduced an eyewitness account of the fire by Ngawang Chokyi Gyaltshen in his book, “The History of Bhutan.”
“Flames spread like a canopy inside and outside and in between the doors. The wooden frame of the central tower was engulfed by patterns of flames with roaring and cracking sounds. It was like the realm of death; we ran out in a rush with no attachment to anything. In an instant, the palace of Cakrasamvara was reduced to ashes by the fire of people’s misfortunes.”
The 18th Desi Jigme Singye (r.1775-1788) rebuilt the Dzong. But once again, it was reduced to rubble in 1798 under the watch of the 21st Desi Druk Namgyal (r.1796-1802).
Historians tell stories of how monks rushed out in panic leaving behind most of the relics.
Another story is told how the 18th Je Khenpo Jamyang Gyeltshen (1743-1816) after successfully evacuating the monks out of the dzong rushed out of the blazing dzong. Apparently, he rushed out with whatever he could lay his hands on. When he reached outside, he realized he had only brought a monk’s robe. But he took it as an omen that Buddhist teachings will survive. Although most of the holy relics could not be saved, Zhabdrung’s Marchen was saved.
Je Khenpo Jamgyang Gyeltshen started the reconstruction and restocking of the Dzong. A little more than a year after the reconstruction, in 1802 another civil strife broke out. This time the feud was between the retired Desi Sonam Gyaltshen (r.1792-1796) and the incumbent Desi. This resulted in bloodshed and the death of the Desi Druk Namgyal. Desi Sonam Gyaltshen (r.1802-1805) then took over the rein as the 22nd Desi.
On 29 April 1802, to avenge the death, the supporters of the deceased Desis’ set the Dzong on fire.
At the time, the young Zhabdrung incarnate, Jigme Drakpa II was residing in the Dzong. He was fortunate to escape unscathed but Je Khenpo Jamyang Gyeltshen’s health was affected and he passed away the following year. Desi Sonam Gyaltshen restored the Dzong in little more than a year.
The details of the fire of 1831, is in Lopen Pemala’s book, History of Bhutan: The Luminous Mirror to the Land of the Dragon. The monk scholar states the fire started on the 13th day of the 3rd lunar month in 1831 and destroyed the Dzong for the fourth time. The book states that the Je Khenpo, the Penlop and the monk body had to move to Tashichhodzong and this triggered further civil strife.
The 25th February 1986 fire is better documented. It damaged the southwest corner of the Dzong which houses the residence of His Holiness the Je Khenpo. Unlike the earlier fires, it was believed to have been caused due to electrical defects.
The Dzong was shaken twice by earthquake. Little is known about the 1714 earthquake but the Great Assam Earthquake of 1897 shook the structure, causing serious damage to Dzong.
The Dzong faced at least four imminent threats from floods. The first was in 1835. It is believed that this flood that damaged the Punakha Dzong was triggered by the spells that Zhabdrung Jigme Norbu (1831-1861) cast from Lhasa where he had taken temporary residence after fleeing from Bhutan.
The second flood occurred in 1915. It washed away the cantilever bridges of Punakha that had been built earlier in 1720-1730 by the Fourth Desi.
Except for a photograph that shows the altered river pattern, not much is known about the flood that occurred in the 1960s.
The fourth and most recent flood was the Glacial Lake Outburst Flood of 1994. It posed a great threat to the Dzong and almost washed away the Dzongchung. Part of the wall of the structure was washed away but the main structure and the sacred Jowo statue were miraculously saved reaffirming the belief that sacred Jowo protects the Dzong.
Cakrasamvara is the circle of supreme bliss and symbolizes Buddha’s mind of compassion. Inspired by our Fourth Druk Gyalpo’s dream of this deity when he was ten years old, Her Majesty and Mayum Choni built the beautiful Demchok Khorlo Lhakhang in the Dukhang with its exquisite statues, and continue to support the Drubchen which has been performed for the last 42 years.
The Dzong has survived both man-made and natural threats including at least four Tibetan invasions in the years of 1634, 1639 and 1648. The Dzong has been damaged by fire at least six times, faced two earthquakes, and four floods but each and every time, “The Palace of Great Bliss,” was restored to its former glory.
The Palace of Great Bliss with its multiple courtyards, numerous temples is the epitome of Bhutanese architecture. The national heritage continues to preserve ancient traditions and with is innumerable national treasures is the most sacred space in the country that all Bhutanese protect, cherish and enjoy to this day.