If walls could speak the Semtokha Dzong would tell fascinating stories of the days when the Bhutanese polity was established, when fact and mythology merged to form Bhutanese history.
On October 14, His Majesty the King, His Majesty the fourth Druk Gyalpo, the Royal Family, Bhutanese and international dignitaries, and the people of Thimphu, attended a simple and profoundly spiritual ceremony to consecrate the restored dzong.
The ceremony was conducted by His Holiness the Je Khenpo, invoking the blessings and essence of the wisdom of dragmar, dedicated to the wrathful form of Guru Lohita Rudra.
The Semtokha Dzong, with its ancient lhakhangs and sacred nangtens, was the forerunner of the dzong system in Bhutan and symbolises the beginning of the dual system of governance established by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal. Constructed between 1629 and 1631, the Zhabdrung lived in the dzong and his first son, Ngawang Jambay Dorji, was born there. It later became home to Gongsar Ugyen Wangchuck’s father, Jigme Namgyel.
The dzong was an architectural reference to all the other dzongs built in the country by Zhabdrung and still retains most of its original design and structure. The layout of the Utse of the Semtokha Dzong is based on the layout of a sacred Mandala with 12 sides. Designed as a fortress for military defense as well as religious functions, it merges into the surrounding natural terrain, unlike the buildings of present day Bhutan.
The Dzong’s antique murals are renowned for their historic and artistic value and the frescoes and images are among the finest in the country.
The Semtokha Dzong was restored between April 2005 and October 2008 with a contribution of more than Nu 101 million from the Government of India. To maintain the originality of the structure the restoration focused on conservation, explains project engineer, Karma Wangchuk, “we’ve preserved the unique original features of the dzong and restored it to its former glory,” he said.
The original design of the roof is a significant element of the restoration. It was re-roofed because the originality had not been maintained when the dzong was renovated in 2003. The original east entrance, which was sealed for hundreds of years, was opened. “Nobody knows when and why it had been sealed,” said Karma Wangchuk, who added that the 377-year old kachhens (wooden pillars) are now visibly seen at the entrance.
Among the new features added to the dzong is a Sangay Lhakhang with the Buddha statue as its main image. A Zhabdrung Lhakhang, with a mural painting of Zhabdrung Phuensum Tshogpa, was constructed to pay tribute to the Zhabdrung. The Zhabdrung’s personal walking stick, prayer beads, and leopard skin mat will be on display in the lhakhang. On the second floor, there is a residence for the Je Khenpo and a new section can accommodate more than 100 monks.
More than 100 experienced craftsmen, veterans of Taktshang Monastery, the Punakha Dzong, and Trongsa Dzong, worked on the restoration.
“I was personally humbled yet uplifted in that sacred space, by the extremely moving ceremony,” said the ambassador of India to Bhutan, Mr Sudhir Vyas. “We in the Government of India feel privileged in being able to support such a worthwhile cause. It has left a deep impression on me, seeing how the Bhutan of today, in spite of all the changes, development, economic progress, all the great events that mark this year, continues to value its history, religion, and culture.”
The 17th century was a turbulent time in the political history of Bhutan. In 1631, during the initial year of Zhabdrung’s residence in Semtokha Dzong, the fortress was attacked and taken over by Tibetan invaders. After a brief period, the dzong was regained by the Zhabdrung. In the years that followed, feudal leaders battled each other until the emergence of Gongsar Ugyen Wangchuck as the first hereditary King of Bhutan.
In 1961, on the command of the third Druk Gyalpo, the Semtokha Rigney School was established in the dzong by Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche. The rigzhung evolved into the Institute of Language and Cultural Studies on the command of the fourth Druk Gyalpo. Today, ILCS has 340 students and 26 teachers and the Semtokha Shedra (monastic school) has more than 130 monks and seven teachers.
“We’re happy that the first dzong in Bhutan, constructed by Zhabdrung, was restored to its full glory and preserved with modern ideas and technology and skilled workers,” said Dratshang’s Tsugla Lopon, Samten Dorji. “The perfect completion will not require any restoration for the next 400 to 500 years.”
“Bhutan is poised to enter a new era in its history,” said a student of he ILCS. “As a young boy today I’m glad that we’re starting this era with strong spiritual and cultural foundations. It means that, with the wisdom of ages symbolised by His Majesty the King, Bhutan will remain as strong as ever.”