Guru Padmasambhava in the 8th century prophesied that a young man named Namgyel would come to a mountain with the appearance of a sleeping elephant and build a Dzong upon the elephant’s trunk. The prophecy was fulfilled when Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel built the Punakha Dzong in 1637. According to the narratives, the chief carpenter “Zow Balep” commissioned to construct the Dzong was instructed to sleep in the small temple in the area where he is said to have dreamt about the impressive architectural design of the present Dzong. It is also believed that the construction of the Dzong was aided by the local deity in the region.
Aside from the mythical accounts of its origin, Punakha Dzong has also witnessed historical events and played a significant role in the country’s history. The Dzong was attacked by Tibetan troops in 1639 and a subsequent attack in 1644 with the Bhutanese warriors emerging victorious on both accounts and the Tibetan commanders publicly submitting to Zhabdrung. To commemorate the victory, a New Year festival was introduced where the victorious soldiers (Pazaps) reenact the war. This tradition is observed even today during the annual Punakha Domchoe. Punakha Dzong also witnessed the institution of Monarchy by crowning Ugyen Wangchuck as Bhutan’s first King in 1907. Punakha valley was the first capital of Bhutan and Dzong served as the seat of the central Government.
Built on the confluence of Pho (male) Chu (River) and Mo (Female) Chu (River), the Dzong is accessible by crossing a traditional cantilever bridge over the Mo Chu River. A climb up the three steep wooden staircases leads to the Dzong. The staircases were strategically designed to be removed during the times of war making the Dzong inaccessible. The six storied central tower (Utse) houses Bhutan’s most sacred relic Rangjung Kharsapani “a self-created image of the Bodhisattva of compassion.” The Dzong has an enormous assembly hall of the monks (Kunrey) which houses a towering statue of the Buddha, Zhabdrung and Guru Padmasambhava.
Perhaps the most important is the temple (Machen Zimchu) within the Dzong where the embalmed body of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel (credited for unifying Bhutan and the establishment of dual administrative system) is kept. According to the history, his death was concealed from the public fearing disintegration of the newly formed nation. For many years, people were simply told that Zhabdrung had gone into meditation and that he would not be making any public appearances. With the exception of two senior attendant monks, only the King and the Je Khenpo (Spiritual head) are allowed inside the Zhabdrung’s shrine. As a tradition all Kings and Je Khenpos begin their reigns by offering prayers at this shrine.