Punakha (སྤུ་ན་ཁ་) is the administrative center of Punakha dzongkhag, one of the 20 districts of Bhutan. Punakha was the capital of Bhutan and the seat of government until 1955, when the capital was moved to Thimphu. It is about 72 km away from Thimphu and it takes about 2 ½ hours by car from the capital Thimphu. Unlike Thimphu it is quite warm in winter and hot in summer. It is located at an elevation of 1200 m aboove sea level and rice is grown as the main crop along the river valleys of two main rivers of Bhutan, the Pho Chu and Mo Chu. Dzongkha is widely spoken in this district.
The Punakha Dzong was constructed by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal in 1637-38. It is the winter home of Bhutan’s Central Monk Body led by the Je Khenpo. Punakha Dzong is perhaps Bhutan’s most attractive landmark. Constructed in 1637-8 during the reign of the Shabdrung, the dzong was Bhutan’s second, after Simtokha in Thimpu. At 600 ft long, the dzong has housed as many as 600 monks. Today, the Central Monk Body winters here before moving to Trashi Chhoe dzong in Thimpu for summer. The dzong also hosted the National Assembly until the capital was moved to Thimpu in 1961.
The dzong has survived 6 fires, 2 glacial lake bursts, and 1 earthquake. Its defensive fortifications include a giant wooden front door that is still closed and barred shut at night and a steep set of front steps than can be pulled up.
The dzong’s location at the confluence of the Mo Chhu and the Pho Chhu (literally, the mother and father rivers) not only quelled the spirits present wherever two rivers meet, but it was also foretold by Guru Rinpoche in the 8th century, when he said that a man would “arrive at a hill shaped like an elephant.” (Guru Rinpoche introduced Buddhism to Bhutan.) Look closely at the two hills left of the dzong and you might be able to see the elephant laying down with its trunk pointing at the dzong.
The architect of the dzong conceived the dzong in a dream where Guru Rinpoche took him to Zangto Pelri, the Guru’s heavenly abode. Of course, the design was never put on paper or even sketched.
Machey Lhakhang in Punakha dzong holds the remains of the Shabdrung, who built and died in the dzong. Only four people are allowed into the room where the casket is held: the King, the Chief Abbott, and two caretaker monks.
Also in the dzong is Bhutan’s prize possession, an image stolen by the Shabdrung from Tibet, which resulted in a protracted series of invasions by Tibet (often at Paro’s expense).
This courtyard is the monastic courtyard.
The Chief Abbott lives in the corner of the dzong to the far right in this pic. His residence was destroyed by fire in 1986 and is still being restored. A large Bodhi tree (the species under which Buddha meditated) occupies the courtyard (dochey). This courtyard houses the dzong’s administrative offices.
In 1907, Punakha Dzong was the site of the coronation of Ugyen Wangchuck (or Deb Nagpo) as the first King of Bhutan. Three years later, a treaty was signed at Punankha whereby the British agreed not to interfere in Bhutanese internal affairs and Bhutan allowed Britain to direct its foreign affairs.
In 1987, the dzong was partially destroyed by fire.
Due to its location at the confluence of the Pho Chhu and Mo Chhu rivers in the Punakha-Wangdue valley, the dzong is vulnerable to flash flooding caused by glacier lakes (GLOF). According to a recent report, flash flood damage to Punakha Dzong occurred in 1957, 1960 and 1994.
Punakha valley is famous in Bhutan for rice farming. Both red and white rice are grown along the river vallley of Pho and Mo Chu, two of the most prominent rivers in Bhutan. The village houses are made of pounded mud with stone machinery foundations. Each house is only two storeys high. Surrounding the houses are the gardens and the rice fields. The gardens also usually have fruit bearing plants like oranges and papaya among the organic vegetables. In the recent years, the farming work has been mechanized and power-tillers instead of bullocks are used to plough the fields and villagers have become relatively prosperous.