Introduction to Sites and Structures in Bhutan

Bhutan’s architectural forms are quite diverse. Chortens, stone walls, temples, monasteries, fortresses, mansions and houses make up a unique architectural landscape.
Bhutanese architecture is a remarkable adaptation of Tibetan architecture to different ecological conditions. As in Tibet, the walls of fortresses slope inwards and are whitewashed, with the windows becoming larger in the upper storeys. However, in Bhutan, the need to cope with heavy rainfall and the availability of wood have given its architecture a flavour all its own.
Wood is widely used. The assembling of windows, doors and roofs is done at ground level and the finished elements fitted into the upper walls later. Windows are characterised by frames and by complicated lintels that carry symbolic meaning in all of their parts. Lintels and window frames are painted with floral or geometric designs.
The roofs are pitched above a flat floor. The beams are assembled by the dovean rail technique and covered with shingles held in place with heavy stones. All wooden elements were joined by tenon and mortise but nails came into use 60 years ago. Buildings are often destroyed by fire and reconstructed just as they were before. In the 1990s, having a small pagoda-shaped top crowning the roof became fashionable among the well-to-do.

Chortens & prayer walls
A chorten, which represents Buddha’s Mind, is erected in memory of an eminent lama or to ward off evil spirits from places normally considered dangerous, such as crossroads, bridges and mountain passes. There are three types of Bhutanese chorten: large chortens of whitewashed stone modelled after the chorten of Bodnath in Nepal; smaller stone chortens very much in the Tibetan style, found especially in central and eastern Bhutan and often protected by a wooden superstructure; and square-shaped chortens with the roof composed of four slopes and the upper part just below the roof decorated by a wide red stripe—these are mostly found in Western Bhutan and are similar to some of the chortens of the Derge area (Kham in Eastern Tibet).
Like statues, chortens are consecrated. They contain a ‘tree of life’ inscribed with prayers. Statues, religious books, fragrant herbs and even weapons are placed inside them.
Two chortens may be linked together by a stone wall, a ‘mani wall’ named after the mantra of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara which is most often inscribed on the stones. One also sees the mantras of two other great bodhisattvas, Vajrapani and Manjushri.
The prayer walls made of stones, are relatively few in number and fairly short in Bhutan, a circumstance perhaps explained by the topography, which does not lend itself to lengthy constructions.

Lhakhang (temples) are fairly small buildings of simple design which are likely to comprise one storey around a small enclosed courtyard. They differ from ordinary houses by the red band painted on the upper part of their walls and an ornament of gilded copper on the roof. Inside, the walls are completely covered with paintings, and the interior space is sometimes divided by pillars into an antechamber and the sanctuary proper. These buildings seem to have been the first forms of religious architecture and some of them are centuries old. Lhakhang are maintained by a caretaker who may be a member of the owner’s family if it is private, or be assigned by the state clergy if it is state property. There are usually several lhakhangs in one monastery or fortress.

Gonpas (monasteries) can be divided into two types: the ‘cluster’ type and the ‘dzong’ type.
The ‘cluster’ type is probably the oldest. It consists of a core formed by one or two temples with various dwelling structures grouped around it. Examples of this type are Dzongdrakha in the Paro valley, Phajoding in the Thimphu valley, and Tharpaling in the Bumthang valley.
The ‘dzong’ type is built like a fortress with a central tower enclosing the temples and surrounded by exterior walls against which are built monks’ cells and service rooms.

Bhutanese fortresses are known as dzongs and were constructed at strategic points for political reasons. They contain both regional Drukpa monastic communities and the administrative offices of the district government. The solidity and elegance of the sloping walls, combined with richly detailed woodwork and the ethereal character of the pitched roof, make the dzong one of the most beautiful architectural forms of Asia. The basic pattern of a dzong consists of a central tower, utse, built in the middle of a courtyard, while monks’ cells and administrative offices back up against the walls that surround it. However, certain dzongshave two separate courtyards delimited by the central tower, one encompassed by administrative buildings and the other by buildings belonging to the clergy.
Courtyards and buildings are sometimes constructed on different levels following the slope of the terrain.

Vernacular Architecture
Mansions/palaces seem to have appeared during the period at the end of the 19th century when the country began to enjoy relative peace and the lords of Bumthang acquired great political power. The construction of these residences continued during the reigns of the first and second kings. Their basic layout was, in fact, very similar to that of a fortress: the lord and his family lived in a central building surrounded by an enclosed courtyard with service buildings backed up against its walls. However, the architecture of these residences was less severe than that of dzongs, which were built for defence. There was considerably more decoration on the woodwork, and windows opened even from the exterior walls. The upper floor of the central building was always turned into a private chapel. This room was decorated with painted murals and contained numerous statues as well as the religious books needed for rituals.
All dzongs, lordly residences and important temples are built of stone, while village houses are constructed of different materials depending on their locations. In western Bhutan, adobe (rammed earth) is the commonest building material, whereas in the centre and east, stone is preferred. In eastern Bhutan, woven bamboo mats were also used for building, and often served as roofing for small houses on stilts.
Throughout Bhutan, rural houses have the same characteristics: they are rectangular, with one or two storeys. The upper floors are constructed almost universally as an open wooden framework with bamboo lathing filling the spaces, covered by white plaster. Although in former times the wooden framework and the plaster were left as they were, the tendency nowadays is to paint them and decorate them with various designs.
Windows traditionally had no permanent protective screening; sometimes bamboo screens were put up to shut out bad weather without excluding light, but today glass is widely used. At night, windows are closed from the inside by sliding shutters.
The roof is the same as for other buildings, and the space between the flat roof and the two-sided sloping roof is used for drying vegetables or meat and for storing hay. In towns, this space is closed off with bamboo mats.
In farmhouses, formerly never whitewashed, the ground floor is dimly lit by narrow windows and used for the farm animals and as a storeroom. The upper floors are reached by a ladder with steps hollowed out from a tree trunk. If there is a middle floor, it can be used for storage or to provide rooms for servants and visiting relatives. The top floor, which receives light from many windows, is where the family lives. It is divided into small rooms which do not have specialized uses except for the latrines (if they exist), the kitchen and the little private chapel, which sometimes doubles as a bedroom for guests and lamas.
The house gives on to a courtyard (sometimes covered), forming a terrace where all sorts of daily activities take place. This type of farm is found throughout the country, with regional variations and nowadays they are likely to be whitewashed and painted with auspicious designs.
The beauty of its proportions and decorations make a countryside Bhutanese house one of the loveliest examples of vernacular architecture.
In towns, the houses are similarly laid out but the ground floor has windows and contains the kitchen, the storeroom and the servants’ rooms. It can also be transformed into a small shop. The kitchen and the bathroom are sometimes located in a small annex attached to the rear of the house.