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For most visitors to Bhutan, Paro Dzong will be either the first or the last dzong that they visit in the country. This is due to it's proximity to Paro Airport, the country's only air-link with the outside world. For us it was the first dzong and definitely one to remember. As our plane landed and taxied along the runway my eyes swivelled to hunt out the big white block on the hillside which I knew from my pre-trip research would be the dzong.
The concept of a dzong is an unusual blend of the sacred and the secular and something that's found in Himalayan Buddhist communities but is most characteristically Bhutanese. Traditionally a dzong was a combination of a fortress crossed with a monastery whilst today most serve as a combination of monastery and local government administration centres. I find something engaging about the idea that a place full of peaceful mediating Buddhist monks would also have loads of people firing arrows at Tibetan armies who were attempting to invade.
Construction of the current dzong started in 1644 and was part of a mass dzong-building movement across Bhutan. It's a fair bet that if you guess 17th Century when you see a dzong, you'll probably be right and equally fair to say that it's hard to date them just by looking. They all share the same design elements of massive whitewashed walls with a thick brown band near the roof-line and because everything whether new or old is made in the same way and to the same standard of traditional craftsmanship it's hard to guess the age. If you are looking for a Dragons Den idea, there must be a good business for dzong painters and people who rent out very long ladders in Bhutan.
The Paro dzong sits on a hillside overlooking the river just outside the town. It's a great location for a defensive building as you really can see all the way up or down the Paro valley for many miles in each direction. The river is known locally as the 'No Fish River' because, not surprisingly, there are no fish in it. Our guide tried to explain why but the advanced theories of aquaculture combined with his accent meant I just resorted to smiling and nodding as if I knew just what he was saying. I have to say though that if I was a fish, a river of glacial melt-water probably wouldn't be my first choice either.
We parked near to the wooden covered bridge that crosses the fish-free river and it was hard not to be impressed by the bulk of the dzong sitting above us. The walls, as in all dzongs, are very thick and lean inwards - intentionally, not like the end wall of our house which is about 40 years older than the dzong but probably hasn't been looked after so well. There are slots in the walls for shooting at the invaders and from the outside you really can't peep in. It's the sort of look that says 'Keep away unless you have an invitation'. On the way up the steep hill to the entrance we welcomed the opportunity to stop and take photos of the valley, the airport and local houses with their traditional architecture. And of course, the opportunity to suck some thin clean air into our lungs which hadn't yet acclimatised to the altitude.
There's a single entrance to the dzong and it's on the back of the building so you need to go all the way up the hill and round the back. The entrance is reached up a flight of stairs and across a wooden bridge over a steep drop. I guess this bridge could be withdrawn in the event of an attack. Our guide adjusted his attire to make sure he met the standards required of all Bhutanese when entering a government building. This mostly seems to consist of draping a very large cream shawl about the body in a complex and impractical way. This met the approval of the policeman on the door and we were inside.
Inside we really didn't know what to expect and were thrilled with all the bright and detailed frescoes and religious paintings. These followed classic themes which soon became familiar to us over the week of our visit - the four protective kings, the wheel of life, the Four Friends and in the case of Paro, some fascinating scenes of men leading tigers which had allegedly leapt our of their knees. I can certainly say I could have used some tigers in my knees on some of the climbs we made that week.
Once inside, the dzong is rectangular in footprint with an inner tower and a number of separate courtyards. There are more than a dozen different temples inside but not all are open to visitors. If you look around you may catch site of red and purple-clad monks watching you from the upper balconies but somehow they melt away into invisibility if you sneak your camera in their direction. The decoration inside the dzong is a visual feast - it's hard to know what's old and what's new because everything knits together so consistently. The plain white walls set off the brightly coloured painted and carved wood, covered with dragons, flowers and symbols. Windows tend to be small - well it must be very cold in the winter - with strange arched shapes and lost of painted decoration. At the end nearest the town - and so furthest from the entrance - there are floor to ceiling windows that offer spectacular views over the valley.
As our first dzong, we didn't really know what to expect but we certainly weren't disappointed. I feared that those that followed might all be much of a muchness but each and every dzong was very different. Despite combining the same elements, the atmosphere and layout of each was unique. I have been to many Buddhist countries where I'm ashamed to admit that I became a bit jaded with temples, but no dzong ever disappointed.
It was built in the 16th century and is also known as the Rinpung Dzong which means a fortress that sits on a heap of jewels.