From the period of Zhabdrung and until the beginning of the 18th century, Bhutan was confronted with repeated external invasions from Tibet and internal opposition from the five groups (schools) of Lams. Continuous disputes, political conflicts, and wars necessitated the seat of religion and government – the Rinpung Dzong – to have its own guardian watchtower or Ta dzong, in addition to fortified structures to keep close watch on the movement of enemy forces and protect against their attack. Paro Ta dzong, the fortress of watchtower was thus built on the promontory of the eastern spur of Paro valley directly above Rinpung Dzong in 1649 by La Ngonpa Tenzin Drugdra, the first Paro Penlop or Governor of Paro, who later rose to prominence as the Second Druk Desi or Temporal Ruler of Bhutan from1656 to 1665. Tenzin Drugdra was born in Trongsa (Mangde) and was the half-brother of the great Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, the founder of Bhutan.
La Ngonpa Tenzin Drugdra built the most unique architectural monument, with features unlike most other notable structures in the country. Nearly four centuries old, the building design is said to emulate the union of the sun and the crescent moon, which are considered an emblem of victory. The structure is unusual because of its circular ground plan with the central tower reaching a full height of seven stories. The impenetrable stonewalls are 2.5 meters thick, with arrow loops and oriel windows, thus fortifying the building with significant stability. Its strategic location provides a visual advantage for its intended defensive purpose with a panoramic view of the Paro from the hillock of Hungrel.
The construction was done with a highly evolved degree of masonry work, evident of skilled craftsmanship. The stone walls are constructed with stones in different sizes make for strong durable walls, and at different intervals massive stones are used to anchor and hold the masonry walls. In 1714, earthquake tremors occurred over a fifteen day period, and later in 1896, a very strong earthquake damaged many dzongs and temples. Paro Ta Dzong escaped all these historic damages due to its strong and durable structure, in particular the walls.
In the 17th century the Ta Dzong along with its primary purpose as a watchtower, also served as a supplies storehouse, and most importantly as the residence of Dzongpons (Governors). The networks of secret underground tunnels connecting it to the Rinpung Dzong served a dual purpose to source supply of water to the Ta Dzong from the Paro River and provide supplies to Rinpung Dzong in the event of war.
In 1872, Jigme Namgyel, Penlop or Governor of Trongsa sent his son, Gongsa Ugyen Wangchuck at the young age of 15 years to suppress the revolt instigated by Parob Tshewang Norbu (Governor of Paro) and Puna Dzongpon Ngodrub (Governor of Punakha). During the conflict Ugyen Wangchuck was taken prisoner and was held captive in the dungeons located on the ground floor of the Ta Dzong. A plot to assassinate him was uncovered, and foiled by his father Jigme Namgyel, and the building heralded the eventual triumph over his foes. Later in 1919, His Majesty Gongsa Ugyen Wangchuck was enthroned as the first hereditary monarch of Bhutan.
Conversion from Watch-tower to Museum
By the 18th century Bhutan enjoyed political stability under the reign of the Wangchuck Dynasty. The arts flourished and people enjoyed unprecedented peace and prosperity. The Ta Dzong lost its primary military function as a watch tower and gradually became redundant, forgotten, and slipped into ruins.
During the reign of His Majesty the Third Druk Gyalpo Jigme Dorji Wangchuck (1929–1972) Bhutan emerged from its self-imposed isolation and opened the country to the outside world. Recognized as the ‘Father of Modernization’, it was during His Majesty Jigme Dorji Wangchuck’s reign that the country witnessed the introduction and development of infrastructure for transportation, communications, education, health system and agriculture. He was aptly recognized as “Father of Modernization”. His Majesty paid considerable policy attention to the preservation and promotion of Bhutanese culture and traditions in order to safeguard Bhutan’s identity as a sovereign nation.
In 1960, His Majesty Jigme Dorji Wangchuck decreed that the historic fortified Paro Ta Dzong be renovated to house the National Museum of Bhutan, the first museum in the country. The renovation to convert Ta Dzong into a museum was initiated under the supervision of the then Ministry of Development. A motor-able approach road was constructed for accessibility and although no significant alterations were made to the exterior structure, the interiors of the building were modified to create galleries to display artifacts of cultural and historic significance.
The National Museum was thus opened in 1965, initially hosting only a few personal guests of the Royal Family, dignitaries and government officials. In 1968, the National Museum of Bhutan was opened to the general public.
By the 1970’s with the introduction and growth of the new tourism sector, the number of museum visitors increased. In between 1974–1975 due to mounting demand, an upgrade of the electrical wiring and lighting was undertaken, and additional galleries were opened. The new exhibits showcased a myriad of Bhutanese works—from thangkas to postage stamps, weaponry to bronze ware. The following year saw continued exhibition projects, including the design and fabrication of showcases in traditional Bhutanese designs, as well as the installation of fire safety equipment throughout the premises. In 2000 with financial assistance from the Japanese Cultural Grant the display units were further improved upon along with rewiring of the electrical components.
Originally built for defensive purposes, Ta Dzong, Paro had been reinvented with a change of function, a reflection of the continued peace, prosperity and stability of the kingdom. Previously used as a military defense post to protect from invading armies, the structure now provides a safe haven for thousands of artistic, cultural and anthropological artifacts. In addition, the National Museum of Bhutan spotlights the kingdom’s natural history and significant national treasures. Until 2001, the National Museum of Bhutan was the only museum in the country, and is a treasure house of significant history, Bhutan’s central encyclopedic museum.
Earthquake of 2011
On Sunday September 8, 2011, a powerful 6.8 magnitude earthquake struck Bhutan. The epicenter was recorded about 400 kilometers from Paro in the neighboring Indian State of Sikkim. After nearly 400 years of stability, the 17th century Paro Ta-Dzong, now the National Museum, suffered extensive damage. The building sustained considerable destruction, with the upper section of the stone wall on the main tower collapsing and stress cracks throughout the lower sections. Damage was further exacerbated due to its location on the windward slope of hill overlooking Paro valley.
Fortunately, this did not culminate in damage to the artifacts, albeit a few clay statues installed on the mandala tree in the sixth floor Tshogzhing Lhakhang. Immediate precautionary measures were taken to save the original structure from completely collapsing. The affected section of the stone walls were shored up with iron beams. A gaping hole was sealed off with stone and mortar in an effort to buy sufficient time to evacuate the artifacts from the exhibition galleries and plan the thoughtful careful renovation of the structure with minimal changes to the original structure.
The evacuation activities were successfully implemented with the transfer of artifacts from the galleries into storage areas located on the fourth floor. The museum resumed operations with temporary exhibitions that are developed and showcased in a separate administrative block, along with exhibitions in natural history and the mask galleries.
The renovation of National Museum of Bhutan was initiated/implemented in 2014 with funding support from the Government of India under the auspices of the Royal Government of Bhutan by the Division for Conservation of Heritage Sites, Department of Culture, Ministry of Home and Cultural Affairs.
The first phase of the renovation included demolishing the sections of the stonewalls which were deemed structurally unstable. The removal of the wooden components that included sections of the roof, truss and windows in keeping with the values and traditions associated this heritage monument was completed. Within a month,the reconstruction of stonewalls began, using traditional masonry techniques to rebuild the section of the wall from the ground up. The architectural and structural design of the renovation was developed in keeping with the original building using local craftsmen. Refurbished and or new windows and a door were installed along with arrow slits conforming to the original structure.
By December 2017, the outer structural reconstruction works were completed. In order to maintain the aesthetics of the original floor plans and historic exhibition galleries, minimal modifications were made in the interior. The old built-in-display units were restored and additional display units were developed in conformity to the original designs. However, this was an opportunity for some conservation related improvements, including a complete makeover of the museum lighting in both galleries and display cases.
Although all efforts were made to maintain the display units in the original designs, new and safer, archival mounting techniques were adopted and new exhibit labels developed, to enhance the information, knowledge, viewing, and security of the artifacts.
Due to unforeseen and additional renovation work necessary to meet the high standards befitting the National Museum, as expected by the Department of Culture, Ministry of Home and Cultural Affairs, the re-launch could not be made as planned.
Today with renovation and rearrangement of galleries complete, after more than eight years of closure the re-launch of the National Museum of Bhutan is scheduled on 24th June, 2020, co-incinding with the 3rd Day of 5th Bhutanese month of Iron Male Rat year.