Punakha Dzong ©Solange Hando
Dzongs, or fortified monasteries, are an integral part of the Bhutanese landscape with their sturdy inward-sloping walls and red roofs topped by gilded pinnacles. Most were erected in the 17th century when the Tibetan Lama, Shabdrung Namgyel, unified the country.
Monks in Jakar Dzong ©Solange Hando
Step through the gate (permit required) and you will find beautifully carved balconies and pillars surrounding a never-ending maze of courtyards, monastic quarters, offices, temples and shrines where monks practise their daily rituals and civilian authorities ensure the country's gross national happiness.
For visitors to Bhutan, the dzongs are a fabulous display of traditional art and architecture, draped in colourful flags, paintings and carvings, and the most memorable symbol of a pristine culture.
For the Bhutanese, it's a place to pray and offer donations, receive blessings and attend the annual merit-making festival. Respect is paramount when entering a dzong, shoes off, traditional dress, as worn in all public places, and ceremonial scarf over the shoulder.
Trashigang in Eastern Bhutan ©Solange Hando
Important dzongs include Thimphu and Paro in the west, Punakha and Wangdi Phrodang (currently being rebuilt after an extensive fire), Trongsa and Jakar in central Bhutan and Trashigang in the east.
Perched on hill tops or stretching along the rivers, they protect strategic points across the country but above all, they act as powerful guardians of Bhutan's unique culture and traditions.