About 5km south of Thimphu on the old road to Paro and Phuentsholing, atmospheric Simtokha Dzong was built in 1629 by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal. The site is said to guard a demon that had vanished into the rock nearby, hence the name Simtokha, from simmo (demoness) and do (stone). The site was also a vitally strategic location from which to protect the Thimphu valley and entryway to the Dochu La and eastern Bhutan.
Officially known as Sangak Zabdhon Phodrang (Palace of the Profound Meaning of Secret Mantras), it is often said to be the first dzong built in Bhutan. In fact, there were dzongs in Bhutan as early as 1153, but this was the first dzong built by the Zhabdrung, was the first structure to incorporate both monastic and administrative facilities, and is the oldest dzong to have survived as a complete structure. Just above the dzong is the Institute for Language and Culture Studies.
During its construction Simtokha Dzong was attacked by an alliance of Tibetans and five Bhutanese lamas from rival Buddhist schools who were opposed to the Zhabdrung's rule. The attack was repelled and the leader of the coalition, Palden Lama, was killed. In 1630 the Tibetans again attacked and took control of the dzong. The Zhabdrung regained control when the main building caught fire and the roof collapsed, killing the invaders. Descriptions of the original Simtokha Dzong were provided by the two Portuguese Jesuit priests who visited here in 1629 on their way to Tibet.
Expansion and restoration of the dzong was performed by the third Druk Desi, Mingyur Tenpa, in the 1670s. It has been enlarged and restored many times since, most recently by a team of Japanese architects. The dzong is about 60 sq metres, and the only gate is on the south side (though the original gate was on the west side).
The utse is three storeys high, and behind the usual prayer wheels around the outside there is a line of more than 300 fine slate carvings depicting saints and philosophers. The large central figure in the central lhakhang is of Sakyamuni, flanked by the eight bodhisattvas. The dark murals inside this lhakhang are some of the oldest and most beautiful in Bhutan. In the western chapel are statues of Chenresig, green and white Taras, and an early painting of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, which was cleaned in 1995 but is still cracked. Check out the tigers' tails and guns hanging from the pillars in the eastern goenkhang. The protector chapel is dedicated to the protectors of Bhutan, Yeshe Goenpo (Mahakala) and Pelden Lhamo.