top of page


A collective of designers who love to travel… sharing their journeys…..


Updated: Aug 6, 2020

Wheel of life – Buddhist Thangka painting in the Paro Dzong
Wheel of life – Buddhist Thangka painting in the Paro Dzong

Utopia literally means ‘No Place’, but it has come to signify an imagined perfect place that one can only aspire to. What earns the tiny nation of Bhutan, the sobriquet of ‘the last Shangri-la’ then? That imaginary place where everything is pleasant and you can get whatever you want, or perhaps as the citizens interpret it… you want whatever you can get? For the one thing that characterized the conversations with the Bhutanese that I met on my seven day trip was that they expressed a sense of satisfaction in their way of life. Nestled in between the two Asian behemoths of India and China, Bhutan as a nation started opening up its borders to the outside world only in 1974 and while tourism is a significant source of income for Bhutan, they would rather restrict the numbers of tourists than risk uncontrolled development that would invariably accompany the influx. And therefore visiting Bhutan feels like a privilege and you get the first taste of that when you land at the Paro Airport, which has a landing strip that is tucked in a valley between some pretty treacherous Himalayan slopes.

Paro International Airport

Immediately one can sense a visceral shift as the air in Bhutan is clean and pure, a miracle as far as developing nations go as Bhutan has pledged to remain carbon neutral and in fact manages to be carbon negative most of the time. The next shift one can sense is being surrounded by nature. The Bhutanese consciously eschew the Western model of development that has been blindly adopted by the rest of the developing world. They are categorical in their commitment to preserving their cultural and natural heritage. Our Bhutanese guide who was a young girl also revealed to us that Bhutanese society is largely not patriarchal and devoid of class biases.

The Tashiccho Dzong in Thimphu

My trip took me to the oft visited towns of Paro, Punakha – the ancient capital and Thimphu, the current capital and the largest city in Bhutan. Most Bhutanese have settled in the valleys carved into the Himalayas by several rivers and the cities I visited are also nestled in the drier plain-like valleys of Paro, Punakha and Thimphu respectively. The drives between these cities take you through relatively gentler and more rolling terrains unlike the steeper ones of the neighbouring Indian state of Sikkim. Situated in the valley formed by the Wang Chhu river, Thimphu is the political and economic capital of Bhutan. The urban character of Thimphu is dominated by small buildings that occupy the slopes and typically embody the prescriptive traditional architectural style seen in all of Bhutan. Corbelled and trabeated painted structures support sloping roofs adorn even the most blasé concrete frame buildings. Similar corbelled features are used to dress fenestrations. All buildings are mandated to follow these rules in order to preserve the visual harmony of the built environment.

Views of Thimphu Town

Some more notable sights in Thimphu are the Tashichho Dzong (fort with administrative and religious offices), the Memorial Chorten and the recently built Dordenma Buddha statue which is the world’s largest seated Shakyamuni Buddha statue made of bronze and gilded on the outside. Some of the more profane places to visit in the national capital are the farmers’ market where you can see organic produce brought in for sale from all over the country. Apart from a variety of cheeses and chillies which form the staple food of Ema Datsi, you can also find lots of varieties of mushrooms, potatoes and herbs. In addition you can visit the National Textile Museum and the Royal Academy of Performing Arts. Apart from several restaurants that offer Indian and Tibetan food, Thimphu offers some great places to sample traditional Bhutanese cuisine especially to those brave enough to try the cheese-chilly dishes. Personally the Ema Datsi or cheese-chilly dish was quite a shock to even my seasoned India palette but I’d definitely recommend it with caution. For the more seasoned world travellers there are some excellent Japanese, Korean and Thai restaurants also.

The Dordenma Buddha statue in bronze and gold

Heading east, enroute from Thimphu to Punakha one usually halts at the Dochula pass which is at an elevation of 3100 m and is the site of 108 memorial Chortens built by the Queen Mother to commemorate the Bhutanese army martyrs in their war against Assamese insurgents. After a short halt you continue along the winding road edging along the river until you arrive at the unparalleled Punakha Dzong, magically situated at the confluence of two rivers, the Pho Chhu (father) and the Mo Chhu (Mother) rivers. The second oldest Dzong, it was the ancient power center of Bhutan and is the most elaborate example of a Dzong as well. One enters the Dzong through a beautiful wooden bridge that spans the river and is then greeted by the most awe inspiring sight of lush Jacaranda trees in their full purple bloom. Inside, the Dzong is composed of a series of connected courtyards contained within buildings made of compacted earth, stone and timber. Sadly despite these beautiful ancient examples one can only see ruins of compacted earth buildings in the nearby villages, with traditional construction being replaced by the ubiquitous concrete and infill methods and so while it seems that there is an attempt to preserve the building traditions of Bhutan in effect without actually using the old methods its simply skin deep tradition mostly.

Travelling further east one comes upon the valley of Wangdue Phodrang that’s drained by the Punatsangchhu River. Several villages are situated in this valley and one can see phalluses painted on several of these houses. The paintings of these erect phalluses are believed to ward off evil eye and malicious gossip. These esoteric paintings have their origins in the Chimi Lakhang monastery, blessed by the maverick saint, Drukpa Kunley often called the ‘divine madman’. The temple is visited by those seeking fertility blessings or to offer thanks for new progeny. Beyond Wangdue, one can continue on towards Phobjika valley to spot black necked cranes that migrate here from Tibet during the winters.

I returned back to Paro to spend the last few days of the trip and finish with the greatly anticipated hike up to the Tiger’s Nest monastery that clings to the cliff way above the Paro Valley. In comparison to the bustle and density of Thimphu and the pastoral Punakha, Paro is a well laid out and gridded town. It is also home to some of the most luxurious resorts that Bhutan has to offer, perhaps because most tourists visit here to conquer the Tiger’s Nest hike. One of the resorts that we visited is the Amankora resort by the famous Kerry Hill Architects. Built in rammed earth, wood and stone, the project interprets the Bhutanese mandates on architecture in a very contemporary way without losing the integrity of the traditional built form. The expansive patios of the resort look directly on to the oldest known Dzong in Bhutan or the Drukgyel Dzong. The Amankora Paro is an exemplary manifestation of architecture in harmony with its natural context and as mentioned earlier perhaps more building can take a cue from construction techniques used here.

The Paro or the Rinphung Dzong is perched above the town and is the first monument that one sees on landing in Paro, right from the runway. You can overlook the entire town situated along the river from the vantage that the Dzong provides. Situated on a sharply contoured site the Dzong is also quite unique in that the interlocking courtyards are at different levels and one has to descend from one to the other. While the Punakha Dzong is the most iconic of all, I personally found myself fascinated by the spatial and formal complexity of the Paro Dzong. The large steps descending from one courtyard to the other are placed perpendicular to the primary axis of movement and that intensifies the experience of progressing from one courtyard to the next. The Paro valley is also surrounded by several hiking routes which commenced from there or the neighboring Haa valley. In addition one can also drive through dense pine, spruce and rhododendron forests up to Chele La pass. Finally the trek up to the Tiger’s Nest monastery or Takhatsang was the piece de resistance of the trip. The trail takes one up through lush greenery and the views of the monastery perched on the precipice are a reward in itself after one has made the effort of the demanding climb.

Paro Valley views from the Paro Dzong

Maybe Bhutan is not complicit with western ideals of Utopia, in that it is not abundance without restraint but plenitude because of sacrifice. Bhutan presents an interesting model of progress but it is embodied in several dichotomies. People are very disciplined yet very happy, they are willing to subdue individuality in favor of a common identity as seen in their architecture. Perhaps the most telling is that the country that is already the only carbon negative countries in the world is targeting expanding their forest cover from 81% to 84%. Where else but in Shangri-La would one gauge progress by such a metric?

Tiger’s Nest Monastery

All photos © Ekta Idnany

Some travel to relax, some to escape and some to find themselves; of late I find myself travel a lot for ‘history’. To understand why places are the way they are, how places seemly so far apart are connected and eventually how I’m connected to these places!

It was many years ago, on a trip to visit the district of Belém in Lisbon, Portugal – the place from where the pioneering Portuguese explorer Vasco Da Gama set off on an impossible journey to find an alternate route to India and landed on the shores of my hometown of Calicut in Kerala – I first heard the name: Zanzibar!

On returning from that trip I read a version of how Vasco da Gama ‘discovered’ the route to India. Apparently he had recorded in his diary that:

Upon his arrival at the port of Zanzibar in East Africa he saw a docked ship three times bigger than his own. He took an African interpreter to meet the owner of that ship – Chandan, a Gujarati trader who used to bring pine wood and teak from Kerala along with spices and take back diamonds to India.

Although it is now widely accepted that Vasco da Gama followed the Gujarati trader to reach the shores of India, other accounts state that the reluctant trader was in fact taken captive by the Portuguese and was forced to show them the way; in any case, as the saying goes – the rest is history!

A few weeks back I was finally able to make a trip to see this tropical island for myself. Today, Zanzibar (which is actually not one island but a small archipelago) is a semi-autonomous region which is part of the East African nation of Tanzania. In fact, the name of the country is a clipped compound of the names of the two states that unified to create it: Tanganyika and Zanzibar.

As you can see in the above images Zanzibar is a tropical paradise with immense natural beauty, nonetheless, to keep focus on the historic significance of this island the rest of this post will concentrate only on its oldest settlement and symbolic heart – Stone Town.

This world heritage designated town consists of some 2,000 coral-stone buildings, organised into different quarters and is a fascinating agglomeration of various cultural influences and architectural traditions from the East African coast and the world of the Indian Ocean. These quarters are bound together by an intricate network of narrow streets and lanes, which are so intimate that it is almost possible to walk from one end of the town to the other without having to brave the hot tropical sun.

To further understand and decipher the built form of Stone Town it is important to delve into the history of this town and the island in general. Although the town has its roots as a typical Swahili settlement, perhaps as early as the tenth century. Sometime in the seventeenth century Stone town became capital of Queen Fatma who ruled over the indigenous people of central Unguja (the main island of the archipelago). During this time the town was also settled upon by immigrants from Yemen and other Swalihis from the Kenyan coast. The Swahili architecture (which forms the bed rock of much the town) was predominately plain on the outside with people mostly experimenting internally with whatever limited available local building materials.

However, all this dramatically changed after 1698, when Zanzibar become part of the overseas holdings of Oman. (As someone who grew up in the Middle East I confess that I had no idea that Oman had a history of colonising many places along the East African coast.) And in 1832 in an unprecedented move the Omani ruler ‘Said bin Sultan’ even moved his court and capital from Muscat to Stone Town! He then went on to establish a ruling Arab elite and encouraged the development of clove plantations, using the island’s slave labour* (read more about this dark side of the history of this paradise island in the foot note to this post).

Although there are many structures in Stone town that point to the strong Omani presence in the city – none are as prominent as the Old Fort, also known as the Arab Fort. It was built in the 17th Century by the Omani’s, on the site of a Portuguese Chapel. The oldest building in Zanzibar was meant to shield the Arabs from the Portuguese and also served as a prison and execution point. The fort is located on the main seafront – which reminded me of the beautiful corniche of Mutrah in Muscat, Oman – adjacent to another landmark building of the city, the House of Wonders (former palace of the Sultan of Zanzibar), and facing the Forodhani Gardens (all of which can be seen clearly in the above aerial photo).

The other ethnic group to have a very deep impact on the architecture of Stone Town were the Gujaratis traders (mostly from the port of Cambay). But in terms of architecture: unlike the Omanis (who built introverted structures influenced by the Islamic conception of privacy), the Gujaratis built structures – that immediately transported me to the Pols (housing clusters) of Old Ahmedabad and also brought memories of walking along Gujarati street back home in Calicutwith elaborate windows and balconies, with delicate fretwork and coloured glazing!

This Indian Architectural influence reached its apogee in this building – the ‘Old Dispensary’ – built on a grand scale by Tharia Topan (an Indian Merchant from Bombay,again the link between this building and many structures in the older parts of Bombay like Fort, Colaba or Girgaon are very apparent here). Fortunately, this building was meticulously restored recently by Conservation Architect Dr. Archie Walls and the Aga Khan Trust for Culture and now houses the Stone Town Cultural Centre.

A few streets away from the previous building I ran into this beautiful house in the quarter of the town known as Hurumzi (named after the Persian Gulf island of ‘Hormuz’ in present day Iran). Interestingly, between the 10th to 17th centuries (when Zanzibar was gaining prominence in international trade), Hormuz island was the capital of the Kingdom of Ormus – a powerful naval state with a large and active trading fleet and a powerful navy.

As I meandered through the narrow lanes of Stone Town one thing became obvious – the majority of the architecture in this town was externally very subdued, barring of course the elaborately carved main door of the houses, which ends up being its most prominent architectural element. The size and craftsmanship of these doors were (and to some extend still is) considered a mark of status and wealth of the house owner. And upon closer inspection of the motifs used on them, I realized it is possible to even distinguish the ethnicity of the household. It’s easy to understand why these doors have become one of the most emblematic images of Stone Town, here’s a few more varied examples from across the various quarters.

Many of these doors were probably made from teak wood sourced in Kerala.

As I came to the end of my short stay in Stone Town I found myself pondering about everything I saw here and I was once again reminded of what brought me here. Of the familiarity of these narrow streets and lanes that only a few days back I had not known existed; and the similarity of these elaborate wooden doors to the ones back home in the old quarter of Kuttichira, Calicut – a city that was historically closely knit to the maritime spice trade by the monsoon dhows exactly like Zanzibar!

Here’s a map of the places mentioned in this post for quick reference.


All photos © Sahil Latheef | including the aerial photos shot using a DJI Mavic Pro drone camera.


* The unfortunate dark side of the history of this island – The East African slave trade!

After the Arab and Swahili traders won control of the Swahili coast and sea routes during the 9th century they embarked on setting up an extensive slave trade network that stretched across the Indian Ocean. These traders captured Bantu peoples (Zanj or “Black”) from the interior in present-day Kenya, Mozambique and Tanzania and brought them to the coast from where they would be shipped to various destinations.

In fact, it is from here that island gets its name – from Arabic “Zanjibār”, which is a compound of Zanj (‘Black’) + bār (‘coast’).

Zanzibar was once East Africa’s main slave-trading port, and under Omani Arabs in the 19th century as many as 50,000 slaves were passing through the city each year. Under strong British pressure, the slave trade was officially abolished in 1876, but slavery itself remained legal in Zanzibar until 1897.

Today, there aren’t many markers of this cruel past but there is an excellent East Africa Slave Trade Exhibit with a series of displays and informative panels and the ‘Monument to the Slaves’ both within the compound of the Anglican Cathedral in Stone Town very close to where one of the world’s last open slave markets was situated.

This moving sculpture reminds visitors and locals alike, of the atrocities committed on this very spot centuries before was created by the Scandinavian artist Clara Sönäs.




  • Zanzibar Stone Town: An Architectural Exploration – 2008 by Abdul Sheriff and Javed Jafferji

  • Historical Zanzibar: Romance of the Ages – 1995 by Abdul Sheriff and Javed Jafferji

  • Lonely Planet Tanzania – 5th Edition, 2012 by Mary Fitzpatrick and Tim Bewer; Zanzibar Archipelago (Chapter)


Join us for a seven day architecture trip to Sri Lanka (from July 22nd to 28th '18) focused on the architecture of its most prolific architect – Geoffrey Bawa. Write to us for all the details on the itinerary and costs.

Images of some of the Geoffrey Bawa’s projects we will be visiting courtesy Sahil Latheef

bottom of page