When speaking about Tibetan architecture we primarily refer to three types of structures – first, the palace or fortress, second, the monastery and temple, and third, the house.
There are other structures built that may employ characteristic elements of uniquely Tibetan style, namely stupas. Stupas are on one hand repositories of remains of distinguished deceased monks and lamas, or their personal, considered holy, objects. Stupas also represent spiritual diagrams or symbols of Buddhist interpretation of the elements of universe and body of Buddha. Inherently the stupas in Tibet proper share design characteristics found elsewhere, namely south of the Himalayas whence Buddhism spread from and with it brought certain features that are repeated throughout all Buddhist cultures of Asia.
The so called palaces are best represented by the massive Potala Palace in Lhasa. While referred to as palace, Potala had indeed been the seat of Tibet’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. It had been Dalai Lama’s principal residence and the institution of religious study thus housing key temples, shrines and living quarters of the monks. Structurally the massive building sits atop a prominent hill with a commanding view and intrinsically possesses defensive elements of a fortress with inclined walls, a feature found in all forms of Tibetan architecture.
Patterned on the Potala design there is a similar structure found in Leh Ladakh, known as the Little Tibet of India. The Leh Palace was an actual king’s palace as well as a fort and it is constructed of stone and rammed earth, though Ladakh village houses are mostly built of an adobe style of brick.
A design related to palace types of structures are dzongs, which are found throughout Buddhist world of the region at large, from Tibet to Ladakh, Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan. In the outer provinces or countryside of the Buddhist Himalayas the dzongs were strongholds of the local landowners or governing noblemen and typically are the largest structures, often built on higher ground.
In Bhutan dzongs were and to this date continue to house principal government offices and the monasteries within their walls stage the key monastic festivals, namely Tshechus and Dromchoes. Three of the fines dzongs in Bhutan are those of Thimphu, Paro and Punakha. While some temples within the dzongs, known as lhakhangs in Bhutan, are open to the public, some are reserved only for worship by the King.
Monasteries typically also employ a fortress style of design. Most often monasteries were built in the center of villages and would be the largest structures. Throughout the greater region of the Himalayas they would often be pained in different color than the village houses, usually deep crimson as opposed to houses that would be whitewashed. But it is not uncommon to find the monasteries located in remote areas, away from the villages, on the periphery of villages or in remote locations altogether, for example next to steep cliffs in which case the cliffs would often be studded with man-made meditation caves, serving as meditation retreats for the monks.
Village house architecture is in general of two styles. When the villages are dispersed settlements, the individual houses are relatively free-standing structures but always displaying the fortress-style of inclined walls.
Opposite style of houses developed in compact villages, where houses are constructed attached to one another horizontally, hugging the contour of a mountain, and when built on steep slopes the houses connect vertically allowing one to traverse from one rooftop to another in either direction, horizontally as well as vertically, as if navigating steps.
Fine examples of village dzong architecture can be found throughout the rain shadow valleys of the Nepal Himalayas, in the lateral valleys behind the principal chain of the High Himalaya, for example in the side valley of the upper Kali Gandaki en route to Muktinath.
In either case the Tibetan house design repeats essentially same functions. The ground level of the house is reserved for livestock and fodder, and for storage of farming implements and carrying baskets. Second level contains the kitchen and living quarter, as well as bedrooms. In larger homes the bedrooms would be on a third floor, which would then also have a prayer room with a house altar. Being flat, roofs constitute essential living and working area of the house. This is where people gather, women weave, dry grains, or household members just rest enjoying warm winter sun on cold days when staying at daytime on a rooftop is preferable to cold interior.