Potala Palace is the most iconic location to visit in Lhasa, Tibet. Potala Palace was where the 14th Dalai Lama lived before leaving for exile in India after the 1959 Tibet Uprising.
It is now a museum and World Heritage Site. We visited early morning before it got too busy. There are 1,000 steps from the entrance at the bottom to the very top of the palace where the Dalai Lama residence was, so in the high altitude it was an effort to climb all those stairs.
The palace is named after Mount Potalaka, the mythical abode of the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara. The 5th Dalai Lama, Lozang Gyatso, started its construction in 1645 after one of his spiritual advisers, Konchog Chophel (died 1646), pointed out that the site was ideal as a seat of government, situated as it is between Drepung and Sera monasteries and the old city of Lhasa. It may overlay the remains of an earlier fortress called the White or Red Palace on the site, built by Songtsen Gampo in 637.
The building measures 400 metres east-west and 350 metres north-south, with sloping stone walls averaging 3 m. thick, and 5 m. thick at the base, and with copper poured into the foundations to help proof it against earthquakes. Thirteen stories of buildings—containing over 1,000 rooms, 10,000 shrines and about 200,000 statues—soar 117 metres (384 ft) on top of Marpo Ri, the “Red Hill”, rising more than 300 m (about 1,000 ft) in total above the valley floor.
The site on which the Potala Palace rises is built over a palace erected by Songtsen Gampo on the Red Hill. The Potala contains two chapels on its northwest corner that conserve parts of the original building. One is the Phakpa Lhakhang, the other the Chogyel Drupuk, a recessed cavern identified as Songtsen Gampo’s meditation cave. The external structure was built in 3 years, while the interior, together with its furnishings, took 45 years to complete. The Dalai Lama and his government moved into the Potrang Karpo (‘White Palace’) in 1649. Construction lasted until 1694, some twelve years after his death. The Potala was used as a winter palace by the Dalai Lama from that time. The Potrang Marpo (‘Red Palace’) was added between 1690 and 1694.
The new palace got its name from a hill on Cape Comorin at the southern tip of India—a rocky point sacred to the bodhisattva of compassion, who is known as Avalokitesvara, or Chenrezi. The Tibetans themselves rarely speak of the sacred place as the “Potala”, but rather as “Peak Potala” (Tse Potala), or most commonly as “the Peak”.
Built at an altitude of 3,700 m (12,100 ft), on the side of Ri Marpo (‘Red Mountain’) in the center of Lhasa Valley, the Potala Palace, with its vast inward-sloping walls broken only in the upper parts by straight rows of many windows, and its flat roofs at various levels, is not unlike a fortress in appearance. At the south base of the rock is a large space enclosed by walls and gates, with great porticos on the inner side. A series of tolerably easy staircases, broken by intervals of gentle ascent, leads to the summit of the rock. The whole width of this is occupied by the palace.
The central part of this group of buildings rises in a vast quadrangular mass above its satellites to a great height, terminating in gilt canopies similar to those on the Jokhang. This central member of Potala is called the “red palace” from its crimson colour, which distinguishes it from the rest. It contains the principal halls and chapels and shrines of past Dalai Lamas. There is in these much rich decorative painting, with jewelled work, carving and other ornamentation.
The palace was slightly damaged during the Tibetan uprising against the Chinese in 1959, when Chinese shells were launched into the palace’s windows. Before Chamdo Jampa Kalden was shot and taken prisoner by soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army, he witnessed “Chinese cannon shells began landing on Norbulingka past midnight on March 19th, 1959… The sky lit up as the Chinese shells hit the Chakpori Medical College and the Potala.” It also escaped damage during the Cultural Revolution in 1966 through the personal intervention of Zhou Enlai, who was then the Premier of the People’s Republic of China. Tibetan activist Tsering Woeser claims that the palace, which harboured “over 100,000 volumes of scriptures and historical documents” and “many store rooms for housing precious objects, handicrafts, paintings, wall hangings, statues, and ancient armour”, “was almost robbed empty”. On the other hand, tibetologist Amy Heller writes that “the invaluable library and artistic treasures accumulated over the centuries in the Potala have been preserved.”
Once we enetred the upper part of the palace there were no photos allowed unfortunately. This area was full of ornate temple areas and the former private residence and meeting rooms of the Dalai Lama.
The Potala Palace was inscribed to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1994. In 2000 and 2001, Jokhang Temple and Norbulingka were added to the list as extensions to the sites. Rapid modernisation has been a concern for UNESCO, however, which expressed concern over the building of modern structures immediately around the palace which threaten the palace’s unique atmosphere. The Chinese government responded by enacting a rule barring the building of any structure taller than 21 metres in the area. UNESCO was also concerned over the materials used during the restoration of the palace, which commenced in 2002 at a cost of RMB180 million (US$22.5 million), although the palace’s director, Qiangba Gesang, has clarified that only traditional materials and craftsmanship were used. The palace has also received restoration works between 1989 and 1994, costing RMB55 million (US$6.875 million).
The number of visitors to the palace was restricted to 1,600 a day, with opening hours reduced to six hours daily to avoid over-crowding from 1 May 2003. The palace was receiving an average of 1,500 a day prior to the introduction of the quota, sometimes peaking to over 5,000 in one day. Visits to the structure’s roof were banned after restoration efforts were completed in 2006 to avoid further structural damage. Visitorship quotas were raised to 2,300 daily to accommodate a 30% increase in visitorship since the opening of the Qingzang railway into Lhasa on 1 July 2006, but the quota is often reached by mid-morning. Opening hours were extended during the peak period in the months of July to September, where over 6,000 visitors would descend on the site.
We exited the palace at the rear and on reaching ground level again there were many devotees circling the palace making prayers. Along the perimeter of the palace were prayer wheels and ornate calligraphy adorned on the walls. It was interesting to watch the people make their prayers and their traditional costumes were also very interesting.
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