Perched on Lhasa’s highest point, the Potala Palace is arguably the greatest monumental structure in Tibet. Thirteen stories high, with more than 1,000 rooms, it was once the residence of Tibet’s chief monk and leader, the Dalai Lama, and therefore the center for both spiritual and temporal power. After the 14th Dalai Lama fled to India in 1959, the palace became a museum, serving as a reminder of Tibet’s rich and devoutly religious Buddhist culture. The first palace on the site was built by Songtsen Gampo in 641, and this was incorporated into the larger building that stands today. There are two main sections — the White Palace, built by the 5th Dalai Lama in 1645, and the Red Palace, which was completed in 1693.
THE WHITE PALACE
The White Palace is seven stories high and was used mainly for secular purposes. The top three levels were built around a large central skywell and contained accommodation and offices for senior monks and officials, as well as kitchens and storage areas. The Dalai Lama occupied two rooms on the top floor called the East and West Sunshine Apartments Beneath the top levels lies the Great East Hall, a vast 7,500-sq ft (700-sq m) assembly place for important political ceremonies. The lower levels of the palace are used for storage and provide a frame that supports the main buildings. The first hallway, after the entrance, has several large murals depicting the building of the Potala Palace and the arrival of Princess Wencheng.
THE RED PALACE
At the heart of the Potala complex, the Red Palace was intended for spiritual concerns. It is a complicated structure, with numerous halls of worship as well as the remains of eight Dalai Lamas inside magnificent stupas. Like the Chapel of the 13th Dalai Lama, the Chapel of the 5th Dalai Lama holds an enormous funerary stupa that rises up over 40 ft (12 m).
It is made of sandalwood and reputed to be covered with nearly four tons of gold and almost 20,000 pearls and other gems. Other treasures on display include rare handwritten Buddhist sutras, and a great deal of statuary — one of the best statues is the one of Maitreya in his own chapel on the east side of the top floor.
The warrior king and founder of the Tubo kingdom, Songtsen Gampo was born in AD 617 and built the original Potala Palace for his wife, Princess Wencheng. Most of it has long since burned down — only the Dharrna Cave and the Saints’ Chapel remain from the 7th century. They are both in the northern part of the Red Palace. The Dharrna Cave is said to be the place where King Songtsen Gampo meditated. Inside, statues of the king, his chief ministers, and Princess Wencheng are venerated. In the Saints’ Chapel on the floor above, several important Buddhist figures and the 7th, 8th, and 9th Dalai Lamas are enshrined and worshiped.
This intricate mandala of a palace, covered in precious metals and jewels, embodies aspects of the Buddhist path to enlightenment.
Purely structural, this holds the palaces onto the steep hill.
Chapel of the 13th Dalai Lama
This chapel holds the funerary stupa of the 13th Dalai Lama, rising up nearly 43ft (13 m) in the gloomy interior. The stupa contains the lama’s mummified remains and is coated in gold and jewels.
The largest hall inside the Potala, the Western Hall is located on the first floor of the Red Palace and contains the holy throne of the 6th Dalai Lama.
Seemingly floating above the huge structure, the gilded roofs (actually copper) cover the funerary chapels dedicated to previous Dalai Lamas.
Heavenly King Murals
The east entrance has sumptous images of the Four Heavenly Kings, Buddhist guardian figures.
On a clear day, the view of the valley and mountains is unequalled, although the modern parts of Lhasa are less impressive.
The entrance to the main part of the building has a triple stairway – the middleone was reserved for the sole use of the Dalai Lama.
Important religious celebrations were held in this huge open space.
This shows that the palace also served a defensive function.
In 641, a member of the imperial family in the Tang dynasty (618-907) was offered as a wife to Songsten Gampo to broker peace between the Tubo kingdom and the Tang. Princess Wencheng is revered in Tibet because she is said to have converted the king, and thus Tibet, to Buddhism. She also instigated the building of many of Tibet’s finest temples.
AD 641: The first. Potala Palace is built by Songsten Gampo, founder of the Tubo kingdom.
800s: The Tubo kingdom collapses and the Rotate Palace is almost completely destroyed.
1642: The 5th Dalai Lama becomes spiritual and political leader of Tibet and reconstructs the palace.
1922: The 13th Dalai Lama renovates much of the White Palace and adds two stories to the Red Palace.
1994: UNESCO adds the Potala Palace to its list of World Heritage Sites.