Potala (north side of Lhasa on a hill) is the massive fortress-like building that is often depicted in photographs of Lhasa. Situated on a slope of Moburi (Red Mountain) and considered the quintessence of Tibetan architecture, it is a massive white and brownish-red structure that casts an imposing shadow over the rest of the Lhasa. Until the Tibetan rebellion in the late 1950s it was the home of the Dalai Lama. It is often filled with tourists and surrounded by pilgrims doing a clockwise kora (circumambulation) around its base. The views of and from the palace are both spectacular.

Arguable one of the most impressive buildings in the world and the main attraction of Lhasa, it sits at an elevation of about 3,770 meters, covers more than 360,000 square meters and has 13 storeys. In 641,Songtsan Gambo, ruler of the Tibetan Tubo Kingdom, had Potala Palace built for Princess Wencheng of the Tang Dynasty (618-906), his future bride. This structure was later burned to the ground during a war and rebuilt in the 17th century by the Fifth Dalai Lama. Over the past three centuries, the palace gradually became a place where the Dalai Lama lives and works and a place for keeping the remains of Dalai Lamas.

Potala is named after Mount Potalaka, the mythical abode of the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara. The palace It combines the functions of a palace, castle and temple into one magnificent building. It is composed of two parts: the central Red Palace at the top, which is used for religious affairs, and the secular White Palace at the bottom, which is used for politics and daily life. It was the winter palace of the Dalai Lamas from 1649 to 1959 and was turned into a museum after that. UNESCO World Heritage Site Map site: : UNESCO

The foundation of Potala Palace was laid at the southern foot of the Red Hill, and the palace zigzags upwards according to the natural shape of the slope to the top of the hill. The principle building has 13 storeys. Its highest point is 117.19 meters high. The palace is built with stone and wood, and the wall of it is completely built with granite. The red palace is in the middle and the white palace traverses it to both sides. Connected buildings pile up and are towering and grand. In the palace, galleries crisscross one another and carved beams and posts stand like forests. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, kepu.net.cn ~]

The main purpose of the Red Palace is to house the stupas holding the remains of the Dalai Lamas. It also contains many Buddha and sutra halls. To the west of the Red Palace is the Namgyel Dratshang, the private monastery of the Dalai Lama. Other important components of the Potala complex are the squares to the north and south and the massive palace walls, built from rammed earth and stone and pierced by gates on the east, south and west sides.

History of Potala Palace

The earliest construction of the Potala started in 631 under Tubo King Songtsan Gambo. It is said to have included 999 royal rooms plus a meditation chamber. The original Potala was destroyed in the 9th century, during the breakdown of the Tubo Kingdom (629-846). [Source: chinaculture.org, Chinadaily.com.cn, Ministry of Culture, P.R.China]

According to historical records such as "New Tang Book Tibet Biography", construction of the first Potala Palace began in the time of Songtsen Gampo of the Thubet or Tubo dynasty in the 7th century AD. It was rebuilt in the mid 17th century by the 5th Dalai Lama. It reached its present size and form in the years that followed, as a result of repeated renovation and expansion. Songtsen Gampo (reigned c. 609-649) played a very important role in the political, economic, and cultural development of Tibet. He united Tibet and, for political and military reasons, moved the capital from Lalong to Lhasa, where he built a palace on the Red Mountain in the centre of the city. 1t is recorded that his palace was an enormous complex of buildings with three defensive walls and 999 rooms, plus one on the peak of the Red Mountain. [Source: UNESCO]

Following the collapse of the Tubo Dynasty in the 9th century, Tibetan society was plunged into a long period of turmoil, during which the Red Mountain Palace fell into disrepair. However, it began to assume the role of a religious site. During the 12th century Khyungpo Drakse of the Kadampa sect preached there, and it was later used for the same purpose by Tshurpu Karmapa and Tsongkapa, founder of the Gelukpa sect, and his disciples.

The Gelukpa sect developed rapidly in Tibet during the 15th century, assuming the dominant place. With the help of Gushri Khan, leader of the Mongol Khoshotd tribe, the 5th Dalai Lama defeated the Karmapa Dynasty in the mid 17th century and founded the Ganden Phodrang Dynasty. The dynasty's first seat of government was the Drepung Monastery; however, since the Red Mountain Palace had been the residence of Songtsen Gampo and was close to the three major temples of Drepung, Sera, and Ganden, it was decided to rebuild it to facilitate joint political and religious leadership. Reconstruction began in 1645, and three years later a complex of buildings with the White Palace (Phodrang Karpo) as its nucleus was completed. The 5th Dalai Lama moved there from Drepung Monastery, and ever since that time the Potala Palace bas been the residence and seat of government of succeeding Dalai Lamas.

Building of the Red Palace was begun by Sangye Gyatsho, the chief executive official of the time, eight years after the death of the 5th Dalai Lama, as a memorial to him and to accommodate his funerary stupa. It was completed four years later, in 1694, and is second in size only to the White Palace. With its construction the Potala Palace became a vast complex of palace halls, Buddha halls, and stupas. Funerary stupas (chortens) were added in memory of the 7th, 8th, 9th, and 13th Dalai Lamas, each within its own hall. The most recent is that of the 13th Dalai Lama, the building of which lasted from 1934 to 1936. Special mention should be made of the fact that the Meditation Cave of the Dharma King, situated at the top of the mountain where Songtsen Gampo is said to have studied, and the Lokeshvara Chapel, both of which preceded the building of the present Palace, have been incorporated into the complex.

Construction was launched by the 5th Dalai Lama (1617-1682) in 1645 after one of his spiritual advisers, Konchog Chophel (died 1646), told him that the site was ideal as a seat of government as it is situated between Drepung and Sera monasteries and the old city of Lhasa. In his effort to consolidate his theocracy, the 5th Dalai Lama entrusted his minister, with the rebuilding of the portion known as the White Palace of the Potala and also the enclosures, towers, and turrets. The extension was followed by new projects sponsored by later Dalai Lamas.

The nine storey Leh Palace in Leh, Ladakh, India built by King Sengge Namgyal (c. 1570–1642), was a precursor of Potala Palace. The Chinese Putuo Zongcheng Temple, also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, built between 1767 and 1771, was partly modeled after Potala Palace. Potala became known as the "Winter Palace" by the 1750s, when the 7th Dalai Lama built the Norbu Lingka Park as his summer residence. The Potala assumed its present form and scale in 1936 when the 13th Dalai Lama's (1870-1933) stupa-tomb was completed.

In 1984, a serious fire took place in one of the chapels of the palace. It was the fourth fire in the palace's history. According to Xinhua: “Firemen, monks and civilians in the neighborhood put out the fire within three hours, stopping it from spreading to the rest of the building. The blaze destroyed half of a valuable Buddhist sutra manuscript. It took five years to restore the chapel.”

As the winter residence of the successive Dalai Lamas, the Potala formerly served as the center of local Tibetan theocratic rule, hosting major religious and political ceremonies since the reign of the 5th Dalai Lama, while at the same time housing the relics of those spiritual leaders. The Potala has been a sacred place for hundreds of years. Thousands of pilgrims from Tibet, other parts of China, and abroad come every year to pay homage. Their devotion is shown by the difficult journeys they have to make to reach their "Holy City."

view of Potala

Construction of the White and Red Palaces of Potala Palace

Upon request by the monastic bloc of the Yellow Sect, Gushri Khan, head of the Hoshod Mongols in Xinjiang and Qinghai of Northwest China, invaded Tibet and toppled the Tsangpa Desi regime in Shigatse in the early 1640's. With support from Gushri Khan, the 5th Dalai Lama established the Gandain Phodrang regime in Lhasa, thus turning Lhasa once again into Tibet's political, cultural, and religious center. [Source: chinaculture.org, Chinadaily.com.cn, Ministry of Culture, P.R.China, October 14, 2005]

In 1652, when the 5th Dalai Lama went to pay homage to the Qing Emperor Shunzhi in Beijing, he was given a red-carpet welcome and the Qing (1644-1911) emperor granted him the honorific title of "the Dalai Lama," as well as a golden seal of authority and a golden sheet of confirmation. From then on, the title of the Dalai Lama as well as the Dalai Lama's temporal and religious position in Tibet were established, contributing to the closer ties between the Central Government and the local government of Tibet.

The 5th Dalai Lama pressed ahead with urban construction in Lhasa. A major project was the renovation of Potala Palace. Exposed to thunderbolts, fire, wars, wind, and rain, Potala Palace was a tattered sweep of ruins. The only remaining buildings were the Hall of the Goddess of Mercy and the Cave for the Prince of Dharma.

In 1645, the 5th Dalai Lama ordered the rebuilding of Potala Palace for the Gandain Phodrang regime. Desi Soinam Raodain was put in charge of the project, and thousands of builders and artisans were recruited from all over Tibet. The main part of the Palace was renovated in 1647, and efforts began to fix the interior, re-paint the frescos, and re-make statues of Buddha.

In 1653, when the 5th Dalai Lama returned from Beijing, a grand ceremony was held for the consecration of the Palace. The 5th Dalai Lama moved from the Zhaibung Monastery to the White Palace in Potala Palace.

The 5th Dalai Lama passed away in 1682. Desi Sangyi Gyamco hid the news from the Central Government. In 1690, he began building a holy stupa (shrine) and memorial hall for the 5th Dalai Lama, the famous Red Palace, which is larger than the White Palace in size.

The construction of the Red Palace was a momentous task. About 7,700 artisans and builders were employed every day. Qing Emperor Kangxi sent artisans of the Chinese and Mongolian ethnic groups to Lhasa to help with construction. There were also many artisans from Nepal who came to help with construction work. Huge pieces of wood came from the Gongbo area hundreds of kilometers away, and large slabs of rock were transported from mountains in the surrounding area. Cowhide rafts were used by thousands of people to cross the rapids and carry items up to the Red Palace.

When the Red Palace was completed four years later, a ceremony was held on the 20th day of the fourth Tibetan month in 1693. Sangyi Gyamco had a stone tablet (without inscriptions) erected in front of the Red Palace.

Architecture of Potala Palace

Potala Palace is considered to be a model of Tibetan architecture. Located on the Red Hill in Lhasa, it has more than 360,000 square meters of floor space and has 13 storeys. Constructed of wood, stones and mud bricks and fastened together without steel or nails, it contains many temples and a courtyard and occupies a site of 41 hectares. The roofs are covered with gilded bronze tiles that glitter in the sun and can be seen miles away.

Built against the terraced slope of the hill, the structures combine to from a huge sky-scraping mass, reminiscent of the divine realm above the mortal world. The granite walls elaborately decorated with soft white thatch, the golden roofs decorated with big gilded bottles, and the splendid curtains and banners join to form a unique structural wonder bearing the striking colors red, white, and yellow characteristic of Tibetan architectural art, making the Potala an eminent representation of traditional Tibetan and Chinese construction. [Source: chinaculture.org, Chinadaily.com.cn, Ministry of Culture, P.R.China]

The building measures 400 meters (1,300 feet) east-west and 350 meters (1,150 feet) north-south. Its sloping stone walls average three meters (9.8 feet) thick and five meters (16 feet) thick at the base. It is constructed of wood, stones and mud bricks and fastened together without steel or nails. Copper was poured into the foundations as a protection against earthquakes. The building is 117 meters (384 feet) tall. Together with Marpo Ri ("Red Hill"), it rises more than 300 meters (980 feet) above the valley floor. [Source: Wikipedia]

The famous American architect Frank Lloyd Wright kept a picture of the Potala on his desk According to UNESCO: “Enclosed within massive walls, gates and turrets built of rammed earth and stone the White and Red Palaces and ancillary buildings of Potala Palace rise from Red Mountain in the centre of Lhasa Valley at an altitude of 3,700 meters. As the winter palace of the Dalai Lama from the 7th century CE the complex symbolizes Tibetan Buddhism and its central role in the traditional administration of Tibet. The White Palace contains the main ceremonial hall with the throne of the Dalai Lama, and his private rooms and audience hall are on the uppermost level. To the west and higher up the mountain the Red Palace contains the gilded burial stupas of past Dalai Lamas. Further west is the private monastery of the Dalai Lama, the Namgyel Dratshang.” [Source: UNESCO]

Subordinate constructions to the Potala include the Lamrgyal Abbey, the Senior Seminary, the monks' dormitories, and the eastern and western courtyards on the hill, while at the foot of the hill stands the houses once occupied by the local government bureaus and institutions; there is also a printing press for Buddhist canonical writings, as well as a jail, some stables, and a backyard garden.

another view of Potala

White Palace and Red Palace of Potala

Potala is actually two palaces: the White Palace and the Red Palace. The White Palace is seven-stories tall and contains the living quarters of successive Dalai Lamas and their tutors. The offices of the old Tibetan governments and their assembly halls are also located there. [Source: chinaculture.org, Chinadaily.com.cn, Ministry of Culture, P.R.China]

The most spacious hall, the Eastern Main Hall (Sishe Phuntsok), occupies a central area of 717 square meters on the 4th floor. It was there that the Dalai Lamas were enthroned as supreme Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader and the region's temporal ruler. The 5th and 6th floors bore government offices and rooms for the officials. Two particular apartments on the top floor, reserved for the Living Buddhas, were known as Eastern and Western Sunshine Apartments for their long access to sunlight.

Red Palace consists mainly of the spiritual leaders' stupa tombs and the shrines. The topmost hall in the Red Palace is called "The Best of the Three Realms" (Sasum Namgyal). It contains a portrait of the Qing Emperor Qianlong bearing the words "A long, long life to the present emperor" written in Han, Manchu, Mongol, and Tibetan. Dalai Lamas came to pay homage to this portrait on each Tibetan New Year's Day. [Source: chinaculture.org, Chinadaily.com.cn, Ministry of Culture, P.R.China]

In the middle part of the Red Palace are the Dharma-raja's Cave (Chogyal Dupup) and several other apartments dating back from the reign of the Tubo Dynasty, the earliest Potala structures still extant. They house a valuable collection of statues, including the sculptural representation of King Songtsan Gambo, his consorts Tang Princess Wencheng and Nepalese Princess Khridzun, and his prime minister.

Rooms Inside Potala Palace

Potala contains 1,000 rooms — including assembly halls, stupa-tomb halls (where the relics of the supreme lamas are preserved), shrines, prayer rooms, monks' dormitories, government offices and temples — as well as courtyards, 10,000 altars and 200,000 statues. Within Potala Palace are bejeweled "throne" rooms, ornate murals, priceless treasures, underground labyrinths and dungeons, large decorative statues of Buddha, chapels decorated with human skulls and thigh bones, and the gold-covered stupas. The palace is still used for religious ceremonies and high-profile political events.

Huge wooden struts overarch the main throne room. The Dalai Lama's bed chamber is the room filled with white scarves. It has been preserved exactly as he left when he was forced to flee. Here, pilgrims reverently prostrate themselves in front of possessions used by the Dalai Lama including thrones and couches, his art-deco bed, bathtub, toilet, tape recorder (a gift from Nehru) and his radio.

In almost every chapel, a housekeeping lama collects donations and sits on a cushions sipping tea. Murals and thangkas are illuminated with wax candles rather than smelly yak butter ones. The gold-embossed tombs of the Dalai Lama at Potala have the whole mummified bodies inside. Only a few dozen of the thousand or so rooms are open to visitors. Chinese tourists with cell phones, ignoring tour guides giving memorized speeches outnumber Tibetan pilgrims with prayer wheels.

Among the rooms in in the Red Palace are the Buddha worshipping hall, sutra reviewing room, sleeping quarters, sitting rooms, Buddhist pagoda hall, Buddhist monk school, Zhasha (the place for Lama to live) and the courtyard. The main points of interest in the Red Palace are the Buddhist stupas of past Dalai Lamas, the assembly hall, Religious King cave, Pabalakang (Tibetan for "Bodhisattva's palace"), the Triple World hall, the great eastern hall, the sunshine hall, Langjiezhacang (Tibetan, referring to the temple in the palace). The Triple World hall is the highest hall in the Red palace. The hall was used for holding significant activities involved the ministers of Tibet and the Dalai Lama. It is where the rite of drawing lots from the golden urn has been held. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, kepu.net.cn ~]

The great eastern hall is the biggest hall in White palace. It the place where successive Dalai Lamas held the rite of sitting on the bed and where significant religious activities were held. The sunshine hall above it is sleeping place for Dalai Lamas. Although relatively resplendent and sumptuously furnished, the rooms themselves are relatively small. There are eight Dalai Lamas' stupas where past Dalai Lamas have been entombed. They basically have the same shape but are of different sizes. The stupas of the Fifth and the Thirteenth Dalais are the most splendid and magnificent among them. The pagoda of the Fifth Dalai was the earliest to be constructed and is the grandest. Built in 1690, it is 14.85 meters high, and is covered with gold and inlaid with jewels.

Stupas at Potala Palace

There are eight stupas of Dalai Lamas, which are coated with pure gold and decorated with amber, pearl, coral, agate, diamond and other precious stones. One of the most impressive stupas is that of the 13th Dalai Lama. Built in 1933, the resplendent stupa contains more than 590 kilograms of gold and is embedded with 100,000 pearls and precious stones.

The stupa of the Fifth Dalai Lama is the first, largest and most magnificent among the eight stupas in Potala Palace. Built in 1690, the stupa is made of sandalwood, coated in gold foil and decorated with some 20,000 jewels and diamonds. At a height of almost 15 meters (49 feet), the stupa is decorated with 3,721 kilograms of gold, the most used among the eight stupas. The stupa houses the mummified and perfumed body of the Fifth Dalai Lama and a large number of cultural relics, among which a thumb of Sakyamuni, the Supreme Buddha and founder of Buddhism, is the most precious.

Of the 8 stupa-tomb halls, the most magnificent is that for the cult of the 5th Dalai Lama. To the west his memorial hall, the Western Main Hall, covers over 680 square meters, constituting the largest hall in the Potala. Of the extensive murals there the most notable one shows the patriarch's meeting with Emperor Shunzhi in 1652 of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) in Beijing. It was after this meeting that the title "Dalai Lama" was bestowed on him and successive leaders of Tibet. [Source: chinaculture.org, Chinadaily.com.cn, Ministry of Culture, P.R.China]

The remains of the 13th Dalai Lama are preserved in a stupa in the neighboring hall. The stupa is 0.86 meters lower than that of the 5th Dalai Lama, and has gold leaves made from more than 590 kilograms of gold. Construction of the hall, begun in 1933, was not completed until three years later. Thus it is the newest hall in the whole complex.

Treasures, Sutras and Paintings inside Potala Palace

Potala Palace houses a collection of frescoes, over 10,000 Tang Ka (scroll paintings), a large number of precious Buddhist classics and records, gold seals, gold, silver wares and gems. It is said that a full counting of them would take several years and this is after many of the most valuable pieces were looted by Communists. According to UNESCO: The palace contains 698 murals, almost 10,000 painted scrolls, numerous sculptures, carpets, canopies, curtains, porcelain, jade, and fine objects of gold and silver, as well as a large collection of sutras and important historical documents.”

For more than 300 years the Potala has accumulated an enormous collection of monuments and relics. There are murals covering totally more than 2,500 square meters, nearly 1,000 stupas, about 10,000 statues, and as many thangka (cloth-like) paintings. Also, the religious library there includes scriptures and volumes of Buddhists' Teachings.

Of all the treasures collected in Potala Palace, sutras are the ones Buddhist scholars are most interested in. The sutras are rich in content, and most of them are the only existing copies. Among all sutras in the palace, the colorful Tengyur is the most precious. Tengyur, along with Kangyur, makes up the Tibetan Buddhist canon. Kangyur consists of works supposed to have been said by the Buddha himself, while Tengyur is a collection of commentaries to his teachings. It is both a cultural masterpiece and an exquisite work of art written in ink made of gold, silver, coral, iron, green diamond, red copper, white conch shell and pearl dust. Each line is written in one of seven colors.

Huge, exquisite murals line all the walls of Potala Palace's halls. These wall paintings, stretching about 2,500 square meters, were drawn with gold, silver and mineral pigments made of crushed colorful diamonds and other precious stones. The content of the murals covers Tibetan history, culture and arts. A large-scale relief fresco in Potala Palace vividly depicts the scene of the Qing Emperor Shunzhi meeting the Fifth Dalai Lama at the Beijing court in 1652. During the meeting, the emperor conferred a seal and a title to the Fifth Dalai Lama.

Tangka are Tibetan Buddhist scroll paintings. Usually mounted on colorful silks, tangka vary in styles and cover subjects in religion, medicine, astronomy, arts and architecture. They have become important historical materials for the study and research of Tibetan cultures. Potala Palace has more than 10,000 tangka, which are housed in a 340-square-meter warehouse. On the 30th day of the second month of the Tibetan calendar, two tangka are exhibited for the faithful to worship.

There is also a unique collection of golden diplomas and jade seals that were granted to successive Dalai Lamas by Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) emperors to re-affirm the official ties between the local Tibetan administration and the Chinese Central Government. The gold and silver artifacts, porcelain vessels, enamelwork, jade ware, brocade, and other handicraft articles preserved in the Potala are enormous and richly diverse.

Statues in Potala

Statue of Marici shows Marici, the Buddhist goddess of light, sitting on an open lotus on the back of a boar. The gold statue was a royal artwork of the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). It measures 29 centimeters tall, and each of Marici's eight arms holds a Buddhist instrument, while her three faces indicates the original looks of the goddess. The goddess's upper body is decorated only with a glittering necklace. The statue is regarded as a perfect match of Han and Tibetan Buddhist arts and was exhibited at the Forbidden City in 1992.

Statue of Acala Vajra was made in the 15th century and measures 26 centimeters tall. Acala Vajra was a Buddhist warrior who is believed to be the reincarnation of the angry Mitukpa. In this statue, he raises a sword over his head with his right hand and wraps a vajra rope around his left arm. His lower body and kneeling position suggest that he is prepared to jump to fight at any time.

Golden Statue of Guanyin depicts the Buddhist goddess of mercy. It is a 10th-century work made of red copper with gilding and measures 32 centimeters tall. The goddess sits cross-legged with a solemn and peaceful appearance, showing the great mercy of Guanyin in a vivid way. On the top of its crown is Amitabha, the Buddha of Infinite Light.

Seated Statue of King Songtsen Gampo depicts Songtsen Gampo, the first emperor of a united Tibet, in 7th century. He was a strong proponent of Buddhism and was regarded as the reincarnation of the Buddhist saint Avalokiteshvara. The statue of Songtsen Gampo measures 38 centimeters tall. Sitting on a round cushion in deep meditation, Songtsen Gampo is clothed in a large robe with lapels and wears a wrapped hat on top of which hides a small statue Amitabha, the characteristic image of Songtsen Gampo.

Historic Ensemble of Potala Palace: UNESCO World Heritage Site

Potala Palace was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994. In 2000 and 2001 Jokhang Temple Monastery, the exceptional Buddhist religious complex, and Norbulingka, the Dalai Lama's former summer palace, were added to site which is now known as the Historic Ensemble of Potala Palace.

According to UNESCO: “Potala Palace, winter palace of the Dalai Lama since the 7th century, symbolizes Tibetan Buddhism and its central role in the traditional administration of Tibet. The complex, comprising the White and Red Palaces with their ancillary buildings, is built on Red Mountain in the centre of Lhasa Valley, at an altitude of 3,700 meters. Also founded in the 7th century, the Jokhang Temple Monastery is an exceptional Buddhist religious complex. Norbulingka, the Dalai Lama's former summer palace, constructed in the 18th century, is a masterpiece of Tibetan art. The beauty and originality of the architecture of these three sites, their rich ornamentation and harmonious integration in a striking landscape, add to their historic and religious interest.

“The Historic Ensemble of Potala Palace, Jokhang Temple and Norbulingka embody the administrative, religious and symbolic functions of the Tibetan theocratic government through their location, layout and architecture. The beauty and originality of the architecture of these three sites, their rich ornamentation and harmonious integration in a striking landscape, contribute to their Outstanding Universal Value.

“The Historic Ensemble of Potala Palace is an outstanding work of human imagination and creativity, for its design, its decoration and its harmonious setting within a dramatic landscape. The three-in-one historic ensemble of Potala Palace, with Potala the palace-fort complex, Norbulingka the garden residence and the Jokhang Temple Monastery the temple architecture, each with its distinctive characteristics, forms an outstanding example of traditional Tibetan architecture.

The Historic Ensemble of Potala Palace forms a potent and exceptional symbol of the integration of secular and religious authority. The scale and artistic wealth of the Historic Ensemble of Potala Palace, which represents the apogee of Tibetan architecture, make it an outstanding example of theocratic architecture, of which it was the last surviving example in the modern world.”

“The Historic Ensemble of Potala Palace owns tens of thousands of collections of diverse cultural relics. The wall paintings are rich in themes, form the best of Tibetan painting art and precious material evidence for learning Tibetan history and the multi-ethnic cultural fusion. The historic scale, architectural typology and the historic environment remain intact within the property area and within the buffer zone, carrying the complete historic information of the property.”

Chief Administrator of Potala Palace

The chief administrator of Potala Palace in the early 2010s was a Tibetan who goes by the single name Qungda. Five months after beginning the job, Xinhua reported; Qungda “feels the heavy weight of responsibility. "It is such a grand duty," said Qungda, who replaced the previous chief officer Champa Kelsang after the latter retired due to old age last December. "The palace, a construction miracle, is not only a treasure of our Tibetan people but the whole world," he said. [Source: Xinhua, May 23, 2011]

“Qungda, 60, well understands the fragility of this ancient stone-and-wooden structure, built in the 7th century. From 1965 to 1985, Qungda served in the fire control department of Lhasa and fought a serious fire in one of the chapels of the palace in 1984. "The day after the accident, a team of 10 firemen were posted inside the palace and I was appointed the leader," Qungda said. The first thing he did after working in Potala Palace was explore every corner of the labyrinth palace, so to get a full picture of its layout and risks. In 1985, Qungda left the fire control department to work in the palace's security department. In 1988 he was appointed vice chief of the palace's administration and remained in the role till his recent promotion.

Born into a farmer's family in Lhasa, Qungda had been attracted by Potala Palace since he was a child. "It looked very solemn and sacred from outside and I was always wondering what it would be like inside," he said. In 1975, Qungda first entered Potala Palace as a fireman taking part in a fire control exercise. "It never occurred to me that I would work inside it for more than 20 years," he said. "It made me feel a little bit relaxed as the latest restoration eliminated most of the risks in the framework and facilities," he said.

However, Qungda remains cautious. No matter how cold it gets, staff are not allowed to use electric heaters as they are a safety risk, he said. His son Norsang Nyandrak is following in his father's footsteps, working as a fireman inside the palace. "I am glad he understands the importance of his work and enjoys it," Qungda said. Qungda always said he would devote the rest of his life protecting Potala Palace.”

Renovation of Potala Palace

There were large-scale restorations of palace's interior in 1989 and 2002. The latest restoration — a seven-year US$43.9 million renovation of Potala Palace and Norbulingka summer palace — was completed in August 2009. The government said the aim of the renovation was to foster tourism and promote Tibetan culture. A complete renovation of Potala by Beijing began in the late 1990s. The work has drawn protests from human-rights groups, who have alleged that valuable objects have been taken and murals have been damaged while work was going on.

Regardless, Potala needed some sprucing up. Before the renovation began, pillars leaned over, ceilings were held up with poles and thousands of window frames had been chewed up insects. But not all the work done by Chinese workers was in the best interest of the building. Part of restoration scheme involved the installation of an elaborate security system with close circuit televisions that the Chinese government is intended to protect the palace from "hooligans" but Human Rights groups asserted were put there to keep on eye on Tibetans.

Tourism of Potala Palace

Potala reopened to tourists in August 1994 as the centerpiece of the Chinese Government's campaign to expand tourism in Tibet. In 2003, the palace administration limited the number of visitors to 2,300 per day, which has helped protect the grand old structure. In front of Potala Palace there are many souvenir stands and trinket hawkers. A short distance away there is even a miniature car ride.

Travel Information: Only 2300 tickets are issued each day, among which 1600 are for the travel agents and 700 for individual tourists. Rules: 1) You can't wear a hat or take photos after entering the palace. Photos of the exterior of the palace are allowed. 2) Visits are limited to one hour at a time. 3) Discounts are available to certified teachers and students with ID. 4) No weapons or sharp objects, including knives and nail clippers are allowed on the palace grounds.

Hours Open: 9:00am-4:00pm; Admission: 100 yuan (November 1-April 30); 200 yuan (May 1-Oct 31), Tel: +86-891-6822896 (administrative office) Getting There: By Taxi: One can get a taxi for about 10 yuan. By Pedicab: One can catch a three-wheeled pedicab for about 3-5 yuan.

Chakpori Hill

The Chakpori Hill (near Potala) is a great place to get a view and take photographs of Potala Palace. In the early morning of holidays or peak seasons, dense crowds of photographers and photography aficionados come here to shoot a rare view of Potala Palace irradiated by the first rays of the sun. Rising up beside Potala Palace, the Chakpori Hill (Yao Wang Shan, or literally the Hill of Medicine King) is 3,725 meters above sea level. Ascending the winding path to the top, one can get a panoramic view of the ancient city and its surrounding landscapes. [Source: chinaculture.org, Chinadaily.com.cn, Ministry of Culture, P.R.China]

The Chakpori Hill is very close to Potala Palace, with a road in between that just cuts through the small mountain. In the middle of the road is a giant white pagoda, with an iron chain linking the two hills together. It is said that Princess Wencheng of the Tang Dynasty (618-907) often prayed on the hill facing the southeast, where her imperial home was. On the eastern cliff of the hill are the noted Zhalaupu Grottoes, which are extremely well preserved after a history of more than a thousand years. The grotto, in the shape of an unequal rectangle, is 27 square meters. There are 69 vivid and lifelike stone statues engraved on the rock, representingthe soul of Tibetan stone inscription art.

On the southern cliff is a large cluster of rock carvings — approximately over 5,000 cliff-side carvings — which is the largest in number and most diversified in contents and style in Southwest China's Tibet autonomous region. A large number of them reflect images of the Thousand Buddhas. Others include images of Sakyamuni, Bodhisattva, Guardian of the Laws, and the Eleven-Faced Goddess of Mercy. Six-word Buddhist maxims are carved on the four sides of the images.

Near the hill are many families who engrave or decorate mani stones (stones that Tibetans decorate to show their religious piety). Every year, at the Sakadawa festival, crowds of pilgrims will come here to put mani stones by the hill, hence the piles and wall of mani.

It is said that once a temple was erected on the top of the mountain. Within this temple was placed a sapphire figure of a certain Tibetan Medicine King. Legend has it that the King was the avatar incarnation of Sakyamuni, who was able to treat patients of any kind of diseases. During the period of the fifth Dalai Lama (1642-1682), lamas from all over the country were brought to this temple to systematically study and coordinate the knowledge of traditional Tibetan medicine. In the late 17th century, Desi Sangye Gyatso established the Tibetan Medical School on this hill in order to develop Tibetan medicine.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, Nolls China Web site; CNTO; Perrochon photo site; Beifan.com; University of Washington; Ohio State University; UNESCO; Wikipedia; Julie Chao photo site

Text Sources: CNTO (China National Tourist Organization), China.org, UNESCO, reports submitted to UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, China Daily, Xinhua, Global Times, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2020

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