by Amrit Ratna Tuladhar

Research Analyst

Lhasa means the “Place of the Gods†in the Tibetan language.  The city is surrounded by treeless hills and lies in the valley of Kyi Chu, or Lhasa River, which flows southward to pour into the mighty waters of the Yarlung Tsangpo River.  Above the city of Lhasa rises Marpo Ri, the “Red Hill†and on this hill is one of the world’s largest and most remarkable buildings, the Potala.


The Potala Palace is known to the Tibetans simply as Tse, “the Peak†, or Tse Potang, “the Peak Palace.†  Since before the 11th century it has been called the Potala, after the Indian Sanskrit term for the mythical residence of Chenrezig (Avalokiteswara), the Bodhisattva of Compassion. 


It is the wish of all Tibetan Buddhists to pay a visit to the holy city of Lhasa once in their lifetimes.  The focus of pilgrimage in Lhasa is the Jokhang temple, the spiritual heart of Tibet, and its image of Shakyamuni Buddha.  The Potala is of great importance as well for pilgrims, a sight all wish to behold, visible from throughout the Lhasa River valley.  While roaming around the valley one never needs to worry about getting lost because the Palace is constantly visible.


For three hundred years, the Potala has served as the residence of the Dalai Lamas, the spiritual heads of the Gelugpa sect of Tibetan Buddhism and, in recent centuries, the temporal rulers of central and western Tibet.  Before the seventeenth century the Potala was ruins, and long before that it was the palace of the early kings of central Tibet. 


King Songtsen Gampo, one of the greatest of Tibet’s early kings, is held to have first built a palace on the Red Hill during the seventh century.  It was built over a cave in which the king is said to have practiced meditation. 


During the succeeding centuries the palace was struck by lightning, caught fire and suffered great damage. Later, in the chaos of battles the palace was damaged further.  Today, only the meditation cave and two halls of Songtsen Gampo’s structure remain intact. 


The Potala as it is known today was built on the foundations of the original palace in the seventeenth century by the “Great Fifth†Dalai Lama, Gyelwa Ngapa, the first Dalai Lama to claim to temporal as well as religious power over Tibet.


The Potala as we see it today is of two colors, red and white.  Although it is commonly said that parts of the White Palace are Songtsen Gampo’s original, the White Palace of today is an expansion of a nine-story structure whose foundations were laid by the Fifth Dalai Lama in 1645.  Desi Sangye Gyatso, the Regent who succeeded him, built the Potang Marpo, the Red Palace, which was completed in 1694.  The Thirteenth Dalai Lama added the top two stories, including the bright, airy apartments of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. 


When the Potala Palace was completed, it had 999 chambers.  If newer rooms and the cave in which Songtsen Gampo meditated are added, the total number of rooms comes to more than one thousand.  The Potala is equivalent to a thirteen-story building, nine above the hill and four under.  It rises 120 meters above the ground, has a floor space of 130,000 square meters and covers 41 hectares.


The most significant rooms in the Potala are the many richly ornamented lhakangs (meaning God-rooms), or shrine rooms.  Of these the most sacred shrine in the Potala is the Pakpa Lhakang, one of the remaining parts of Songtsen Gampo’s original palace.  Here is enshrined the most sacred image of the Potala, the Potala Jowo Lokeswara.


The White Palace extends 320 meters east-west and 200 meters north-south.  It includes the Dalai Lama’s own monastery, called the Namgyel Dratsang, a sloping corridor, gatetowers and watchtowers of the palace city, and the eastern terrace.  The inauguration and assumption of office of the Dalai Lamas were formally held in the East Main Hall of the White Palace. 


The Red Palace stands surrounded by the White Palace.  It contains thirty-five lhakangs, mausoleum chambers of past Dalai Lamas and numerous assembly halls.  The terrace was expanded to link the original buildings of White Palace with that of Red Palace.  Gatetowers leading to these two gigantic palaces are about six stories high. 


The main building within the Red Palace includes the West Hall, the largest hall in the palace, covering over 700 square meters.  Its murals occupy over 280 square meters of the hall.  Among the many thakangs are the Lhakang of the Old School, dedicated to the Nyingma Sect, the Kalachakra Lhakang, with images and mandala of the meditation deity Kalachakra, and the Lama Lhakang, whose chief image is the Protectress Palden Lhamo.  Some lhakangs and other chambers contain the richly ornamented stupas which hold the remains of the Fifth and the Seventh to Thirteenth Dalai Lamas.  The twenty-meter-high stupa of the Fifth Dalai Lama is said to be covered with 3,700 kilograms of gold, while the tomb of the Thirteenth is said to be of solid silver, covered with gold leaf and precious stones.


On the top floors are the rooms of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Dalai Lamas.  They include a prayer hall, a hall for ritual worship and the dormitory of the Dalai Lama.  The living quarters receive sunshine from morning until dusk, the furnishings are luxurious and the decorations rich.  From the railings the visitor can look out over the ancient city, the river and the far-off hills.  Down in the basements of the Potala are rooms which were once the treasuries of the State and of the Dalai Lamas, storerooms for offerings, granaries, hundreds of cells of monks and retainers, and dungeons, the tools of secular power in every civilization.


The lofty Potala has a very long history and carries great artistic value.  It is a sublime gallery of cultural relics.  There are thousands of murals and thangkas and countless sculptures.  The library stocks numerous volumes on the Buddha Dharma and on the “ten branches of learning†required of every educated Tibetan Buddhist lama.  These thousands of volumes are but a small part of the immense Tibetan corpus, almost all of which have been destroyed.


Today, the Potala is no longer a palace, nor is it a monastery.  The storerooms and monks’ cells are empty and no prayers are read in the lhakangs.  It is simply a museum, only to be looked at.  But it is a great museum---a museum of one of the world’s most literate civilizations and one of the world’s most sophisticated religions, both of which are quickly passing into oblivion.  Built to exemplify the glorious nature of the Buddha Dharma, the Potala now exemplifies one of the root concepts of Buddhism: the impermanence of all phenomena, that even the most powerful humans or institutions, even those dedicated to the benefit of all beings, will one day be silenced.   

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