Potala Palace

Potala Palace from roof of the Jokhang Temple


The Potala Palace requires true photographic skills which are far beyond me. I would encourage to have a look at the Unesco World Heritage gallery, link posted above.

This most impressive and stunning structure was commissioned in 1645 by the 5th Dalai Lama. It was built on the site of the original 7th century palace, which was created for the “Avalokiteshvara”, the Lord of infinite compassion and mercy, the most popular figure in Buddhist legend.

The Potala Palace became the symbol of Tibetan Buddhism and its central role in the administration of Tibet. It was the Dalai Lama’s Winter Palace.

The palace sits atop Mt Potala, in the middle of the Lhasa Valley. The structure is all wood and stone and consists of two parts. The White Palace, at the base, contained the main ceremonial hall and the Dalai Lama’s throne hall.

The upper, Red Palace, is where the Dalai Lama had his private rooms and audience halls. This was to ensure that the Dalai Lama would always be the first to witness the rising sun.

The overall palace contains more than 1,000 rooms including halls, temples and libraries which house over 40,000 books as well as 10,000 painted scrolls, sculptures, carpets, canopies, curtains, porcelain, jade and fine gold and silver objects.

The remains of several previous Dalai Lamas are contained in golden stupas above the Red Palace. The 14th Dalai Lama fled the Chinese take-over in 1959 and he remains in exile.

Although the Chinese government ordered the destruction of many religious structures in Tibet, the Potala Palace remained intact and in 1994 it became a Unesco World Heritage Site. It is now a museum.

No single word can describe what I felt as I mounted the long, steep staircase into the Potala Place. I was awestruck and incredulous. I was humbled and exhilarated.

How often does one get to live one’s dream come true? All my life I had dreamed of coming to this place and here I was, on this most splendid, cloud-free day, at the roof of the World.

I was in a place built many hundreds of years ago, as a palace for the leader of a way of life that to me seemed so ethical and so right, the path I felt mankind should follow. While I am not religious, there have been moments in my life when I have felt overwhelmed by a deep respect and humility. In the Potala Palace I felt generations of profound wisdom.

Perhaps I was affected spiritually, by the sheer magnificence of the surrounding mountains, the clarity of the pure mountain air, the intensity of the sunlight. Whatever it was, it will remain with me until the day I die.

Inside the palace, every surface was painted in bright yellow, gold, red, green and blue, with many carvings.

Light from the exterior windows was limited. We were granted access only to a very small number of rooms that were poorly lit. We didn’t get to tarry long.

My memory is of small, mostly empty rooms, and low intricately decorated ceilings, supported by thick, beautifully carved wooden posts and beams.

It was vaguely reminiscent to me of visiting the subterranean tombs of Pharaohs in Egypt. I thought it would not be good to be claustrophobic here.

The nooks and crannies seemed to hold ancient scrolls containing the writings of revered sages.

As in Angkor Wat, which began its decline as the Potala was being constructed, I had a sense of great antiquity, of old spirits here. I was daunted.

These pictures I post, in a vain attempt to depict the sheer immensity of this great place. See, for example the size of the pilgrim making her way down the great staircase, top right.

Later on that day, we went to visit the Barkhor Square, the Jokhang Temple and the Summer Palace.

 1. In the Jokhang Square and Barkhor Street, any motor vehicles are forbidden to pass through. Nobody is allowed to go on the bicycle. Anyone disobeyed the  regulations Will be punished with education and time according to his/her attitude.
 2. The following activities are forbidden in the Jokhang Square:
      Setting up stalls and trading:
      Being street performers:
      Sleeping in the open:
      Selling goods by force & asking for things to others (including foreigners):
      Gambling in all sorts of ways and any other illegal activities.
 3. Every one must conscientiously abide by the regulations for public security: obey the admi-nistration of the personnel on duty, observe the social morality, maintain public order and take good care of flowers and trees and public facilities. Strictly forbid defecating and urinating everywhere, and dumping rubbish randomly.
 4. According to the Regulations of punishment for the Public Security, any person must be punished strictly, for getting drunk and causing a disturbance, for fighting, crowding arrond and causing an traffic obstruction in the Jokhang Square and Barkhor Street.
      The Service Station for Public Security of the Lhasa Municipal Public Security Burear.           1986     (copied verbatim)

This was the public notice posted at the entrance to the Barkhor (alternately “Street”, “Square” or “Market”). This is the area immediately in front of the very ancient and revered Jokhang Temple which is part of the so-called “Potala Ensemble”, although it is a kilometre from the Potala Palace itself.

One could easily spend unlimited time in any of the temples in Lhasa, but we considered ourselves lucky to have the brief hour we were allotted.

It would be impossible and improper to encapsulate this most sacred of all Tibetan Buddhist temples that I had a mere nano-second to visit. I have but a few scant notes:

The Jokhang was closed for a decade, after the Chinese took control of it in 1966, but between 1972 and 1980, the temple was renovated and re-consecrated and it is now the focal point of Lhasa as well as the religious centre of Tibet.

The oldest parts of this structure date back to 652. Continuous additions were made for the next thousand years. The building contains 3,000 images of the Buddha, 54 boxes of scriptures, 108 sandalwood boxes, bronze sculptures, hundreds of thangkas, religious and historical paintings.

The four stories of the Jokhang, erected around a central stone courtyard, contain dozens of chapels, each dedicated to a different incarnation of the Buddha. The attendant monks also live here. We saw but a very small part of the interior, but I was satisfied as I felt that we were intruding in a deeply religious place.

The faith and dedication of the pilgrims who visit the Jokhang was evident outside, where we saw them make their way, in a clockwise circle around the temple, one step at a time. With each step, the pilgrim would raise their hands, often clasping a fistful of sweetgrass, touch their forehead and then prostrate themselves fully on the ground. They did this as many times as it took to circumambulate the holy building.

Some of the pilgrims clutched prayer wheels which they rotated constantly as they walked and some made their way, crawling, to a statue of the main deity, the life-sized Jowo Sakyamuni, said to have been carved at the time of the actual Buddha and to be therefore a true likeness of him. Some pilgrims came bearing ceremonial scarves, or khatas, which they would drape on the statue as an offering.

We tried to be respectful of the pilgrims who paid no attention to us whatever, being totally immersed in their devotions. I could not imagine having such a deep faith. It impressed me.

We had time for one brief last visit, to the Dalai Lama’s Summer Palace, the Norbulingka.

This 374-room palace was completed in 1783. It sits in a lush garden on the bank of the Kyi Chu or Lhasa River.

It was from here that the Dalai Lama fled on 17th March, 1959. When we saw it, the rooms looked almost as they may have on that night. It was almost ghostly.

One can only imagine how Tenzing Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, must have felt as he fled his beloved land.

5 thoughts on “Potala Palace

  1. Having discovered your blog through Jon Katz’s writings, I am now a regular reader of your blog, too. I don’t usually comment, but wanted you to know how much I enjoy your many topics. Currently “cat-less,” I am jealous of your life with these mystical and wonderful creatures! Your pictures of nature and your stories of travels are equally fascinating. Happy Holidays to you and yours and thanks for your blog.

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