Closer to Enlightenment? Potala Palace, the Highest in the World
Potala Palace is an ancient palace located in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. This palace once served as the winter palace of the Dalai Lama, as well as the Tibetan seat of government. Additionally, Potala Palace is considered a symbol of Tibetan Buddhism, as well as its traditional theocratic system of government. Potala Palace is the highest palace in the world.
A photo of Potala Palace, Tibet ( CC BY-SA 3.0)
A Breath-taking Location
Potala Palace is situated on top of Marpo Ri (meaning ‘Red Hill’), which overlooks the Lhasa Valley from a height of 130 meters. According to legend, there is a sacred cave within this hill, which was once the dwelling place of Avalokiteśvara (known also as ‘Chenrezi’ in Tibetan), a bodhisattva who is the embodiment of the compassion of all the Buddhas. The Emperor Songtsen Gampo is believed to have used this cave as a meditation retreat. It was also during this emperor’s reign, in 637 AD, that the first palace was built on the Marpo Ri. According to one source, the palace was built so that the emperor could greet his bride, the Princess Wencheng of Tang China.
Lightening over the Potala Palace, Lhasa, Tibet ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
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The Dalai Lamas’ winter retreat
The present structure, however, was only constructed during the reign of the 5 th Dalai Lama, Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso in the 17 th century. In 1645, the construction of the palace began. Three years later, the White Palace, which was used as the winter quarters of the Dalai Lama, was completed.
The Fifth Dalai Lama, Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso ( Public Domain )
The entire structure, however, took several more decades to complete. The Red Palace (which is dedicated to the study of Buddhism and to prayer), for example, was completed only between 1690 and 1694. The 5 th Dalai Lama did not live long enough to see the completion of this palace, as he had died in 1682. The other monks, fearing that his death would cause the project to be abandoned, decided to keep the Dalai Lama’s death a secret for 10 years, until the Red Palace was completed. In the meantime, a monk who looked almost like him was used to impersonate the deceased Dalai Lama.
The Chinese Occupation
In 1959, the Tibetan Uprising/Rebellion took place against the Chinese government. The uprising/rebellion was unsuccessful, and the 14 th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, fled to India. Thus, Potala Palace was no longer the residence of the Dalai Lama. During the 1960s and 70s, many Tibetan religious structures fell victim to the fanatical Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. Nevertheless, Potala Palace survived this iconoclasm, as it was protected by the troops of Premier Zhou Enlai himself. Potala Palace was converted by the Chinese government into a state museum, and is today remains an important pilgrimage site, as well as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Potala Palace today. A popular UNESCO World Heritage Site ( CC BY-SA 2.0 )
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A Magnificent Construction
One of the highlights of Potala Palace is its architecture, which is a masterpiece in itself. The entire structure was built of wood and stone, and contains over 1000 rooms, which include chapels, halls and rooms.
The Potala Palace Plan, 17 th century ( Public Domain )
The palace also houses numerous works of art that would leave a visitor awestruck. These include statues of the Buddha, antiques, as well as murals. The last of these, which decorate the walls of Potala Palace, depict important events in the history of Tibet, as well as stories from the lives of the previous Dalai Lamas. Finally, the sacred nature of Potala Palace is further enhanced by the fact that it is the burial place of previous Dalai Lamas. The mausoleums of eight previous Dalai Lamas are located in the Red Palace, and these are wonders themselves. The mummified body of the Fifth Dalai Lama, for example, is enshrined in a stupa (a dome shaped structure) in the western part of the Red Palace. This stupa is 5 stories high, covered with 4 tonnes of gold, and encrusted with a large amount of semi-precious stones.
Top image: Potala Palace in the winter. Credit: QiangBa DanZhen / Fotolia