Closer to Enlightenment? Potala Palace, the Highest in the World
Potala Palace, the iconic heart of Tibetan Buddhism, is the highest palace in the world. It once served as the winter palace of the Dalai Lama and was the Tibetan seat of government. The palace is located in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, and it now serves as a museum preserving the cultural past and is a beautifully situated World Heritage Site.
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 (426.51 ft). 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 .
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Lightening over the Potala Palace, Lhasa, Tibet. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
The Dalai Lamas’ Winter Retreat
The present structure, however, was only constructed during the reign of the 5th Dalai Lama , Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso, in the 17th 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 5th 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 of Potala Palace
In 1959, the Tibetan Uprising/Rebellion took place against the Chinese government. The uprising/rebellion was unsuccessful, and the 14th 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 today it remains an important pilgrimage site, as well as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
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Potala Palace today. A popular UNESCO World Heritage Site ( CC BY-SA 2.0 )
Preserving the Past
Just recently it was announced that China plans to spend 300 million yuan ($45 million) to preserve the ancient documents and texts held within this iconic site. The 10-year project will include digital preservation as well as the registration of more than 2,800 volumes of text.
China Daily reports that Han, Tibetan, Man, Mongolian, and Sanskrit documents covering 20 subject areas are housed in more than 40,000 books “in the chapels of tomb stupas and Buddha sculptures , the assembly hall and several other libraries.” Jondan, director of the administration office of the palace, told the news site, “These precious documents and literature cover almost all forms of ancient Tibetan documents and literature. Their content includes the three collections of the teachings of Sakyamuni Buddha, the 10 Tibetan sciences, biographies, medicine, history, operas, annals and bibliographies.”
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, 17th 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. Source: QiangBa DanZhen / Fotolia
By Wu Mingren
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