Potala Palace, the sacred heart of Tibetan Buddhism, stands as the world’s highest palace, embodying rich history and spiritual significance. Once the winter abode of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government, this architectural marvel is perched in Lhasa, Tibet’s capital. Today, it serves as a museum, preserving the cultural treasures of the past while commanding a spot as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Potala Palace crowns the Marpo Ri, also known as ‘Red Hill,’ at a staggering elevation of 130 meters (426.51 ft). Legend has it that within this hill lies a sacred cave that once served as the dwelling place of Avalokiteśvara, also known as ‘Chenrezi’ in Tibetan – a bodhisattva representing the compassion of all Buddhas. Emperor Songtsen Gampo, during his reign in 637 AD, built the first palace on Marpo Ri, where he is believed to have greeted his bride, Princess Wencheng of Tang China.
The Sanctuary of Dalai Lamas
The present Potala Palace, a masterpiece of architecture, was primarily constructed during the reign of the 5th Dalai Lama, Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso, in the 17th century. In 1645, the construction of the palace commenced. Three years later, the White Palace, used as the winter quarters of the Dalai Lama, was completed.
Completing the entire structure, however, took several more decades. The Red Palace, dedicated to the study of Buddhism and prayer, was finalized only between 1690 and 1694. Tragically, the 5th Dalai Lama passed away in 1682, long before witnessing the completion of this grand edifice. To prevent the project from abandonment, the other monks kept the Dalai Lama’s death a secret for a decade until the Red Palace was finished, employing a monk who bore a striking resemblance to the deceased Dalai Lama.
Turbulent Times and Survival
In 1959, the Tibetan Uprising/Rebellion unfolded against the Chinese government, forcing the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, into exile in India. Consequently, Potala Palace ceased to be the residence of the Dalai Lama. The 1960s and 70s saw many Tibetan religious structures fall victim to the fanatic Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. Remarkably, Potala Palace survived this tumultuous period, thanks to the protection extended by Premier Zhou Enlai’s troops. Today, it has been transformed into a state museum by the Chinese government, remaining a significant pilgrimage site and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Safeguarding Ancient Wisdom
In a recent development, China has unveiled a plan to invest 300 million yuan ($45 million) in preserving the ancient documents and texts housed within this iconic site. This 10-year project will encompass digital preservation and the registration of more than 2,800 volumes of text.
Notably, Potala Palace safeguards a treasure trove of Han, Tibetan, Man, Mongolian, and Sanskrit documents spanning 20 diverse subject areas, stored in more than 40,000 books throughout the palace’s various chapels, tomb stupas, Buddha sculptures, the assembly hall, and numerous libraries. Jondan, the director of the palace’s administration office, explained, “These precious documents and literature encompass almost all forms of ancient Tibetan documents and literature. Their content spans the three collections of Sakyamuni Buddha’s teachings, the 10 Tibetan sciences, biographies, medicine, history, operas, annals, and bibliographies.”
Potala Palace is a testament to exquisite architecture, featuring a breathtaking combination of wood and stone. It houses over 1,000 rooms, including chapels, halls, and chambers, each preserving its own piece of history and spirituality.
The palace is adorned with an awe-inspiring collection of art, including statues of the Buddha, antiques, and captivating murals adorning its walls. These murals depict pivotal events in Tibet’s history and stories from the lives of the previous Dalai Lamas. Furthermore, Potala Palace’s sanctity is further accentuated as it serves as the burial place of eight previous Dalai Lamas. The mausoleums, particularly in the Red Palace, are architectural marvels themselves. The mummified body of the Fifth Dalai Lama, for instance, is enshrined in a stupa, a dome-shaped structure, in the western part of the Red Palace, covered with four tonnes of gold and encrusted with an abundance of semi-precious stones.
Potala Palace, perched atop ‘Red Hill,’ continues to inspire awe with its rich history, spiritual significance, and stunning architecture. As the world’s highest palace, it serves as a bridge to Tibet’s past, preserving its cultural heritage while attracting pilgrims and visitors from around the globe. This UNESCO World Heritage Site stands as a symbol of resilience, having weathered political upheavals, and is now poised for a new chapter of preservation and discovery.