Perched atop Red Mountain in the western part of the Lhasa Valley, the Potala Palace looms over its surroundings at a staggering 3,700 meters above sea level (Mt. Fuji stands 3,776 meters tall). The palace is easily the most imposing manmade structure in the world at this elevation: a colossal fortress with a golden roof rising from a mountain top, surrounded by imposing turreted walls and entered via a number of gates. The majestic building unsurprisingly became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994.
Yet few seem able to agree about its origins. Some have suggested that politics drove its creation. They assert that the Tibetan Empire’s founder Songtsän Gampo – born sometime between the mid-sixth century and early seventh century CE – erected the fortress to solidify his political power. Others believe Gampo constructed it to woo a Tang Dynasty princess. Its name is thought to be derived from Mt. Potala, the mythical alpine dwelling place of Avalokitesvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, in southern India.
But it’s not merely the abode of some figurehead. Historically, the palace has served not only as Tibet’s political nerve center, but also as its spiritual heart. Tradition holds that Lhasa’s three main hills – Chokpori, Pongwari and Marpori – are the symbolic “Three Protectors of Tibet.” Potala rests on top of Marpori, believed to represent Avalokitesvara. Locals have also traditionally believed other divine beings call the palace home.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Since the seventh century CE the Potala Palace has been the winter home of the Dalai Lama. As it stands today, construction of the modern Potala Palace began in 1645 during the reign of the Great Fifth Dalai Lama, Lozang Gyatso. The palace is essentially divided into two main sections, with the Red Palace at its center, from which the White Palace extends as two wings. The Red Palace is devoted to Buddhist study and meditation, while the White Palace has historically been used for political administrative purposes, and as lodgings for the Dalai Lama.
It took three years to construct the exterior, with an additional 45 years were needed to build the mind-bogglingly extensive 130,000-square-meter interior. The 117-meter-tall (384 feet) 13-story compound comprises a dense network of temples, palaces, dormitories and administrative areas. In total, there are more than 1,000 rooms chock full of cultural treasures and striking murals, 10,000 shrines, and more than 200,000 statues. Potala boasted chapels, gardens, courtyards, the tombs of eight past dalai lamas, a seminary, a printing house, schools…even a jail.
Despite the illustrious history and vastness of this complex that is so central to Tibetan identity, its cultural integrity has been endangered in recent years due to the increasing Sinification of Tibet. The media has hammered this message home at the level of popular culture, most recently when it was revealed that even the boyhood home of the current Dalai Lama – a refuge just to the south in Dharamsala, India – has received a makeover from Chinese officials. Security cameras now oversee the premises, which are surrounded by a three-meter high wall.
Although this image of Tibet is now widely entrenched, the visible onslaught from the mainland is relatively recent. When celebrated travel writer, essayist and novelist Pico Iyer visited Tibet nearly 30 years ago, it seems he arrived just in time. “I walked out on to the balcony in Banak Shol guesthouse in Lhasa, Tibet, in 1985 and looked up to where the Potala Palace sat, on a ridge overlooking the small cluster of traditional whitewashed houses,” he wrote.
“The Banak Shol could not have been a less propitious setting for romance. There were no windows in my little cell and I had to crawl into it before flopping on to the bed. Yet even then, on that first night, I knew, as one does in love, that I was in a place I'd never see again…by the time I came back, five years later, the place was under martial law, with soldiers on the rooftops.”
Despite the political change that has swept through Tibet, Potala still stands. And visitors, from Tibetan pilgrims to Western tourists, still flock to the palace, presumably to see whether it still has at least some residue of its past magic. Based on the responses of more than 600 travelers, it does.