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The Potala Palace

The Potala Palace

The Potala Palace. Lhasa, Tibet. Photo by Terese Bartholomew.

This is the Potala Palace located in Lhasa. It is perched upon a hill called Marpo Ri, which commands a view of the entire city. This hill was where the kings of Tibet lived beginning with Songtsen Gampo in the seventh century. The Fifth Dalai Lama moved his headquarters here from Drepung Monastery in the mid-seventeenth century, and since that time the Dalai Lamas of Tibet resided there (until the exile in 1959 of the present Dalai Lama). This became both the spiritual and political seat of authority. After the construction of the Norbulinka summer palace in the late 18th century, the Dalai Lamas split their time between the two palaces, spending winters at the Potala and summers at the Norbulinka.

What does Potala mean?
Potala derives from the word for the Pure Land or paradise of Avalokiteshvara (the bodhisattva of compassion) which is also “Potala.” The Dalai Lama’s are believed to be manifestations of Avalokiteshvara, so the naming of the Dalai Lama’s palace after that of Avalokiteshvara seems logical.

What’s inside?

Part palace, part fortress, part treasure-house, part temple, part tomb, part administrative center, it is a titanic building of over 900 feet long, with countless rooms. Over the centuries it became the repository for Tibetan culture. Store rooms were filled with priceless tangkas (religious paintings on silk), vast libraries, religious statues made of precious metals, and endless other things.1

In 1959, the Chinese invaders tried first to destroy it with bombs, but it is so strongly built, with walls 26 feet thick at the base, that they gave up and instead removed the precious contents and turned it into a headquarters of the army.

The red buildings at the center are the Potrang Marpo, the red palace, where religious services took place. The Potala was also the seat of the Tibetan government until the Chinese take-over. Among the many rooms are some impressive throne rooms where the Dalai Lamas would receive official guests. It even houses the stupas, which contain the mummified remains of bodies of the former Dalai Lamas. The Potala has become a symbol of Tibetan nationhood.

What was it like to live in this palace as the Dalai Lama?
Famous stories about Tenzin Gyatso, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, tell of his adventures in the Potala. Since his position prevented him from mixing with the people of Lhasa like other boys his age, he explored the city from the roof-top of the Potala by spying on the people below with telescopes and binoculars.2 He lived in the Potala from the age of 4 in 1939 until the age of 24 in 1959, when he left his country for exile in India. 

Discussion Points/Teaching Suggestion: 
Compare The Potala with other great buildings and monuments, such as the pyramids in Egypt, the Vatican, the Forbidden City in Beijing, the US Capitol, PacBell Park, San Francisco City Hall, etc. Discuss the functions of the buildings—are they seats of government? religious institutions? How does the way they are built and decorated convey ideas? Does the building look like it was meant to defend attack or does it look inviting?

1Hicks, Roger and Ngakpa Chogyam. Great Ocean: An Authorised Biography of the Buddhist Monk Tenzin Gyatso, His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. Longmead, England: Element Books, Ltd., 1984. A readable biography of this fascinating life with appendices. p. 36.
Harrer, Heinrich, Seven Years in Tibet, fifth printing (New York: E.P. Dutton & Co, 1968): p. 185.

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