Potala Palace

Potala Palace from the roof of the Jokhang Temple - J.H. Wittke


The Potala Palace, built on Red Mountain (left), is named after a mountain in southern India regarded as the seat of the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, the patron god of Tibet. The upper Red Palace includes the living quarters and tombs of most of the Dalai Lamas and many temples containing thousands of gilded statues of Buddha, bodhisattvas, demons and gods. The Red Palace is nestled on top of the White Palace, which once housed a printing press, more temples, and the administrative offices of the Tibetan government.

Red Mountain was first used for a fortress by King Songtsen Gampo (Srong-btsan), who lived 608-650. However, the Potala as it now appears is largely the work of the Fifth Dalai Lama, known as the Great Fifth, who reigned 1645-1693. Construction commenced in 1642 and continued throughout his life. The Great Fifth moved his residence from the Ganden Palace at the Drepung Monastery to the Potala. The regent, Sangye Gyatso, kept the Dalai Lama’s death secret for 12 years until the Potala was completed in 1694, asserting that the god-king had gone into a prolonged retreat. Such a claim was well within reason, given the contemplative nature of Tibetan Buddhism. Subsequently, the Seventh Dalai Lama constructed a summer palace at the Norbulingka. After his time, the Potala served as an administrative center and winter palace.

Golden Roofs of Potala Palace - J.H. Wittke


A steep walk takes us to the west end of the Potala, and we enter at the level of the Red Palace. After visiting the shrines, tombs of the Dalai Lamas, and audience chambers inside the Red Palace, we ascend to the roof. Here, there are golden roofs above each of the tombs of the previous incarnations of the Dalai Lama (right).

Deyang Shar Courtyard and White Palace - J.H. Wittke


We exit the Potala through the White Palace. We descend the steep 'tri-range' wooden stairs into Deyang Shar courtyard (right). The center steps are roped off as they are intended for the exclusive use of the Dalai Lama. They have a sad, abandoned look compared with the worn adjoining steps. The Deyang Shar courtyard had been used for performances and religious ceremonies, which the Dalai Lama could observe from his chambers at the top of the White Palace. On its east side are another series of steep stone stairs with huge (2 m in diameter) round drums hanging above them. Some of us stand on tiptoe and gingerly strike one of the drums, yielding a muted deep boom. The steep steps below the drums lead to the East Stairs, which descend the southern face of the Potala to the city below.

View from Potala toward Chokpori Hill - J.H. Wittke


The view from Red Mountain is spectacular with the city of Lhasa stretching out below. The two white stupas that marked the original Western Gate of the city, are dwarfed by a hospital-green apartment building beside them (left). Chokpori Hill, which used to house the Medical College, now sports a Chinese radio tower. The Medical College was destroyed in the Tibetan Revolt of 1959, but the tower is draped with prayer flags.

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