The Potala Palace is one of the most historically significant sites in Tibet. While it is currently under the control of the Chinese, who keep the holy place as a museum to attract tourists, it is still an important pilgrimage site for Buddhists. As the former home of the Dalai Lamas and the alleged cave dwelling of Bodhisattva Chenrezi, it holds a special place for people who follow Buddhism or even just for people who would like to see the Dalai Lama returned to his rightful home in Tibet.
The Potala Palace is located 12,100 feet above Lhasa Valley on Marpo Ri Hill or Red Hill. According to legend, the hill was a holy place before the Potala Palace was built there. Emperor Sengtsen Gampo is said to have meditated there before deciding to build a palace on the site. This meditating emperor built the original Potala Palace in 637 A.D. The palace was built as a home to welcome his new princess. The name is presumably derived from the holy mountain in India where Bodhisattva Chenrezi (the Bodhisattva of Compassion) is supposed to dwell.
In the 1600s, the original palace, which was partially destroyed by time and unrest, was consumed by the foundations of a new Potala Palace. At this time, the fifth Dalai Lama – Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso – had the portion of the Potala Palace that is now known as the White Palace built. It took three years. Roughly 40 years later, the Red Palace joined the White Palace. An estimated 7,000 laborers and 1,500 artisans worked on the Red Palace.
The White Palace was used as the home of the Dalai Lama and his regents. It became the capitol of the Tibetan government. The Red Palace was a place of learning for Tibetan monks. Libraries, shrines and places of prayer made the Red Palace a perfect sanctuary for Buddhist monks. Moviegoers may recognize the Potala Palace as a whole from the movie “Seven Years in Tibet.” The movie is about the relationship between the 14th and current Dalai Lama – Tenzin Gyatso – and his foreign tutor. It shows the Potala Palace and the Dalai Lama’s escape from it during the Chinese invasion in 1959. The Dalai Lama has never been able to return to his home, which has become a matter of activist outrage.
The Potala Palace remained largely unchanged until 1922, when the 13th Dalai Lama – Thubten Gyatso – had the Red Palace renovated and two floors added to the White Palace. Thus, the Potala Palace as we know it today was complete. The Chinese invasion left the building largely untouched (unlike so many other Tibetan holy places). Today, tons of gold, more than 200,000 pearls and an untold number of semi-precious gems still adorn objects in the Potala Palace. Very few monks are allowed to reside in the palace, when compared to the Potala Palace’s heyday.
Potala Palace, retrieved 12/13/10, sacredsites.com/asia/tibet/potala.palace.html
Potala Palace, retrieved 12/13/10, travelchannelguide.com/attraction/tibet/lhasa/potala.htm
Potala Palace, Lhasa, retrieved 12/13/10, sacred-destinations.com/tibet/lhasa-potala-palace