The Potala Palace

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The Potala Palace in Lhasa.
The Potala Palace in Lhasa.
The Potala Palace  in Lhasa, Tibet Autonomous Region, China was the residence of the Dalai Lama until the 14th Dalai Lama fled to India during the 1959 Tibetan uprising. It is now a museum and World Heritage Site. The palace is named after Mount Potalaka, the mythical abode of the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara. The 5th Dalai Lama started its construction in 1645 after one of his spiritual advisers, Konchog Chophel (died 1646), pointed out that the site was ideal as a seat of government, situated as it is between Drepung and Sera monasteries and the old city of Lhasa. It may overlay the remains of an earlier fortress called the White or Red Palace on the site, built by Songtsen Gampo in 637.

The building measures 400 metres east-west and 350 metres north-south, with sloping stone walls averaging 3 m. thick, and 5 m. (more than 16 ft) thick at the base, and with copper poured into the foundations to help proof it against earthquakes. Thirteen stories of buildings—containing over 1,000 rooms, 10,000 shrines and about 200,000 statues—soar 117 metres (384 ft) on top of Marpo Ri, the “Red Hill”, rising more than 300 m (about 1,000 ft) in total above the valley floor. Tradition has it that the three main hills of Lhasa represent the “Three Protectors of Tibet”. Chokpori, just to the south of the Potala, is the soul-mountain (Wylie: bla ri) of Vajrapani, Pongwari that of Manjusri, and Marpori, the hill on which the Potala stands, represents Avalokitesvara

History :  The site on which the Potala Palace rises is built over a palace erected by Songtsen Gampo on the Red Hill. The Potala contains two chapels on its northwest corner that conserve parts of the original building. One is the Phakpa Lhakhang, the other the Chogyel Drupuk, a recessed cavern identified as Songtsen Gampo’s meditation cave. Lozang Gyatso, the Great Fifth Dalai Lama, started the construction of the modern Potala Palace in 1645 after one of his spiritual advisers, Konchog Chophel (died 1646), pointed out that the site was ideal as a seat of government, situated as it is between Drepung and Sera monasteries and the old city of Lhasa. The external structure was built in 3 years, while the interior, together with its furnishings, took 45 years to complete. The Dalai Lama and his government moved into the Potrang Karpo (‘White Palace’) in 1649. Construction lasted until 1694, some twelve years after his death. The Potala was used as a winter palace by the Dalai Lama from that time. The Potrang Marpo (‘Red Palace’) was added between 1690 and 1694.

The new palace got its name from a hill on Cape Comorin at the southern tip of India—a rocky point sacred to the bodhisattva of compassion, who is known as Avalokitesvara, or Chenrezi. The Tibetans themselves rarely speak of the sacred place as the “Potala”, but rather as “Peak Potala” (Tse Potala), or most commonly as “the Peak”. The palace was slightly damaged during the Tibetan uprising against the Chinese in 1959, when Chinese shells were launched into the palace’s windows . Before Chamdo Jampa Kalden was shot and taken prisoner by soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army, he witnessed “Chinese cannon shells began landing on Norbulingka past midnight on March 19th, 1959… The sky lit up as the Chinese shells hit the Chakpori Medical College and the Potala.” It also escaped damage during the Cultural Revolution in 1966 through the personal intervention of Zhou Enlai, who was then the Premier of the People’s Republic of China. Tibetan activist Tsering Woeser claims that the palace, which harboured “over 100,000 volumes of scriptures and historical documents” and “many store rooms for housing precious objects, handicrafts, paintings, wall hangings, statues, and ancient armour”, “was almost robbed empty”. On the other hand, tibetologist Amy Heller writes that “the invaluable library and artistic treasures accumulated over the centuries in the Potala have been preserved.”

The Potala Palace was inscribed to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1994. In 2000 and 2001, Jokhang Temple and Norbulingka were added to the list as extensions to the sites. Rapid modernisation has been a concern for UNESCO, however, which expressed concern over the building of modern structures immediately around the palace which threaten the palace’s unique atmosphere. The Chinese government responded by enacting a rule barring the building of any structure taller than 21 metres in the area. UNESCO was also concerned over the materials used during the restoration of the palace, which commenced in 2002 at a cost of RMB180 million (US$22.5 million), although the palace’s director, Qiangba Gesang, has clarified that only traditional materials and craftsmanship were used. The palace has also received restoration works between 1989 and 1994, costing RMB55 million (US$6.875 million).  The number of visitors to the palace was restricted to 1,600 a day, with opening hours reduced to six hours daily to avoid over-crowding from 1 May 2003. The palace was receiving an average of 1,500 a day prior to the introduction of the quota, sometimes peaking to over 5,000 in one day. Visits to the structure’s roof were banned after restoration efforts were completed in 2006 to avoid further structural damage. Visitorship quotas were raised to 2,300 daily to accommodate a 30% increase in visitorship since the opening of the Qingzang railway into Lhasa on 1 July 2006, but the quota is often reached by mid-morning. Opening hours were extended during the peak period in the months of July to September, where over 6,000 visitors would descend on the site

Architecture :  Built at an altitude of 3,700 m (12,100 ft), on the side of Ri Marpo (‘Red Mountain’) in the center of Lhasa Valley, the Potala Palace, with its vast inward-sloping walls broken only in the upper parts by straight rows of many windows, and its flat roofs at various levels, is not unlike a fortress in appearance. At the south base of the rock is a large space enclosed by walls and gates, with great porticos on the inner side. A series of tolerably easy staircases, broken by intervals of gentle ascent, leads to the summit of the rock. The whole width of this is occupied by the palace. The central part of this group of buildings rises in a vast quadrangular mass above its satellites to a great height, terminating in gilt canopies similar to those on the Jokhang. This central member of Potala is called the “red palace” from its crimson colour, which distinguishes it from the rest. It contains the principal halls and chapels and shrines of past Dalai Lamas. There is in these much rich decorative painting, with jewelled work, carving and other ornamentation. The Chinese Putuo Zongcheng Temple, also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, built between 1767 and 1771, was in part modeled after the Potala Palace. The palace was named by the American television show Good Morning America and newspaper USA Today as one of the “New Seven Wonders”.

Access : Coordinates: 29.657778, 91.116944 / By plane :  The Lhasa Gonggar Airport   (LXA IATA) is 61km southwest of Lhasa. There are flights from Beijing, Chengdu, Chongqing, Guangzhou, Kunming, Qamdo, Shanghai, Xi’an, Xining, and Zhongdian (Shangri-La). International flights are available to Kathmandu, Nepal. Non-Chinese nationals are required to be met at the airport by their tour guide. Taxis are available outside the airport. There is also an official shuttle bus (¥25).

By bus :  Non-Chinese nationals are not allowed to ride the intercity buses in Tibet. For Chinese nationals, there is frequent and cheap bus service between Lhasa and nearly all parts of Tibet. By train :  The Qinghai-Tibet (Qingzang) railway connects Lhasa and Golmud, with services continuing onto Xining, Beijing, Chengdu, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Chongqing.

T27/28 from/to Beijing West (daily, 44h)
T22/23/24/21 from/to Chengdu (every other day, 44h) –
T222/223/224/221 from/to Chongqing (every other day, 45h)
T164/165/166/163 from/to Shanghai (daily, 48h)
T264/265/266/263 from/to Guangzhou (every other day, 55h) — longest domestic train ride in China by distance (4,980km)
K917/K918 from/to Lanzhou (daily, 27h)
K9801/K9802 from/to Xining West (daily, 24h)
It is difficult to get a ticket during Chinese New Year (January and February) and summer holidays (July and August).

Transportation from the train station :  A taxi ride between the urban area and the train station should cost a flat ¥30 and no drivers use the meter. Be sure to fix the price in advance as many drivers will try to charge ¥100. As an alternative, take a bus (¥1) to anywhere across the river, and then get a taxi that uses the meter.

Nearby Attractions : Barkhor Street Market – a circular street around the Jokhang Temple in the center of the old section of Lhasa , Jokhang Temple (Tsuglagkhang). Constructed in the 7th century AD , Norbulingka Summer Palace. Located about 1 km south of the Potala Palace , Drepung Monastery. Founded in 1416 by a disciple of Tsong Khapa, was the biggest and richest monastery in Tibet and its lamas helped to train each new young Dalai Lama , Tibet Museum, 19 Luobu Linka Rd. Elaborate museum with artifacts reflecting the entire history of Tibet , Ganden Monastery. Located on Wangbur Mountain, 47 kilometers (29 miles) from Lhasa City.

Activities : Kora – a meditative circumambulation around a sacred site, such as a temple, practiced by many Tibetans.
Langma Opera – literally “royal music”, a traditional Tibetan singing and dancing show.
Blind Massage – at Medical Massage Clinic Lhasa, #59 Beijing Middle Road, 3rd floor (directly across from the Kichu Hotel). Phone 6320870. Cost: ¥80/hour. English spoken. A vocational project of Braille Without Borders. Great way to adjust to the altitude or just relax.  Lhasa Amusement Park – No.30-32 Sela Road

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