Bedazzled by the Potala Palace. Lhasa Tibet
Many of Tibet’s monasteries are built on mountains. These sacred mountain monasteries are considered to be home of the deities, where they are closer to the heavens. Of the myriad of monasteries to visit in this highly devoted and god-fearing nation, the Potala Palace is by far one of the most majestic and imposing structures in Lhasa. It has been the official residence of the Dalai Lamas since the 7th century until the present Dalai Lama was deposed in 1959.
Built on the top of Moburi (the Red Hill), the grand Potala Palace occupies this holy site and can be seen from miles away. Situated at an elevation of 3,700m, it is the highest palace in the world and I am ready to face the challenge of climbing 1,000 steep steps to the top.
But first I have to stand in line (that stretches far) to get to the entrance gate. The line comprises of Chinese tourists from mainland China and a sprinkling of foreigners. Our tickets have already been purchased well in advance because visitors are limited to just 2,300 per day. Once inside the entrance gate, and a quick peek around the Museum, I start my climb. The air is thin at this elevation and climbing is slow. But my guide gives me plenty of opportunities to stop and catch my breath and gaze at the amazing scenery around.
It takes me 365 steps to reach the base of the Red Palace.
The Red Palace was used as a house of prayer by the Dalai Lamas. It was dedicated to the study of Buddhism and the advancement of the religion.
Before I restart my climb into the heart of the Red Palace, I snatch a few more minutes to drink lots of water and catch my breath.
Inside the Red Palace is a veritable treasure trove! The Chapel of the Dalai Lamas is a mass of intricately carved tombs and statues, inlaid with precious stones, and revered by the thousands who file past. It is truly a spectacular sight.
The massive 12.6m-high chörten of the great 5th Dalai Lama is gilded with some 3.7 tonnes of gold.
Flanking it are two smaller chörtens containing the 10th and 12th Dalai Lamas, both of whom died as children. Richly embossed, the chörtens represent the concentrated wealth of an entire nation.
One of the precious stones is a pearl said to have been discovered in an elephant’s brain and thus, in a wonderful piece of understatement, ‘considered a rarity’. Eight other chörtens represent the eight major events in the life of the Buddha.
I feel blessed to have gotten the chance to witness such beauty and devotion. Encountering monks silently meditating in corners, the smell of incense and the chanting of mantras, deciphering the Buddhist scriptures and inscriptions on pillars and gilded brass tiles, gob smacked by the riches and regality of the ancient times, marveling at this immense structure made of wood, stone and granite and decorated with overhanging eaves and upturned roof corners was certainly worth the climb.
FUN FACTS ABOUT THE POTALA PALACE
No building is allowed to be higher than the Potala Palace – The Potala Palace is built 117 meters (384 feet) up a mountain, with impressive zig-zagging steps up to it. Throughout Lhasa, no other building is permitted to be higher than the top of the Potala Palace. This is as a mark of respect for the holy site.
The Palace was built as a present to the king’s bride-to-be –The original palace was not as large as it is today when it was built as a present from King Songtsan Gampo to his bride-to-be in 637 AD. It was destroyed during the ninth century, and the current one was built by the fifth Dalai Lama.
The palace was once deserted for more than 800 years – In the 7th century, the 33rd King of Tubo (a Tibetan kingdom), Songstan Gampo moved his capital to Lhasa and started to build the Potala Palace. It became the main palace of the kingdom. But early in the 9th century, after the Songstan Gampo’s demise, the palace, and the whole city was deserted. Other Tibetan regimes did not have their capitals at Lhasa.
The Potala was the residence of ten Dalai Lamas over 317 years – In 1642, after the 5th Dalai Lama rebuilt the Potala Palace and finished the White Palace part, he moved his government to the palace. From then on, the Potala Palace became the Dalai Lamas’ residence, government offices, and an important place for religious activities. However, after the 14th Dalai Lama fled to India in 1959, the palace has been more like a museum.The Potala Palace has two parts – the White Palace and the Red Palace – the White Palace was built earlier and functioned as offices of the Tibetan government, assembly halls, and the Dalai Lama’s residence. The Red Palace was used as a house of prayer by the Dalai Lama. It was dedicated to the study of Buddhism and the advancement of the religion.
The Potala Palace houses eight mummified Dalai Lamas – The stupas in the Potala Palace are actually the tombs of eight Dalai Lamas: the 5th, 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th, and 13th Dalai Lamas. Many of these stupas are richly decorated in gold, silver, pearls, agate, coral, diamond, and other treasures.
The 5th Dalai Lama’s stupa is coated with more than 3,700 kg of gold!- This is the most extravagantly decorated and most treasured one. The stupa is 14.85 meters (48’8”) high and overlaid with 3,721 kg of gold. There are more than 18,000 jewels decorating the stupa, including pearls, coral, amber, and agate.
Only 2,300 Potala Palace visitors are allowed per day – This is to protect the palace, and make sure visitors can have a reasonably uncrowded tour of the palace.
The palace’s walls are painted with milk – Every year, just before the 22nd day of the 9th month of the Tibetan calendar, people will paint the palace walls with a mixture of milk, sugar, honey, and some herbs, mixed with white lime. Centuries ago, it took more than a month to finish the painting. Nowadays, it’s done within 10 days by volunteers.
The Palace walls are up to 5 meters thick – The thickest part of the palace walls is at the base: 5 meters (16 ft). The higher it goes, the thinner the walls are. The roof’s parapet wall is up to one meter thick.