Empty fortress

Towering above the mountainous landscape of Tibet, the Potala Palace is the most prominent symbol of Tibetan Buddhism after the Dalai Lama.


It carries more meaning than one can imagine. Placed upon the Red Mountain overlooking Lhasa, the capital of the Tibet region, the Potala Palace is the altar Tibetan Buddhists now turn to in worship. Since the Great Fifth Dalai Lama, Lobsang Gyatso, constructed it in the 1600s, it has been the centre for political and religious leadership. The Dalai Lama always resided there. That was, until the Tibetan uprising in 1959, when the 14th and current Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, fled Lhasa for shelter in Dharamsala, northern India. The palace has stood empty ever since.

For most tourists, the Potala Palace is a treasure chest, cultural centrepiece and photographic favourite. The 130,000-square-metre building stands 110 metres high above Lhasa, whose altitude of 3,650 metres makes it among the world’s highest cities. It has 13 levels and contains thousands of scrolls, paintings, sculptures and invaluable historical documents. Tourists flock to see it. Some call it ‘the pearl on the roof of the world’.

For Tibetans, however, it carries another meaning. “It’s beyond religious issues in terms of its importance to Tibetans,” says Robert Barnett, director of the Modern Tibetan Studies Program at Columbia University. It stands as a monument to Tibetan culture and civilisation. It stands for the whole memory of Tibetan history and its cultural significance.” So strong is its position in Tibetan Buddhism that, after pictures of Dalai Lama were banned from the region by Chinese authorities, Tibetans have replaced them with images of the palace.

The fortress, named after Mount Potala, a mythical mountain in south India, is an architectural masterpiece. It is protected by gates, towers and walls up to five metres thick. Inside, there are the White Palace and the Red Palace. The White Palace houses the main ceremonial hall, and the Dalai Lama’s throne. It’s a place for administrative affairs. The Red Palace was the private residence of the Dalai Lama; the house of prayer and spirituality. Together, the two parts give the overall palace a distinctive appearance. “It’s very iconic for Tibet,” says Dr Nathan W. Hill, senior lecturer in Tibetan at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. “Just as the Taj Mahal is for India and Big Ben is for London.”


The palace’s origins go back to the 7th century when Songsten Gampo, the founder of the Tibetan Empire, ordered its construction. Some say he built it for his wife, Princess Wencheng. But two centuries later, the empire fell. The palace collapsed amid wars and disputes. Hardly anything of it survived.

In 1656, the Fifth Dalai Lama rebuilt it to house political and religious affairs. The building was largely constructed around the White Palace. At some point he left his former home, the Drepung Monastery, also near Lhasa, and moved in with his staff. However, completing the project took 30 years, and the Fifth Dalai Lama never lived to see it finished.

But that he wanted no one to know. Instead, he instructed his chief executive official, Desi Sangye Gyatso, to keep his death a secret while completing the project. When asking for their leader, people were told the Dalai Lama was continuing his long retreat. During this time, the Sixth Dalai Lama was growing up. When he finally took over, the official could stand down. He had been running the palace for 15 years.

Since then the palace has gradually been expanded into its current state. It was slightly damaged during the Tibetan uprising in 1959, but not beyond repair. UNESCO made it a World Heritage Site in 1994, which has strengthened focus on conservation.


Technically, the palace is now a museum. And there is much to see. Many of the Dalai Lamas have been honoured with stupas – great monuments holding the ashes of the deceased. The largest is that of the Fifth Dalai Lama. It is said to be 15 metres tall, consist of 3,700kg of gold and 20,000 jewels and diamonds. Around the palace, there are tens of thousands of painted scrolls, cultural relics, carpets, canopies; sculptures in stone, wood, clay, silver and gold. Some stand 10 metres tall. Many artistic works remind of religious tales, historical events and legendary leaders. About a decade ago, the palace was reported to hold 30,000 volumes of ancient books on history, art, culture, medicine, mathematics and other subjects.

Spiritually, though, it retains its importance. With the current Dalai Lama in exile, the palace has become a place for worship – but also mourning and ruefulness. Thousands of Tibetan pilgrims still go there, praying, wishing. They even throw bank notes into where the Dalai Lama used to live – his bedroom, bathroom. “They are offerings to indicate their devotion to the absent Dalai Lama,” says Barnett. “It’s a show of their continuing reverence. The whole experience of going into the palace is a reminder of his enforced absence.”

Photos: Hung Chung Chih, Hxdyl, Qingqing [all via Shutterstock.com].