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Potala Palace in Lhasa Tibet, Its History and Construction

Religious center of Lhasa, holy palace in highland

About Potala Palace

The Potala Palace is included in the first important national cultural relics protection list. It is the world’s largest and most intact ancient castle-style complex located on the highest altitude. A grand stele and commemorating the architectural achievements of ancient Tibetans, the Potala Palace is truly a cultural treasure of the Chinese nation. In Dec. 1994, the UNESCO put the Potala Palace onto the World Cultural Heritage List. In 2001, the State Tourism Administration rated it as 4A tourism spot on the national level.

Potala Palace is a landmark of Lhasa and Tibet. With its base on the southern slope of the Red Hill, the Potala Palace was built along the hill. Its crimson and white wall and its golden roof shine in glory in Lhasa, the “sun city”. The top of Potala Palace is 119 meters above the ground, and is about 360,000 square meters.

Its history dates back to 630s. According the documents of Tibet, Songtsan Gambo, the King of Tubo moved the capital to Lhasa. He ordered the establishment of Potala Palace for marrying Princess Wencheng in Tang Dynasty.

The Potala Palace that visitors see today was gradually built on the base of the ancient palace ruins since the seventh century. After the fifth  Dalai Lama Lobsang Gyaico established the Ganden Phodrang Regime, he ordered the reconstruction of the Potala Palace in the spring of 1645. In 1653, the fifth Dalai Lama journeyed to the nation’s capital in today’s Beijing and met with Emperor Shunzhi of the Qing Dynasty. In the following year, the emperor granted the fifth Dalai Lama official supremacy in both administration and religion in Tibet.

After the fifth Dalai Lama returned to Lhasa, he moved his residence from Ganden Phodrang in the Drepung Monastery to the White Palace already completed in the Potala Palace. In 1690, 8 years after the fifth Dalai Lama, started dismantling some of the old buildings to give away to the Red Palace and the holy stupa. The project involved some 7,000 craftsmen and cost 66,154 kilogrammes of gold. Emperor Kangxi dispatched 114 skilled craftsmen of the Han and Manchu nationalities to join the construction. Nepal also helped.

In 1693, the Red Palace was completed. The grand inauguration ceremony was held on the 20th day of the 4th month on the Tibetan calendar. A monument without words was erected to mark the event. Since then, the main structure of the Potala Palace has remained unchanged.

The Potala Palace is divided into the White Palace as the wings and the Red Palace as the center. The White Palace was secular in nature (used for offices, a printing house and so on), while the Red Palace fulfilled a religious function (comprising the tombs of the Dalai Lama, scores of chapels and shrines, and libraries of sacred texts). Most of the White Palace is inaccessible, yet you can see a fair number of rooms in the Red Palace.

Entering the Red Palace from the rooftop area, you spiral downward through 4 levels, eventually exiting at the North Tower. The upper levels of the Red Palace enclose an open skylight space, with chapels arrayed in a gallery-like rectangle around it. Interspersed through the many chapels and shrines of the Red Palace are the 8 gold-plated stupas, each containing the salt-dried body of a past Dalai Lama--from the 5th to the 13th, with the exception of the 6th, who disappeared. 4 of the reliquary stupas are on the upper level, and 4 are on the ground level.


The construction of the Potala Palace was actually started by the Great Fifth Dalai Lama, Lozang Gyatso in 1645. It is really a distinguishing building with continuing effort of generations of Tibetans.


Upon request by the monastic bloc of the Yellow Sect, Gushri Khan, head of the Hoshod Mongols in Xinjiang and Qinghai of Northwest China, invaded Tibet and toppled the Tsangpa Desi regime in Xigaze in the early 1640's. With support from Gushri Khan, the 5th Dalai Lama established the Gandain Phodrang regime in Lhasa, thus turning Lhasa once again into Tibet's political, cultural, and religious center.


In 1652, when the 5th Dalai Lama went to pay homage to the Qing Emperor Shunzhi in Beijing, he was given a red-carpet welcome and the Qing (1644-1911) emperor granted him the honorific title of "the Dalai Lama," as well as a golden seal of authority and a golden sheet of confirmation. From then on, the title of the Dalai Lama as well as the Dalai Lama's temporal and religious position in Tibet were established, contributing to the closer ties between the Central Government and the local government of Tibet.


The 5th Dalai Lama pressed ahead with urban construction in Lhasa. A major project was the renovation of the Potala Palace. Exposed to thunderbolts, fire, wars, wind, and rain, the Potala Palace was a tattered sweep of ruins. The only remaining buildings were the Hall of the Goddess of Mercy and the Cave for the Prince of Dharma.


In 1645, the 5th Dalai Lama ordered the rebuilding of the Potala Palace for the Gandain Phodrang regime. Desi Soinam Raodain was put in charge of the project, and thousands of builders and artisans were recruited from all over Tibet. The main part of the Palace was renovated in 1647, and efforts began to fix the interior, re-paint the frescos, and re-make statues of Buddha.


In 1653, when the 5th Dalai Lama returned from Beijing, a grand ceremony was held for the consecration of the Palace. The 5th Dalai Lama moved from the Zhaibung Monastery to the White Palace in the Potala Palace.

Tips of Potala Palace

1. It’s very cold inside the Potala Palace. You are suggested to take a coat with you even in summer days.
2. The bathroom in Potala Palace is hard to find. You may as well answer the nature’s call before visit. It is said the bathroom, at the right side of the White Palace Square is the most beautiful one on earth, with sunlight spraying down.
3. The travel time in Potala Palace is limited within 1 hour.
4. Any kind of liquid is forbidden.
5. The ideal spot to take pictures of the Potala Palace is Chakpori Hill.

Attractions nearby Potala Palace

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