The Potala Palace

Florida Splendid China Exhibit #37
Original Located in Lhasa, Tibet

Images photographed on 11-23-2001

Building started on current structure: 1645
built on a 1:15 scale

NEW Potala Palace sign text
Built in the seventh century in Lhasa the capital of Tibet, the Potala Palace is the primary residence of the Dalai Lama. The 13-story palace with 1,000 chambers, standing atop a cliff in 3,700 meters high Lhasa, is the world's highest palace. The magnificent palace is the most sacred place for Tibetans.
Date: 641 AD
Scale: 1:15

Prior to November 2001, the sign in front of the exhibit read:
Located in the heart of the Old Lhasa capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region, the Potala Palace was built in the 7th century by King Songsten Gampo (617-665 AD) for his bride Princess Wen Cheng, sent to him by an emperor of the Tang Dynasty. The 13-story palace, standing atop a cliff in 3,700 meters high Lhasa, is the world's highest palace. The Potala Palace has 1000 chambers.

The exhibit used to feature a traditional Tibetan religious thankha that could be viewed for a quarter. There is no attendant, just stick your money in the slot and the thankha pops out. It has been discontinued.

A couple of quotes before we go on

From The Tibet Guide (pg. 99), by Stephen Batchelor
Songtsen Gampo was the first Tibetan ruler to establish a palace on this outcrop, the "Red Hill", which dominates the city of Lhasa. Although his palace which was called Kukhar Potrang, was burned down by an invading Chinese army during the reign of his successor, Mansong Mangtsen, there are two rooms inside the Potala that supposedly date from his time. But it is impossible to tell how extensive this first palace was and what it was like.

From The Tibet Guide (pg. 16), by Stephen Batchelor
Songtsen Gampo was born in 617 and ascended to the throne at the age of thirteen. He ruled for twenty years, during which time he established the borders of a powerful empire that extended far beyond the immediate area of the Yarlung Valley. Tibetan forces were active from the plains of Northern India to the Chinese frontiers in the east and the borders of the Turkish empire in the west. Songtsen Gampo moved the capital from Yarlung to Lhasa and built a palace on the Red Hill (the site of the Potala). As a gesture of friendship towards their threatening neighbour, Nepal and China each offered the king a bride from their own royal families.

Please browse the linked documents below or browse on the Free Tibet ! page to find out more information.

Why we object to the inclusion of religious exhibits
Why we object to the inclusion of 'minority' exhibits

Some information about the Potala Palace

  • His Holiness the Dalai Lama, whose winter palace is being displayed

  • A Brief History of the Potala Palace
    Reprinted from: Tibet: A Travel Survival Kit by Michael Buckley and Robert Strauss, published by Lonely Planet, 1986.

  • The Potala Palace from A Cultural History of Tibet
    From: A Cultural History of Tibet, pages 199-200, by Davis Snellgrove and Hugh Richardson, published by Shambala, 1986.

  • After you read:
    China cash preserves Tibetan palace (Reuter),
    October 1, 1996 from World Tibetan News

  • Please read:
    A Letter from Tibet to the International Campaign for Tibet to see why it cost so much to repair.

  • Chinese Authorities in Tibet Ban Dalai Lama Photos from His Own Palaces
    February 17, 1996 (Department of Information and International Relations, Central Tibetan Administration)

    Statements about the exhibits

    Here is the page from the Florida Splendid China Guidebook on the Potala Palace exhibit.

    Here is the Tour Guide information from Florida Splendid China on the Potala Palace exhibit.

    Here is the information from Florida Splendid China on the exhibits and signs.

    A Brief History of the Potala Palace

    This center of Heaven
    This core of the Earth
    This heart of the world
    Fenced round with snow

    The Potala Palace, perched high above Lhasa on the Marpori ( "red hill" ), is a place of pilgrimage and a mammoth tribute to Tibetan architectural skills.
    In the 7th century King Sontsen Gampo first built a small meditation pavilion on this site, followed later by a palace. During the 9th century these buildings were destroyed after lightning set them on fire. On the orders of the 5th Dalai Lama construction was started in 1645, but he died before the Red Palace was started. However, before dying he asked his Prime Minister (Regent) to keep his death secret lest construction work be discontinued. The Prime Minister found a monk who resembled the deceased and thus was able to conceal the death until all 13 stories had been completed. From the time of the 5th Dalai Lama onwards, the Potala became the official winter residence of successive Dalai Lamas.
    During the 1959 uprising, the PLA shelled the Potala. It is rumored that the whole scale destruction of the Potala during the cultural revolution was averted by Zhou Enlai, who pledged his own troops for its protection.
    Built of wood, earth and stone, the Potala has 13 stories rising over 117 meters high. The whole structure is a maze of rooms - over 1000 of them, with 10,000 shrines and some 200,000 statues. The stories are not continuous, and access to particular halls may be hidden behind pillars. The walls, varying in thickness between two and five meters were strengthened against earthquakes by pouring in molten copper. No steel frame was used, and no nails were used in the woodwork. Stones were lugged in on donkey-back, or on the backs of humans. Simple equipment was used to fashion a skyscraper - an achievement on par with the building of the pyramids.
    Seen from the front, the Potala consists of the Red Palace in the center flanked, on both sides, by the White Palace. The White Palace was completed in 1653, and construction on the Red palace was started in 1690( completed in 1694).
    The Red Palace contains assembly halls, shrines, 35 chapels, four meditation halls, and seven mausoleums. These mausoleums contain the remains of all the Dalai Lamas from the 5th to the 13th, (with the exception of the 6th) with their salt-dried bodies placed in individual chortens which are covered with stupendous amounts of gold-plating, and inlaid with diamonds, pearls, turquoise, agate, and coral. The 5th Dalai Lama's chorten is covered with 3700 kg of gold. His chorten is20-meters high, rising through three stories. Nearby is the tomb of the 13th Dalai Lama, 22-meters high and made of silver, covered with gold leaf and precious stones.
    The western section of the Potala housed the Namgyal Monastery with over 150 monks. This was the private monastery of successive Dalai Lamas. The eastern section of the Potala contained government offices, a school for monk officials, and the meeting halls of the National Assembly. The Potala also served as a storehouse for thousands of ancient scrolls, illuminated volumes of scriptures, amour and armaments from ancient times, gifts and treasures. The myriad storehouses and cellars in the base of the building contained government stocks of provisions for officials, monasteries, and army.
    At the base of the Potala is a collection of buildings. This was once a separate village, called Sho, which contained government offices, the Tibetan Army Headquarters and a printing press once famous for its wood block of the Kaggyur.
    Reprinted from: Tibet: A Travel Survival Kit by Michael Buckley and Robert Strauss, published by Lonely Planet, 1986.
    Return to Top

    The Potala Palace from A Cultural History of Tibet

    The fifth Dalai Lama built up the stature of Tibet in many ways. During his reign new monasteries were founded, mainly in Central Tibet, but a very important one bKra-shis-sno-mang of Bla-brang (Labrang) was founded in Khams (eastern Tibet). From now on a more assertive and grandiose style begins to appear, typical of the new sense of dDe-lugs-pa grandeur and triumph. Instead of sheltering in the folds of mountains or on the lee of a protecting hill, some of the new monasteries were built on hill-tops, proudly dominating the surrounding country. The culmination of this new spirit in architecture was the Dalai Lama's own majestic palace, the Potala, dominating Lhasa itself. There had been buildings on that commanding hill for many centuries, whether fortress, palace or monastery, going back at least to the time of Srong-brtsan-sgam-po. But now from about 1645 there was a continuous effort in building, so that the long high ridge was crowned by a connected series of massive buildings, which seem to grow out of the rock at different heights and different levels, and for all their solid weight, to be straining and leading upwards to the sky. Indeed the two turrets, one at each end, are called the wings of the Potala, and it is said that when a great flood comes which has been prophesied, they will lift the whole palace above the waters. Even now it seems to float. The contrasts of color are breathtaking: the dark red central mass hung with a black curtain; the long expanses of whitened stone with windows, outlined in black and tapering upwards, very small on the lower expanses and larger in the upper stories. The wide steep stone stairways enhance the effect of the sheer rock on which the palace is built, and the dazzling accents of the small gold canopies relive the militant squareness of the flat roof-tops. If only this survived of all Tibetan achievements, they would have staked an incontrovertible claim to the unique genius of their own national culture.
    This palace is named after the holy mountain Potala in southern India, which is sacred to Shiva as 'Lord of the World' (Lokesvara). For the Tibetans the name never had a geographical significance, for Potalahad already become the accepted name of Lokesvara's divine place in his Buddhist manifestation of Avalokitesvara, the 'Lord who looks down in compassion'. The Dalai Lama now came to be consciously identified as manifestations of this most popular Tibetan Buddhist Divinities. A similar idea of divine kingship, but, in an entirely non-buddhist context had been attributed to the early kings of Tibet, and other parallels might be quoted from many oriental countries. The closest are to be found in the Indian-inspired civilizations of South-East Asia, where kings also once liked to regard themselves as royal bodhisattvas or divine monarchs, and the great monuments of Angkor Vat and Borobudur remain to bear witness to this ideal. Thus although they have since become mingled, the two ideas are really quite distinct. According to popular Buddhist notions, all living creatures are reborn as other creatures, higher or lower in the scale according to their past actions, so that we are all supposedly reincarnations of one kind or another. On the other hand kings and great lamas could be regarded as particular manifestations of 'would-be buddhas' (usually reserved for kings and rulers like the Dalai Lama) or buddhas (reserved for great lamas) without there necessarily being present any idea of an identifiable reincarnation of a previous human being. The religious Kings were regarded in this way; so to were the Sa-skya lamas and many others.

    Information from the Tour Guides
    Tibet Potala Palace, in the heart of Lhasa capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region was built in the seventh century by local lord Sougtsan Gambo (617-650) for his bride Princess Wen Cheng sent to him from the Tang dynasty court in Chang'an (today's Xi'an). The 13-story palace standing atop a cliff in 3,700 meter-high Lhasa is the world's highest palace. The original Potala had 1,000 chambers. The Buddhists believed the palace site to be "Buddha's Mountain," a sacred to them so the palace began to be called Potala, as this is pronounced in Sanskrit. The Potala Palace was reconstructed in the 7th century; there are two main parts in the structure: the Red Palace and the White Palace. The reconstruction of the Potala Palace was a grandiose project. To mix the mortar for its walls, so much earth was taken from behind the hill on which it stands that a deep depression was created.
    This was made into a lake and became known as Dragon King Pool after a temple built for that deity in its center. Historical records show that over 7,000 serfs worked daily on construction of the Red Palace, and still more worked at quarrying stone and felling trees in the mountains.
    Transportation of the tree trunks and huge blocks of stone was done by human power and many serfs died in the process. The construction scene is recorded in mural in the palace. Although the laborers brought their own food and worked without pay.

    Return to Top

    Letter to ICT from Tibet

    Letter from Tibet About the Potala Palace
    When I thought over the ... renovation of the Potala Palace by the Chinese government with a budget of millions of US dollars, I became quite anxiously concerned because it was the Chinese government who had destroyed Tibet's ancient cultural institutions and looted their treasures since her occupation of Tibet and this fact is well known throughout the world.
    During the 1959 uprising, the southern and northern sides of the Potala Palace were so heavily bombarded that it would have been reduced to rubble had it been an ordinary building. Fortunately, there was only minor damage in the front portion of the Potala Palace despite the heavy bombardment.
    It was well known that the Chinese government started making an underground tunnel beneath the Potala Palace in the late 1960's and the residents in the vicinity at the time felt the great tremors as a result of heavy explosives used by the diggers. Most of the treasures, inside the Potala Palace were taken away to China during this period and some of them found their way to foreign markets.
    I was most disheartened to hear about ... the renovation of the Potala Palace by the Chinese government because their was no mention of the destruction of Tibetan cultural heritage by the Chinese authorities in Tibet. This type of publicity ... will only help the Chinese government gain credibility for her repressive policy in Tibet.
    Translation of recent letter (12/93) sent to ICT
    from an anonymous source in Tibet
    about the Potala Palace.
    Return to Top

    Chinese Authorities in Tibet Ban Dalai Lama Photos from His Own Palaces Dharamsala, February 17, 1996 (DIIR)
    In a fresh sign of China's hardening position on Tibet, on January 24, the 'Tibet Autonomous Region's' department of culture issued an order to the management committees of both the Nurbulinka and Potala, the summer and winter palaces of the Dalal Lamas, to take down all the photographs of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Within an hour all photographs in both palaces were taken down, according to fresh coming from Tibet.
    The same sources suspect that the authorities will soon force the monks of the three great monasteries of Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, Sera, Ganden and Drepung, to take down Dalai Lama photographs from their numerous chapels and temples.
    Officials of the Tibetan administration suspect that the fresh ban on His Holiness the Dalai Lama's photographs in his own palaces is a part of the overall strategy of the Chinese authorities to focus their 1996 campaign in waging what they describe as "a life and death struggle against splittism," a reference to the independence movement in Tibet.
    Recently the Lhasa Public Security Bureau issued an order to all its branches in the city to confiscate and ban all "reactionary literature" and photographs of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, the young boy recognised by His Holiness the Dalai Lama as the authentic reincarnation of the Panchen Lama.
    Photographs of His Holiness the Dalai Lama are now put in the category of "reactionary literature."
    According to reports coming from Tibet, on 24 January, the authorities took down 25 photographs of His Holiness the Dalai Lama from the Potala Palace alone.
    17 February 1996
    Department of Information and International Relations
    Central Tibetan Administration
    Gangchen Kyishong
    Dharmasala 176 215 INDIA
    Return to Top

    ------------------------ World Tibet Network News ----------------------
    Issue ID: 96/10/01 16:30 GMT Compiled by Tseten Samdup
    1. China cash preserves Tibetan palace (Reuter)
    By Jane Macartney
    LHASA, China, Oct 1 (Reuter) - Computerised cameras and shabby museum guards sliding over ancient floors on pads of goatskin combine to protect the costliest renovation China has ever undertaken.
    Tourists jostle with Tibetan pilgrims to view the sumptuously decorated palace that was for 400 years the winter home of the Dalai Lamas, the god-kings who held spiritual sway and sometimes temporal power over this remote Himalayan region.
    Beijing pumped 53 million yuan ($6.4 million) into its five-year renovation of the soaring Potala Palace, with its labyrinth of countless rooms, that towers over Lhasa, capital of this remote Himalayan region.
    "It is the most expensive renovation that the central government has ever undertaken in China," Qiong Da, deputy director of the Potala Palace Management Committee said in an interview.
    "When I first came to work in the Potala Palace in 1985 all the pillars were leaning over and propped up by poles," he said.
    "I was very troubled because I never knew if the Potala Palace was going to collapse today or tomorrow," he said.
    China undertook the first restoration of the palace since the 17th century, not because it anticipates the swift return of the 14th reincarnation of the Dalai Lama, who now lives in exile in India following an abortive anti-Chinese uprising in 1959.
    The investment, initially calculated at 35 million yuan ($4.2 million), was motivated by official realisation of a need for a way to placate Tibet's influential and often restive monks and by the prospect of luring more tourist dollars to China's remote, backward and mysterious Shangri-la.
    Tibet has been rocked by repeated anti-Chinese protests that Beijing charges are stirred up by separatist supporters of the Dalai Lama, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 for his peaceful campaign for autonomy for his Himalayan homeland.
    Under roofs of gold leaf that can be seen glittering in the sunlight from miles away across the plain that surrounds Lhasa, Chinese experts and Tibetan workers and monks have completed one of the most extensive restorations of a historic monument ever attempted in China.
    Much of the building of the central religious Red Palace and the surrounding secular White Palace was undertaken by Tibet's Fifth Dalai Lama who moved there in about 1650.
    The Fifth Dalai Lama's spectacular architectural achievement was constructed around the surviving rooms of a fort built by a Tibetan king in the 7th century AD.
    Restoration presented an awesome challenge to artisans struggling to return the palace to its former splendour while trying to recreate the materials used hundreds of years earlier, Qiong Da said.
    The palace had been ravaged by natural erosion of its stone and earth structure and by infestations of insects that had gnawed their way through most of its hundreds of pillars and almost all of its thousands of wooden window frames.
    "We had to get rid of the huge number of dangerous sites, like all those beams," Qiong Da said, gesturing to the huge wooden struts arching across the ceiling of the main throne room of the Dalai Lamas.
    "One basic principle was that we would not change the original, we would not use any modern materials," he said. "Whatever was there before, we would keep that."
    The task was daunting.
    "We started to compile an accurate count of the number of rooms in 1984," he said. "We started with the Red Palace and we are about one-third of the way through now. We have counted about 2,000 rooms but we think there may be as many as 7,000."
    One of the greatest challenges was to recreate the ochre mortar that was used to build the floors and flat roofs of the palace, he explained.
    "This was a very arduous task because the quality does not meet the original," he said. "We studied this very carefully and in the end we believe we were successful because we achieved about 70 percent of the quality of the original."
    It was time-consuming work.
    "In those days, people had unlimited time to do this work," he said.
    More than two years after the restoration was completed amid great fanfare from its Chinese financiers, two Tibetan women sat on the roof and used a centuries-old method to tap water with flat wooden spatulas into newly laid mortar.
    The government has tripled annual allocations for palace upkeep since the completion of the restoration, installed the latest in a computerised system of cameras to monitor the treasures of each room against theft and guards glide across floors on scraps of goatskin to protect the mortar from their hard leather-soled shoes.
    Palace workers are installing glass walls around the bases of the jewel-encrusted stupas that house the mummified bodies of eight Dalai Lamas. The glass is intended to wall out the mice that devour the layers of decorative gold leaf flavoured by aromatic smoke from yak butter lamps offered by centuries of pilgrims.
    "We are always renovating and working to keep up the restoration," said Qiong Da.

    Return to Top
    Last updated 03-21-2003