Nothing symbolizes the mystery and magnificence of Tibet more powerfully than the Potala Palace, one of the architectural wonders of the world. The vast complex, built on top of a 130m (427 ft) high crag, once completely dominated the surrounding landscape, its golden roof soaring 250m (820 ft) above the floor of the peaceful Lhasa valley. Even today in the bustling modern city, the Potala is an awesome sight against the backdrop of the mountains that ring Lhasa to the north.
King Songtsen Gampo first built a palace on the site in the seventh century. The history of the present structure dates from 1645, when the fifth Dalai Lama (1617-1682) began construction of a palace that took 50 years to complete. From that time, the Potala supplanted the Drepung Monastery as the seat of the Dalai Lamas and the center of political power in Tibet. The complex grew over the centuries, each Dalai Lama preserving the mansions of the last and building his own. The labyrinthine interior contains over 1000 rooms, but the basic layout comprises the White Palace, which holds the living quarters of the Dalai Lama, and the Red Palace, which is the central building rising above the White Palace. The Red Palace contains many of the most beautiful halls and chapels, being completely devoted to religious study and prayer.
Upon entering the East Portal, visitors see the Deyang Shar courtyard which separates the White Palace from the Red Palace. It is in this courtyard that the Dalai Lamas watched Tibetan opera. The White Palace lies to the west of the courtyard. On the fourth floor is the Great East Hall, the largest hall in White Palace. The living quarters and offices of regents are on the fifth and sixth floors, and the top floor consists of the East and West Chambers of Sunshine, where the Dalai Lamas lived, worked and studied.
The multi-level Red Palace is a maze of halls, chapels and libraries with smaller galleries and winding passages. Here and there, tall banks of niches, their topmost levels half-hidden in the gloom, store thousands of precious sutras wrapped in yellow cloth.
The main central hall of the Red Palace is the Great West Hall which consists of four great chapels in honor of the builder of the Potala, the Fifth Dalai Lama. The hall is noted for its fine murals depicting events in the fifth Dalai Lama's life: one of the most famous depicts the visit by the Fifth Dalai Lama to Emperor Shunzhi in Beijing in1652. The corridor upstairs also features murals on a variety of religious themes.
There are another three chapels around the Great West Hall. The North Chapel centers on a crowned Sakyamuni and a statue of the Fifth Dalai Lama, and on the left is the gold stupa tomb of the Eleventh Dalai Lama (1838-1856), with rows of Medicine Buddhas, who were the heavenly healers. The East Chapel is consecrated to Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Gelugpa school. His two-meter-high figure is surrounded by 70 statues of other famous lamas. The South Chapel is dedicated to Padmasambhava, a famous Indian monk who introduced Esoteric Buddhism to Tibet in the eighth century. The West Chapel is the famous Stupa Chapel, where the stupa-tombs of the Fifth, Tenth and Twelfth Dalai Lamas are situated. It is the tomb of the "great Fifth" that dominates: 14.85 meters (over 48 ft) high, it is covered by more than 3,000 kilograms (about 6,613 pounds) of gold foil and decorated with pearls, gems, coral, amber and agate.
In the middle of the Red Palace are the only two structures that have survived from the seventh century: the Dharma Cave and the Saint's Chapel. The Dharma Cave was the place where King Songtsen Gampo is believed to have studied Buddhism: the statues of King Songtsen Gampo, Princess Wencheng, and Princess Bhrikuti date from the seventh century. The Saint's Chapel on the third floor is the holiest shrine in the Potala, and contains an ancient jeweled statue of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, or bodhisattva of compassion, known as Chenrezi in Tibet.
To the west of the Great West Hall is the stupa chapel of the thirteenth Dalai Lama (1876-1933). Built in 1934, it is the latest structure in the Potala. The huge stupa is almost as tall as the fifth Dalai Lama's, which indicates the reverence in which the memory of the thirteenth Dalai Lama is held.
Because of the impact of tourism on this iconic building, no more than 2300 tourists and pilgrims are allowed in each day, and the duration of all visits is limited to one hour. Visits must be booked ahead of time. Make sure you arrange this, if it is not already part of a pre-booked itinerary. Remember to bring your passport with you to the Potala, as your passport number will be checked against the reservation list.
The visit to the Potala involves some steep stairways and a lot of walking, so if your schedule allows it, put off your visit to the Potala until your second or third day in Lhasa, to give you time to get used to the altitude.
Do not smoke inside the building, and carefully observe all photography restrictions.