Potala Palace

Everyone’s got their own list of ten buildings they want to see in their lifetime. My own particular ten (which do change from time to time!) are the following

  1. The Pyramids (and the Sphinx)
  2. Petra, Jordan
  3. Angkor Wat
  4. Potala
  5. Avebury (not Stonehenge which you can’t even get close to)
  6. Chartres Cathedral
  7. Sagrada Familia, Barcelona
  8. Taj Mahal
  9. Musikverein, Vienna
  10. Cracow main square.

Note that I haven’t mentioned anything in Italy. Since that country contains seventy percent of the world’s heritage sites I think it would be a little unfair to include anything from it!

I’m glad to remark that I can now die happily since all ten on my list have now been seen, the most recent being the Potala palace of Lhasa which I visited earlier this month as part of our journey to Tibet.

We waited for our second day before visiting this wondrous palace since it does include a lot of steps to reach the top and it does require a couple of days to get used to strolling about at twelve thousand feet above sea level on just two thirds of the oxygen supply you’re normally used to breathing back home. We didn’t suffer any undue effects since I’d been suggested a Chinese medicine which worked wonders (or was it the placebo effect?).

Despite the fact that the Potala has been somewhat isolated from the rest of Lhasa, with the demolition of an old village in front of it and the construction of a grand ceremonial square, this magnificent palace still dominates the city like no other building possibly could. Its massive, but strangely gracious shape, looms ever in the background like a beautiful white and red dragon, supinely resting on the hill after which it is named.

Seeing the Potala for the first time is surely one of the noblest sights that can be seen in one’s lifetime.

The visit arrangement was complicated: permissions, passports, daily visitor quota numbers, timed tickets and just one hour to see the palace (although I’m sure we spent rather more than that) were happily arranged for us beforehand. Otherwise, it can be like wanting to see Leonardo’s ‘last supper’ in Milan without booking weeks ahead.

Be prepared for a lot of sometimes steep and irregular steps. Any effort, however, was whisked away from me by the sheer beauty and grandeur of what I was approaching – the sheer otherworldly nature and exoticism of this former seat of religious and temporal power in the mountain kingdom.

People say that the Potala is now just a lifeless museum because its rightful inhabitant, the Dalai Lama, has been in exile for almost sixty years. That’s true and not true, for the Tibetans treat the palace like a shrine and leave their offerings in terms of yak butter candles and little banknotes everywhere and there is a religious quietness about the whole environment.

We were so lucky not only with the weather – the white-washed walls (which were being repainted by a bevy of women at the time) stood out brilliantly against a true blue sky of cerulean intensity – but with the fact that we weren’t besieged by too many other tourists, mostly Chinese. We never felt ‘overcrowded’.

No photographs are allowed in the interior although one can take as many as one likes from the outside. There is, however, a very good illustrated album one can purchase to show the amazing treasures of the thousand odd rooms which the palace encloses. You could also see the film ‘Kundun’ I’d mentioned in a previous post since much of it was shot inside the palace.

Here are a few facts about the UNESCO world heritage Potala. Its two colours divide its main areas: the white part is where the living quarters of the Dalai Lama were housed; the red part is dedicated to religious shrines and chapels, The hill on which the palace is built is called Mount Potalaka and is the abode of Avalokitesvara, a Bodhisattva (i.e. a person who attains Moksha or liberation not for his own sake but for that of all humankind, putting his fellow beings’ liberation above his own).

The present building dates from 1646 although it is, of course built on a much earlier and smaller palace. Its dimensions are around one thousand three hundred feet long and one thousand one hundred feet wide. Its sloping walls are over ten feet thick. And its thirteen floors rise to a height of almost four hundred feet. Its top is one thousand feet above Lhasa street level.

I was very, very moved by my visit to the Potala with its sudden transitions of darkness and light, its unexpected confrontation with both compassionate and war-like divinities, its thangkas, its still existing living quarters of the fourteenth Dalai lama, its amazing views from the upper windows, its variety of steps, ladders: the surprising changes of level left me with an impression that I had entered into a fantasy-world-dream. For all it mattered I could have stood on a different planet in a parallel solar system.

I would rank my visit to the Potala as one of the greatest visits to any building anywhere in the world and I am so glad that my ten great buildings to see have now been concluded. I’m sure, of course that readers will say ‘but you must add this…and this… to the list.’ Ok then, Madurai Meenakshmi temple here I come (again)…

Let these photographs tell some of the rest of that unforgettable second morning in Lhasa’s Potala palace:


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