An architectural marvel, the Potala Palace is perched like a fabulous bird on a rocky outcrop that is the highest point in Lhasa itself, and for centuries the distant sight of her golden-colored roofs has meant the welcome end to many a journey. Pilgrim or tourist, when your eyes finally rest on the magnificent structural center of all things Tibetan, you know you have in some sense made it home.
But unlike the Jokhang Temple, humming with prayers and life, the Potala is a dead shell of its former self, and can be a bit depressing to visit. Built to be a living monastery and seat of government, it is now merely a museum. While there is still a lot to see as you climb its thirteen stories (not recommended on your first day at altitude), it is absence that leaves the greatest impression — the absence of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, his monastery and Sho — the village at the foot of the hill.
Still, it’s very worth a visit, and you if have some time in Lhasa, you will likely find yourself hanging out, with a bunch of Lhasa locals and other pilgrims, on the Tsekor, the prayer circuit around the base of the Potala.
A Little Bit of History
Construction of the Potala’s White Palace was begun during the lifetime of the great 5th Dalai Lama in 1645, on the site of King Songtsen’s Gampo’s 7th century palace, and His Holiness occupied it three years later when he moved his seat of government from Drepung Monastery, on the outskirts of Lhasa.
Intriguingly, though, the 5th Dalai Lama’s death in 1682 was concealed from the public for 12 years, until the Red Palace was also complete.
After the 7th Dalai Lama built the Norbulingka summer palace as a summer residence, every Dalai Lama made only his winter home at the Potala until the current 14th Dalai Lama, who occupied the roof level of the White Palace, fled Tibet in 1959.
Though the current Dalai Lama has remarked that he much preferred the sunlit gardens and parks of the Norbulingka to the cold, dark, imposing Potala, there is no doubt that for Tibetans, the Potala is very much the symbol of his home.
- Dalai Lamas’ living quarters — Simchung — at the roof of the White Palace. Here are the living quarters of the current Dalai Lama before he fled into exile, as well as the 13th Dalai Lama before him. In these rooms, Tibetan pilgrims whisper to each other and fall into fervent prayers — rubbing their prayer beads and scarves on any surface they can reach for benediction.
- Chapel of the Dalai Lamas’ Tombs — Dongten — off of the Assembly Hall of the Red Palace. The largest structure here, a gold, pearl and precious-stone encrusted stupha over 40 feet tall, contains the remains of the great fifth Dalai Lama. Other stuphas here hold the 10th and 12th Dalai Lamas, who died as children.
- Pakpa Lhakhang: the most sacred chapel in the Potala, holding the most precious statue, the Pakpa Lokeshvara, a small, bejeweled image of the boddhisatva of compassion, Avalokitesvara. This chapel along with the cave that was the meditation chamber of King Songtsen Gampo, on the floor below, is considered the oldest part of the palace, dating back to when the site held the 7th century palace of Songtsen Gampo.
Good to know
- To get a great, iconic, photograph of the Potala, cross the street in front of the palace near the Western Gate. Up some stairs at the bottom of the Chokpori hill is a little site with some bright-white stupha’s. It’s a great angle for a nice image. If you follow the angle from the image at the top of this blog, it will lead you right to the spot :-)
- Lhasa folk generally call the Potala the “Tse Potala” or just “Tse.” The kora (prayer circumambulation) around it is thus often referred to as the “tsekor.”
- Seeing the Potala involves hiking endless steep stone steps and almost vertical staircases slick and black with age, which some of the ancient pilgrims have to be almost pushed up and carried down. Almost any willing and ambulatory person can do it, but be prepared for some tricky bits.
- You have to get a ticket through your travel agency.
- For smaller crowds, the best time to visit is afternoon and during lunch time.
- Though guidebooks always talk about the marpo ri, the “red mountain” which the Potala sits on, Lhasa folks never actually call it that. People from Lhasa don’t generally refer to the mountain at all — they just refer to the “Tse,” meaning the Potala.
Also, there are some interesting scenes of the Potala in both Martin Scorcese’s Kundun and Seven Years in Tibet, with Brad Bitt. (Disclosure: we are Amazon Affiliates and make a small percentage if you buy a DVD through these links.)
Cool Things Nearby
- The Lukhang a small temple dedicated to the earth and water spirits (lu), located on a small island in the lake on the back (north) side of the Potala.
- The Potala kora — locally known as the tsekor, or the podrang shakor — is one of the most popular prayer walks in Lhasa, circling the Tse Potala with a long corridor of prayer wheels and vendors hawking everything from Tibetan dresses to bars of soap. It’s one of the pleasures of Lhasa to wander along the prayer path, shopping, praying, chatting, and to look up to see another splendid view of the Tse Potala.
- 7-Day Lhasa Tour: Sky Train and Lhasa Highlights
- 10 Dos and Don’ts for a First-Time Visit to Lhasa
- Fascinating article by Ian Alsop on the far-reaching influence of the Potala’s Pakpa Lokesvara statue
- Some rare photographs of the interior of the Potala, many rooms of which cannot normally be photographed. (Click on the small images in the upper right to see more images.)
If you are planning a trip to Tibet, we can put you in touch with a reliable Tibetan-owned agent who will plan a trip with local Tibetan guides that gives you a real feel for Tibet. Contact us here for Tibet travel help.
Emma from England, on her trip using a referral from YoWangdu Tibetan Culture:
The sights and sounds of Tibet will remain with me for the rest of my life…The trip was over too quickly but it has become number 1 of the more than 120 countries and islands I have visited in my life…