In the great land of Lhasa, Tibet lies many significant Buddhist sites such as the Jokhang Temple, Norbulingka Palaces, and among them is another architectural marvel, the Potala Palace. It sits atop a great hill called the Marpori. The palace has served as the Winter Palace for Dalai Lamas since the 17th century, till the year 1959. That’s when the 14th Dalai Lama shifted and the palace has been a museum ever since. The Tibetan word Lhasa can be translated as an “abode of gods” and Potala Palace is indeed a heavenly sight to see; its architectural elements being a blend of the Indian Vihara system and the Nepalese and Tang Dynasty styles. This is one place that an architecture enthusiast must definitely not miss.
Here are the 10 facts that you did not know about the Potala Palace to pique your interest if we haven’t already:
1. Did you know that the Potala is tall? Not just tall, the tallest
This beautiful piece of architecture is situated at a height of 117 meters up a mountain and about 3700 meters in altitude from the ground level. No building, be it ancient or novel, is taller than the palace in the entire city of Lhasa. The Tibetans refuse to build anything higher than the Potala Palace as a show of reverence.
2. Three Protectors of Tibet
Since ages, it has been believed that the three main mountains of Lhasa represent the ‘Three Protectors of the land’ – Pongwari hill represents the great Manjusri, Chakpori hill or the soul-mountain situated to the south of Potala represents Vajrapaniand Marpori hill, the very seat of the palace itself represents Avalokiteśvara, all the three being the representations of Bodhisattva, i.e. anyone who has vowed to become a Buddha to attain Nirvana and help all sentient beings.
3. Want to visit Potala, well you better be quick
For various reasons like protection of the palace and to avoid overcrowding, only 2300 people are allowed per day into the premises. So, when you do visit Potala palace, make sure you have booked everything well in advance.
4. Oh, you wonderful wonder
Potala Palace has been christened as one of the ‘New seven wonders of the world’ by the American Television show Good Morning America and the newspaper USA Today.
5. Ancient Tibetan writing
An elegant and ancient stone pillar called the Doring Chima, standing tall and proud right below the palace, dates back to circa 764 CE and is emblazoned by what may be the oldest known Tibetan writing in the history of mankind. History buffs, excited yet?
6. Milk and sugar are not just ingredients!
Every year, and before the twenty-second day of the ninth month of the Tibetan calendar, when it is annual ‘Buddha’s Descent Day’, people paint the walls of the palace with milk, brown sugar, saffron, rock sugar, and whatnot. This protects the walls and also looks, as we architects would say, aesthetically pleasing. The mixture of sugar and milk is gluey and is a traditional stucco paint of sorts, and sticks easily to the wall surface and does not wash off till the next rainy season.
7. A Knowledge Hub
A Tibetan activist who goes by the name Tsering Woeser claims that the Potala had around 100,000 volumes of scriptures and ancient documents and many storerooms for precious items, handicrafts, statues, and ancient armour and was almost robbed empty.
On the contrary, Tibetologist Amy Heller writes that “the invaluable library and artistic treasures accumulated over the centuries in the Potala have been preserved”.
Nonetheless, Potala Palace has been the housing grounds of wondrous things, a place which has witnessed the true intellect of humankind, a place of inspiration, a place that has stood witness to pure genius, where every crack and niche, every stone and wall has a story to tell.
Go on, try to listen.
8. One shall revere the dead
Potala Palace houses around eight holy Stupas, which hold whole mummified bodies of the 5th, 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th, and 13th Dalai Lamas’. The stupas, having great significance in the Buddhist culture, are heavily decorated with jewels like agates, diamonds, pearls, and gold.
9. Feeling golden
The 5th Dalai Lama’s stupa, in particular, is a sight for the sore eyes, adorned with the most spectacular jewels, about 18,000 of them in various combinations of diamonds, pearls, amber, and whatnot.
The stupa is about 14.85 meters tall and coated with 3,721 kg of gold!
10. A gift of love
They built the original palace as a present from King Songtsan Gampo to his bride-to-be in 637 AD. In the ninth century, it was destroyed and ruined. The current palace that was erected in its place was built by the fifth Dalai Lama.
Full of history and mystique, this brilliant palace is undeniably on my travel bucket list. What about you? Carpe Diem y’all. Peace!