The Potala palace, one of Tibet’s largest and best known landmarks, is an enormous fortress-like structure located in the Tibetan capital Lhasa.
The Potala served as the winter residence of the Dalai Lamas and as the locus of the Tibetan government from the 17th century to the 14th Dalai Lama’s flight from Tibet in 1959.
In 13 floors said to contain more than 1 000 rooms, the Potala encompasses an elaborate conglomeration of residential chambers, reception and assembly halls, temples, reliquary chapels, monastic quarters, and offices.
The building measures 400 meters east-west and 350 meters north-south, with sloping stone walls averaging 3 m. thick, and 5 m. thick at the base, and with copper poured into the foundations to help proof it against earthquakes
Potala palace is located atop a small hill called Marpori, the "Red Hill", rising more than 300 m in total above the valley floor on the north-western edge of Lhasa:
Tradition has it that the three main hills of Lhasa represent the "3 Protectors of Tibet":
1. Chokpori, to the south of the Potala, is the soul-mountain of Vajrapāṇi,
2. Pongwari that of Mañjuśrī, and
3. Marpori, the hill on which the Potala stands, represents Avalokiteśvara.
The palace’s full name is the Summit Palace of Potala:
The name refers to Mount Potalaka in India, which is revered as the abode of the compassionate bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara, who is believed to manifest in the figure of the Dalai Lamas.
The earliest foundations of the palace date to the Tibetan king Songtsen Gampo (ruled ca. 614-650), who moved his capital to Lhasa from the south, erecting an 11-storied structure on Marpori in 637 that served as the center for his court.
10 centuries later, in 1645, the 5th Dalai Lama (1617-1682) began renovations to this structure, planning a new ecclesiastic residence and offices for the Ganden Podrang - the central Tibetan government—all to be moved from the nearby Drepung Monastery.
These additions included
a) the so- called White Palace, composed mainly of administrative and residential quarters,
b) and the upper Red Palace containing rooms used for religious purposes, which now include the reliquary tombs of the 5th and 7-13thDalai Lamas.
Construction continued for many decades and was not finished until the close of the 17th century.
According to Tibetan histories, the 5th Dalai Lama’s adroit regent Desi Sangye Gyatso (1653-1705) kept news of the hierarch’s death secret for more than 12 years in order to bring this monumental project to completion.
Jesuit missionaries Albert Dorville and Johannes Grueber published sketches of the partially erected Potala palace, which they witnessed while passing through Lhasa in 1661.
For nearly 300 years, the Potala served as an epicenter of Tibetan religious and political power.
The outer facade was shelled by occupying Chinese troops in 1959, the time of the 14th Dalai Lama’s flight into exile in India.
Since then, much of the Zhol Village, a frequent destination of the flamboyant 6th Dalai Lama (1683-1707), located at the palace’s foot, has been systematically dismantled.
Although the Potala’s structural damage was subsequently repaired, the vacant palace remains a potent symbol for the absence of Tibet’s principal religious and political leader.
The Potala’s massive structure also continues to play a central part in contemporary Tibetan religious practice:
It forms the Northern boundary of the large circumambulation route around Lhasa called the ling khor or sanctuary circuit. Pilgrims visit the palace daily, winding through its many inner chambers, reciting prayers and presenting offerings at its many hundreds of shrines.
In 1994 the Potala was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.