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The Potala Palace

An Introduction to The Potala Palace

Brief Introduction
Perched upon Marpo Ri hill to the west of old Lhasa, the Potala Palace has the highest elevation with palaces, castles and temples integrated into a magnificent building. It is a sacred and solemn place in Tibetans’ eyes, with 13 stories of buildings – containing over 1,000 rooms, 10,000 shrines and about 200,000 statues. The whole architectural complex consists of three parts: the “Red Temple” in the middle is composed of Buddhism Hall, Sutra Hall, Dalai’s Stupa Hall and Xiang Hall, the largest “Ji Yuanman Grand Hall” in the west, and the “White Temple” on the east. The palace extends from the foot of the mountain to the top almost covering the whole peak. The five high golden roofs on the top glisten under the sun, as if beckon the tourists from afar. It is a huge treasure house for materials and articles of Tibetan history, religion, culture and arts, such as the precious sculptures, murals, scripture, Buddha figures, murals, antiques, and religious jewelry of great cultural and artistic value. It has been enlisted in the “World Heritage Directory” by UNESCO in 1994 as a valuable heritage and wealth of the whole mankind.

The Potala Palace, which is now on the list of Chinese national key protected cultural relics, is the most valuable storehouse in Tibet. It is a huge treasure house for materials and articles of Tibetan  history, religion, culture and arts. The Palace is widely known for the precious sculptures, murals, scripture, Buddha figures, murals, antiques, and religious jewelry treasured up, they are of great cultural and artistic value. In 1994, the Potala Palace was declared the United Nations World Cultural Heritage site.

External appearance and Structure: The Potala Palace is 3,756.5 meters above sea level, covering an area of over 360,000 square meters (about 32 acres), measuring 360 meters from east to west and 270 meters from south to north. It has 13 stories, and is 117 meters high. The walls of the Palace are over one meter in thickness, the thickest sections being five meters. They are painted with huge colorful murals, which make it beautiful and lively.

The magnificent Potala Palace is made of wood and stone. All the walls are of granite, and all the roofs and windows are of wood. The overhanging eaves, the upturned roof corners, and the gilded brass tiles and gilded pillars inscribed with Buddhist scriptures, bottles, and makara fish as well as the gold-winged birds decorating the roof ridges contribute much to the beauty of the hip-and-gable roofs.

The stone-and-wood-structured Potala Palace consists of over 1000 rooms, seminary, chanting hal1, temples, various chambers for worshipping Buddha and chambers housing the stupas of several Dalai Lamas, which are covered with gold 1eaf and studded with jewels. In the rooms, there are tens of thousands of Buddha figures. Different in sizes and complex in designs, the figures look vivid and lovely.

History
The Potala Palace was built in the seventh century and it has already had a long history of over 1300 years. In 641, Songtsan Gambo, ruler of the Tubo Kingdom, had the Potala Palace built for Wen Chen Konjo (Princess Wencheng) of the Tang Dynasty, whom he was soon to marry. This structure was later burned to the ground during a war (The hall for worshiping bodhisattva Avalokitesvara and the statues of Songtsan Gambo and Wencheng Konjo now displaying are said being the survivors of the war) and was rebuilt in the 17th century by the Fifth Dalai Lama.

Repeated repairs and expansions until 1645 finally brought the palace to its present scale. Over the past three centuries, the palace gradually became a place where the Dalai Lamas live and work and a place for keeping the remains of successive Dalai Lama. The Potala Palace has always been the political center of Tibet since the fifth Dalai Lama (1645-1693). In 1645, the Fifth Dalai Lama, feeling confined at Drepung Monastery, ordered the construction of a new structure that would accommodate his new role as both a religious and political leader. The Potala Palace was then built as the imposing and self-confident expression of the new theocracy. After the ascension of the Seventh Dalai Lama (1728-1757), who established a summer palace at the Norbulingka, the Potala Palace was used predominantly during winter, then it comes its other name "Winter Palace."

Attractions mainly comprised by the White Palace (administerial building) and the Red Palace (religious building), the Potala Palace is famous for its grand buildings, complicated constructions, devotional atmosphere and splendid artworks. The White Palace, comprising halls, temples and courtyards, serves as the living quarters of the Dalai Lama. From the east entrance of the palace, painted with images of Four Heavenly Kings, a broad corridor upwards leads to Deyang Shar courtyard, which used to be where Dalai Lamas watched operas. Around the large and open courtyard, there used to be a seminary and dormitories. West of the courtyard is the White Palace.

There are three ladder stairs reaching inside of it, however, the central one was reserved for only Dalai Lamas and central government magistrates dispatched to Tibet. In the first hallway, there are huge murals describing the construction of Potala Palace and Jokhang Temple and the procession of Princess Wencheng reaching Tibet. On the south wall, visitors will see an edict signed with the Great Fifth's handprint. The White Palace mainly serves as the political headquarter and Dalai Lamas' living quarters. The West Chamber of Sunshine and the East Chamber of Sunshine lie as the roof of the White Palace. They belonged to the Thirteenth Dalai Lama and the Fourteenth Dalai Lama respectively. Beneath the East Chamber of Sunshine is the largest hall in the White Palace, where Dalai Lamas ascended throne and ruled Tibet.

Red Palace
The Red Palace, with seven golden roofs on its flat top, is renowned for its religious status, gorgeous stupas and precious culture relics. The dominant buildings of the Red Palace are the stupa-tombs halls of Dalai Lamas and kinds of halls for worshiping Buddha. It was constructed after the death of the Fifth Dalai Lama. The center of the complicated Red Palace is the Great West Hall, which records the Great Fifth Dalai Lama's life by its fine murals. In the East Chapel a two meters (6.5 feet) high statue of Tsong Khapa, the founder of Gelug which is Dalai Lama's lineage, is enshrined and worshipped. The South Chapel is where a silver statue of Padmasambhava and 8 bronze statues of his reincarnations are enshrined. On the floor above, there is a gallery which has a collection of 698 murals, portraying Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, Dalai Lamas and great adepts and narrating jataka stories and significant Tibetan historic events.

West of the Great West Hall locates the Thirteenth Dalai Lama's stupa hall. The North Chapel contains statues of Sakyamuni, Dalai Lamas and Medicine Buddha, and stupas of the Eighth, Ninth and Eleventh Dalai Lamas. Stupa-tomb chapels In the Potala Palace, there are eight stupa-tomb chapels (where the relics of the Fifth, Seventh, Eighth, Ninth, Tenth, Eleventh, Twelfth, and the Thirteenth Dalai Lamas are preserved.

Stupa Tomb
The stupa-tomb of the first Dalai Lama, known as a silver stupa, is situated in Tashilhunpo Monastery in Shigatse; and the silver stupa-tomb of Dalai Lama II, III, IV are carefully placed in Dreprung Monastery in Lhasa. The stupa-tomb of Dalai Lama XIII, is now in another Palace which is also a part of the Potala Palace. Among the seven stupa-tombs in the Potala Palace, the stupa-tomb of Dalai Lama V, which was built in 1691, are known as the earliest and largest one. Records say that it is made of sandalwood, wrapped in gold foil and decorated with thousands of diamonds, pearls, agates and others gems. The stupa, with a height of 14.86 meters (49 feet), spends more than 3,700 kilograms of gold.

Delicately designed, the lively patterns on the stupa-tombs look amazing and attractive. Mainly decorated with amber, pearl, coral, agate, diamond and other precious stones, the surfaces add more value to the whole stupa-tombs. Apart from the patterns, precious things housed in the stupas also make it more and more valuable. There are, a large number of cultural relics, the stupa of Sakyamuni and a thumb from figure of him, a piece of posthumous decree of king Songtsan gambo, a portrait embroidered by Princess wencheng, things left by the previous high-rank monks and so on. According to the Tibetan custom, the mummified and perfumed bodies of Dalai lamas and Panchen Lamas are well kept in stupas, which is known as Stupa Funeral.

Around the stupa-tomb chapel of the Fifth Dalai Lama, there are also some chapels in which thousands of precious books and numerous scriptures written in Chinese, Manchu and Mongolian are carefully kept. In addition, many hand-writing copies and printed books about history, Medicine, culture, Buddhism and so on are also well kept there. It is recorded that the total number of those books is over 200.000.

The thirteenth Dalai Lama's stupa chapel is the hall where the stupa of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama (1876-1933) is housed. People started to build his stupa after his death in the fall of 1933, so it's the latest building in Potala Palace. Taking three years, the stupa is comparable with the Great Fifth's stupa. It is 14 meters (46 feet) in height, which is only 0.86 metres lower than the Fifth Dalai Lama's. Made of a large amount of silver, covered with about 600 kilograms of gold and studded with lots of coral, amber, agate, diamond and other precious jewelries, the stupa is ten times as valuable as that of the Fifth Dalai Lama's. In front of the stupa, there is a mandala made of more than 200,000 pearls and 40.000 other gems. Murals in the hall tell important events in his life, including his visit with Emperor Guangxu. The precious complete volumes of Kanjur have also been preserved in the chapel.

Legend
The Potala Palace is said to have been built in the 7th century for Princess Wencheng, a very famous princess in history of China. It was King Songtsan Gambo who had made the Potala Palace built. It was said that he had been a wise, handsome and brave man, with a strong body, a charming figure and heavy features.

In 629, the third year of Emperor Li Shimin's reign, a coup d'etat took place in Tubo. Its 31st tsampo, or King, was assassinated by his political opponent. The kingdom was seized with a movement of separatism championed by the aristocrats bent on returning to the old system. Songtsan Gambo became the 32nd tsampo. Though he was only thirteen at the time, he had already been a resourceful statesman. Calmly exploiting his diplomatic and military clout, he crushed the separatist movement, and in three years Tubo became an integrated kingdom again. Then he crossed the Yalutsangbo River and established the capital at Lhasa. Songtsan Gambo has since become a national hero of the Tibetans and worshiped like the revered Lamas.

After the reunification, Songtsan Gambo concentrated on building Tubo into a powerful kingdom. One of his nation-building strategies was to inject new cultures into Tubo. To do so, he found it the most convenient way to establish matrimonial relationships between his royal family and those of his neighboring countries. After marrying a princess of Nepal, he turned his attention to Tang. A hero himself, he admired Emperor Taizong of Tang for his great talent and bold vision. He thought he, as well as his kingdom, could gain a lot by his marriage with a daughter of the Tang emperor.

In 634, Songtsan Gambo dispatched an envoy named Gar Tongtsan to Chang'an, capital of the Tang Empire, to find out whether there was a chance for the Emperor Taizong of Tang to marry off one of his daughters to him. But the Emperor refused his proposal considering the political and military reasons and his state of marriage. As king of Tubo, Songtsan Gambo had married three Tibetan girls and the Nepalese princess Khir-btsun before he made his marriage proposal to Tang Dynasty. None of the three Tibetan wives was given the title of Queen but the Nepalese Princess, who was the daughter of Amsuvarman (king of Nepal).

Of course the political and military reasons were most likely the main obstacles that Emperor Taizong turned down Songtsan Gambo's marriage proposal. The historical record tells that it was because of the King of another country who had said something bad of Songtsan Gambo to Emperor Taizong. Hearing of the envoy's report, Songtsan Gambo got very angry and decided to fight for his country and for his own sake. Successfully, he defeated the country whose king had prevented him from marrying a princess of Tang emperor in a short time.

Then, to show Tubo's great military power to Emperor Taizong of Tang, and to extend territory of his country, Songtsan Gambo had continuously launched offensives against his neighboring countries and won great victories until his successes threatened to the security of the Central Plains. Realizing that he should take the talented young man seriously, Emperor Taizong led an army troop of 50.000 soldiers personally against Songtsan Gambo's 20.000 soldiers and defeated them.

Still wishing that he could marry a princess of imperial Tang, and the Princess would introduce the advanced culture and production technologies from the Central Plains to strengthen Tubo, Songtsan Gambo sent his Prime Minister Lu Tongtsan to Chang'an to officially propose the matrimonial relationship to Emperor Taizong. Songtsan Gambo trusted Lu Tongtsan not only because he was a resourceful military leader who had played a great role in the reunification of Tubo, but also because he was a steadfast champion of his policy to establish friendly relationships with neighboring countries.

It was a wintry day. Lu Tongtsan and his hundred-strong entourage arrived in Chang'an with 5,000 taels of gold and several hundred items of treasure. Emperor Taizong of Tang received them in his richly ornamented palace. There, Lu Tongtsan presented Songtsan Gambo's letter of proposal along with the gifts. Though impressed with Lu Tongtsan's elegant manner, Emperor Taizong refrained from acceding to Songtsan Gambo's proposal right away. He put Lu Tongtsan and his men up in the royal hotel together with a dozen envoys and their subordinates who had come for the same purposes from other countries. The emperor needed to find a tactical way to decline them so that he could marry the princess off to Lu Tongtsan's monarch Songtsan Gambo. Having a contest among them seemed to be a good idea.

Even though Emperor Taizong had anticipated who the winner would be, he was still amazed at Lu Tongtsan's intelligence. In 641, Emperor Taizong betrothed Princess Wencheng to Songtsan Gambo and granted the title of "Right-Wing General" to the Tubo envoy Lu Tongtsan, making him the first Tubo man to receive an honorific title from the central government. Later, Princess Jincheng was married off in Tubo. Since then, the Tubo Kingdom established "uncle-nephew" relations with the Tang Dynasty, which were accepted by tsampos of future generations.
 

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