Potala Palace

Written by ivana Updated Jul. 28, 2021

Potala Palace, which is now on the list of Chinese national key protected cultural relics, is the most valuable depot in Tibet. It is a huge treasure house of ancient materials and articles of Tibetan history, religion, culture, and arts. The palace is widely known for its countless precious sculptures, murals, scriptures, Buddha figures, murals, antiques, and religious jewelry housed in its many rooms, all of great cultural and artistic value. In 1994, Potala Palace has declared a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site.

External appearance and structure: Potala Palace is 3,756.5 meters above sea level, covering an area of over 360,000 square meters, measuring 360 meters from east to west, and stretching 270 meters from south to north. It has a total of 13 stories and is 117 meters high. The walls of the palace are over 1 meter in thickness, with the thickest sections being 5 meters wide. Moreover, the walls are covered with huge, colorful, carefully painted murals, allowing history to seep back into the building beautifully and gracefully.

The magnificent Potala Palace is made of sturdy wood and stone; all the walls are of granite, and all the roofs and windows are of wood. The overhanging eaves and upturned roof corners, not to mention the gilded brass tiles and gilded pillars inscribed with Buddhist scriptures, bottles, Makara fish designs, and gold-winged birds decorating the roof ridges all contribute much to the beauty of the hip-and-gable roofs.

This grand structure consists of over 1,000 rooms including seminaries, chanting hal1s, temples, chambers for worshipping Buddha, and chambers covered with gold 1eaf and studded with jewels housing the stupas of several Dalai Lamas. Throughout the rooms, there can be found tens of thousands of Buddha figures. Walking in, it is difficult not to be struck by the figures’ vibrancy, given off by their different sizes and complex designs.

History: Potala Palace was built in the 7th century, meaning it has a long history of over 1,300 years. In 641, Songtsan Gambo, ruler of the Tubo Kingdom, had Potala Palace built for Wen Chen Konjo (Princess Wencheng) of the Tang Dynasty (618-907), 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 on display are said to be the only survivors of the war vandalism. Potala Palace was later rebuilt in the 17th century by the Fifth Dalai Lama (Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso). From then, repeated repairs and expansions until 1645 finally brought the palace to its present scale. Over the past 3 centuries, the palace gradually became a place where the Dalai Lamas lived and worked, as well as a space for keeping the remains of successive Dalai Lama.

Potala Palace has also always been the political center of Tibet since the fifth Dalai Lama (1645-1693). In 1645, the Fifth Dalai Lama, feeling too confined at Drepung Monastery just outside Lhasa, ordered the construction of a new structure that would accommodate his new role as both a religious and political leader. This was what led Potala Palace to be built, as the imposing and self-confident expression of the new theocracy. With the ascension of the Seventh Dalai Lama (Kelzang Gyatso; 1728-1757), the Summer Palace was established at Norbulingka (a stunning garden just outside of Lhasa). Potala Palace then transitioned to be used predominantly during winter, earning its other name, "Winter Palace."

Potala Palace is famous for its grand buildings, complicated construction, devotional atmosphere, and splendid artworks, and the main attractions are the White Palace (administrative building) and the Red Palace (religious building). From the east entrance of the palace, a broad corridor painted with images of Four Heavenly Kings leads upwards to Deyang Shar courtyard, which is where Dalai Lamas used to watch operas. Around the large and open courtyard, there used to be a seminary and dormitories. West of the courtyard is where one may find the White Palace.

White Palace

The White Palace, comprising halls, temples, and courtyards, serves as the living quarters of the Dalai Lama and the political headquarter of Potala Palace. There are 3 ladder stairs reaching inside of it; 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 a decree signed with the Great Fifth Dalai Lama's handprint. 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 the throne and ruled Tibet.

Red Palace

The Red Palace, with 7 golden roofs on its flat top, is renowned for its religious status, gorgeous stupas, and precious cultural relics. The dominant buildings of the Red Palace are the stupa-tombs halls of Dalai Lamas and all kinds of halls for worshiping Buddha. It was constructed after the death of the Fifth Dalai Lama (1682). The center of the elaborate Red Palace is the Great West Hall, which records the Great Fifth Dalai Lama's life in its fine murals.

Enshrined and worshipped in the East Chapel is a 2-meter high statue of Tsong Khapa, the founder of Gelug which is Dalai Lama's lineage. The South Chapel is where a silver statue of Padmasambhava and 8 bronze statues of his reincarnations are preserved. On the floor above, there is a gallery that has a collection of 698 murals, portraying Buddhas, bodhisattvas, Dalai Lamas, and great adepts narrating jataka stories and significant Tibetan historic events.

West of the Great West Hall is 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. In total, there are 8 stupa-tomb chapels where the relics of the Fifth, Seventh, Eighth, Ninth, Tenth, Eleventh, Twelfth and the Thirteenth Dalai Lamas are preserved.

Stupa Tombs

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 Second, Third, and Fourth Dalai Lamas have been carefully placed in Drepung Monastery in Lhasa. The stupa-tomb of the Eighth Dalai Lama is now in another palace which is also a part of Potala Palace. Among the 7 stupa-tombs in Potala Palace, that of the Fifth Dalai Lama, built in 1691, is known as the oldest and largest. 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, consists of more than 3,700 kilograms of gold.

Delicately designed, the intricate patterns on the stupa-tombs are truly amazing and striking. Mainly decorated with amber, pearl, coral, agate, diamond, and other precious stones, these designs add even more value to the whole stupa-tombs. Apart from the patterns, precious items housed in the stupas also make them priceless. There are a large number of cultural relics; for example, the stupa of Sakyamuni includes a thumb from his figure, a piece of a posthumous decree by King Songtsan Gambo, a portrait embroidered by Princess Wencheng, things left by previous high-ranking monks, and so on. According to Tibetan custom, the mummified and perfumed bodies of Dalai Lamas and Panchen Lamas are well kept in stupas, which is known as Stupa Funerals.

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, there are many handwritten copies and printed books about history, medicine, culture, Buddhism, and more. It is recorded that the total number of those books is over 200,000.

The stupa of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama (1876-1933) is housed in The hall of his stupa chapel is the hall. People started to build his stupa after his death in the fall of 1933, and as such, it is the most recent building in Potala Palace. Its construction took 3 years, and the stupa is comparable with that of the Great Fifth; for example, it is 14 meters in height, which is only 0.86 meters lower than the Fifth Dalai Lamas. 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 jewelry, the stupa is actually 10 times as valuable as that of the Fifth Dalai Lamas. 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 (11th emperor of the Qing Dynasty). The precious complete volumes of Kanjur have also been preserved in the chapel.


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

It was in 629, the 3rd year of Emperor Li Shimin's reign, that 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 13 years old at the time, he had already been a resourceful statesman. Calmly exploiting his diplomatic and military clout, he crushed the separatist movement, and in 3 years Tubo became an integrated kingdom again. Then Songtsan Gambo crossed the Yalutsangbo River and established the capital at Lhasa. Ever since King Songtsan Gambo has been a national hero of the Tibetans and worshiped like the revered Lamas.

After the reunification of Tubo, Songtsan Gambo concentrated on building it into a powerful kingdom. One of his nation-building strategies was to inject new cultures into Tubo. To do so, he found it most convenient to establish matrimonial relationships between his royal family and those of neighboring countries. After marrying a Nepalese princess, he turned his attention to the Tang Dynasty. A hero himself, he admired Emperor Taizong of the Tang empire for his great talent and bold vision. He thought he, as well as his own kingdom, could gain a lot by his marriage with the 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 Emperor Taizong of Tang to marry off one of his daughters to him. But the Emperor refused his proposal considering various political and military reasons and his state of marriage. As king of Tubo, Songtsan Gambo had married 3 Tibetan ladies and the Nepalese princess Khir-btsun before he made his marriage proposal to the Tang Dynasty. None of the 3 Tibetan wives were given the title of Queen; instead, the honor was bestowed on the Nepalese princess, who was the daughter of Amsuvarman (the king of Nepal).

Of course, political and military reasons were most likely the main obstacles that led Emperor Taizong to turn down Songtsan Gambo's marriage proposal. Historical records say that the invitation decline was because a king of another country said something bad about 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. In no time at all, he defeated the country whose king had prevented him from marrying a princess of the Tang emperor. Then, to show Tubo's great military power to Emperor Taizong of Tang and to extend his country’s territory, Songtsan Gambo continuously launched offensives against his neighboring countries and won great victories, until his successes began to threaten 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 an imperial Tang princess, for the princess could 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 once more. The Tubo king 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 and cold day. Lu Tongtsan and his hundred-strong entourage arrived in Chang'an with 5,000 taels of gold and several hundred precious items. Emperor Taizong received them in his richly ornamented palace. There, Lu Tongtsan presented Songtsan Gambo's proposal letter along with the gifts. Though impressed with Lu Tongtsan's elegant manner, Emperor Taizong refrained from agreeing to Songtsan Gambo's proposal right away. He put Lu Tongtsan and his men up in the royal hotel together with a dozen other 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 politely so that he could finally marry the princess off to Songtsan Gambo. Having a contest among the suitors seemed like a good idea.

Although 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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