Thursday, August 14, 2008

Potala Palace

The thirteen-story, 380-foot-high (117-meter) Potala Palace rises from sheer walls on a cliff named Marpo Ri (Red Hill), 130 meters above Lhasa, the capital city of what is now the Tibet Autonomous Region of the People’s Republic of China. The 1,200-foot-wide (360-meter) complex of stone and timber buildings contains literally thousands of rooms with a total floor area of 154,000 square yards (130,000 square meters). Its shrines and the tombs of eight Dalai Lamas make it a focus of pilgrimage for Tibetan Buddhists. The walls, some up to 16 feet (5 meters) thick, were reinforced against earthquakes by backfilling with molten copper; their building stones were carried to the site by pack animals and slaves to construct a skyscraper on the roof of the world, nearly 12,000 feet (3,600 meters) above sea level. Wide stone stairways climb steeply from the city below. As one writer has commented, the Potala Palace was an achievement comparable to building the pyramids.

Legend has it that the craggy Marpo Ri was the site of a cave used as a religious retreat by the first emperor of a unified. Tibet, Songtsan Gampo (a.d. 617–665), who also introduced Buddhism to the country. He ascended the throne when he was just thirteen, and in a twenty-year reign lie established a powerful empire, with his armies ranging from northern India eastward to China and westward to Turkey. He moved his capital from Yarlung to Lhasa, and in 637 he built a palace, Kukhar Potrang, on Marpo Ri for his Chinese bride, Wen-Ch’eng. During his successor’s reign, much of that building was destroyed by Chinese invaders, and its size and character are unknown. However, what little remained was subsumed into a new structure when the existing Potala Palace was initiated. There are two chapels in the palace, the Chogyal Drubphuk and the Phakpa Lhakhang, said to date from Songtsan Gampo’s time.

By the end of the seventeenth, century the ridge of Marpo Ri was crowned by a line of towering buildings that seem to be at one with the outcrop. The Potrang Karpo (White Palace) was the first phase of the new palace, commissioned in 1645 by the “Great Fifth” Dalai Lama, Ngawaag Lobsang Gyatso (1617–1682). He moved his official residence from the Ganden Palace at Drepung (then the largest monastery in the world) to the Potala. The White Palace was completed by 1653. The central pavilion, known as the Potrang Marpo (Red Palace) and flanked on both sides by the White Palace, had not been started when he died, so the monks kept his death a secret for fourteen years while the work was finished! The Red Palace, and it is indeed dark red, was added between 1690 and 1694 by a workforce reputed to have consisted of 7,000 workers and 1.500 skilled artisans. The massive building in the so-called City of the Sun thus became the official winter seat of the Dalai Lamas and their extensive entourage. It was also the seat of government of the theocracy of Tibet. The name Potala, probably after the South Indian mountain sacred to Siva, dates from the eleventh century.

The Red Palace housed four meditation halls, thirty-five chapels, shrines, assembly halls, and the gem-encrusted golden stupas marking the tombs of the fifth to the thirteenth Dalai Lamas (except the sixth). In the western wing of the White Palace was the private cloister of the Dalai Lamas, the Namgyal Monastery, home to more than 150 monks, while its eastern wing contained government offices, a school for officials, and the National Assembly’s meeting halls. There were also repositories for ancient religious books and manuscripts, arms and armor, and the treasures accumulated by the monastery over centuries. The lower levels were a maze of storerooms. In 1922 many of the major rooms in the White Palace were renovated, and two whole stories were added to the Red Palace. The agglomeration of buildings at the foot of the Red Hill, once a village named Sho, was the location of government offices and the headquarters of the Tibetan army.

A Communist Chinese army of 84,000 invaded Tibet in October 1950, unchallenged by the rest of the world. The troubled decade ended with a March 1959 uprising, the consequent toppling of the Tibetan government, and the voluntary exile of the Dalai Lama and 100,000 of his compatriots. In the suppression that has followed, it is claimed that more than 1 million people have been killed. The conqueror’s policy of resettling Chinese in Tibet means that the Tibetans have become a minority in their own land, where Chinese has been made the official language. The Potala Palace, although its south and north sides were targeted by Liberation Army artillery in 1959, suffered minimal damage. Unlike many monasteries and shrines—about 6,000 have been destroyed—it was left untouched by the Red Guards during Mao Tse-tung’s infamous cultural revolution. Nevertheless, many of its treasures were removed to China, and some later appeared on foreign markets.
Paradoxically, in 1990 the Chinese government sanctioned a 35 million yuan (then U.S.$4.2 million) restoration and renovation of and Potala Palace as a five-year plan. The budget subsequently blew out to 53 million yuan (U.S.$6.4 million), but it seems that Beijing considered it money well spent if it could mollify the resentment of the Tibetan religious hierarchy and attract tourists to Lhasa. The whole project, worthy in itself and praised by international conservation bodies, was swathed in propaganda. The Chinese government has also trebled the annual maintenance budget since the restoration was completed in August 1994. The following December the Potala Palace was inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.

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