Once a palace, a fortress and a site of divine pilgrimage, the Potala, topped with shimmering gold roofs, rises through the Tibetan mist like a colossal castle that in a certain light appear to be crowned with flames.
Lhasa, capital city of Tibet, ‘the roof of the world’, lies 12,000ft (3600m) above sea level in a spot so remote that even today few Westerners know of its existence. Above the city’s bustling bazaar and warren of winding streets, more remote still stands the massive Potala Palace complex crowning the summit of a sacred hill known as Red Mountain. Stretching away from the city is a vast plain which has a river winding through it and is dotted with villages surrounded by swampy meadows, willow grooves, lines of poplars and fields of peas and barley; and encircling the plain is a great ring of mountains that can only be crossed by way of high passes. The difficulties involved in reaching the Potala Palace, however, are also part of its enchantment.
Pale with ancient whitewash and glittering with gold, the Potala (its name is Sanskrit for Buddha’s Mountain) is an extraordinary example of traditional Tibetan architecture. Hidden from the Western world for centuries this majestic mountain of masonry, which was built by more than 7000 labourers, towers some 330ft (110m) above the ground and measures roughly 1000ft (300m) from end to end. Accentuating the impression of great height, its huge walls slope inwards and its windows, rhythmically arranged in neat, parallel rows and narrower at the top than at the bottom, are lacquered black. The immense hole created by excavating stone for the building from the hillside behind the palace was filled water and now forms a lake, known as the Dragon King Pool.
From 1391 until the Chinese occupation in 1951, Tibet was ruled, both politically and spiritually, by the Dalai Lamas, although from 1717 to 1911 they were themselves subject to Chinese overlord. The city of Lhasa was the centre of Lamaism, a blend of Tibetan Buddhism and local religion called Bon. The two words describe the position of the Dalai Lama perfectly. Dalai is the Mongolian word for ‘ocean’, and lama, in the Tibetan language, means ‘man of profound wisdom’. The Dalai Lama is, therefore, a mortal man whose wisdom is believed to be as deep as the ocean. He is also thought to be a divine being, an aspect in human form of the absolute Buddha.
Fourteen Dalai Lamas have occupied the position of the Tibetan’ chosen leader since 1391. Each is said to be the reincarnation of his predecessor, and the search for a successor begins the moment the reigning Dalai Lama dies. Guided by omens, dreams and an official oracle, the Tibetan priests hunt for a boy, born at the precise moment of the Dalai Lama’s death, who has specific physical traits and who can pick out the late incumbent’s possessions from an assortment of objects.
The most recent Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, born to a peasant family in 1935, was recognized as the next ruler when he was two years old. His education began at the age of six and he was enthroned at the age of fifteen. He governed from the Potala until the rising of 1959, when he sought refuge from the Chinese army in India. In 1960 he established a government-in-exile in Dharamsala, India where a Tibetan colony known as ‘Little Lhasa’ has since been formed. Deeply revered by the monks in the new Namgyal Monastery there, and by devout Tibetans who worship him from afar or travel to Dharamsala as pilgrims, the exiled Dalai Lama won the Nobel Peace prize in 1989 for his tireless campaign for world peace and Tibetan freedom.
The fortress palace of the Dalai Lamas, the present Potala is a 17th century structure on the site of a castle built 1000 years earlier by Songsten Gampo, Tibet’s first warrior-king. The original palace was destroyed and rebuilt several times, before the fifth Dalai Lama (1617-82) ordered the present complex to be built as a palace within a palace.
The outer White Palace, so-named for its whitewashed walls, was completed in 1648; the inner Red Palace, whose name similarly derives from the deep red colour of its walls, was finished almost 50 years later in 1694. When the fifth Dalai Lama died unexpectedly, news of his death was withheld from the workers so that they would not be distracted from their task. At first they were told that he was ill, then that he had ‘withdrawn from the world to devote every waking hour to meditation’.
The Potala is a maze of painted galleries, wooden and stone stairways and richly decorated prayer rooms housing almost 200,000 priceless statues. Today it can be visited as a museum and shrine, but originally it fulfilled every need of the resident monks. The White Palace contained their living quarters, administrative offices, seminary and a printing house, where the press used hand-carved wooden blocks. Paper was made from the bark of Daphne or other shrubs, which was soaked in water and pounded between stones. The pulp was then spread on wire gauze stretched over a wooden frame and left until it was dry; the resulting paper was cream-coloured, tough and coarse.
The Red Palace, which is still used for worship, was the spiritual centre of the complex and comprised the monks’ assembly halls, chapels, 10,000 shrines and vast libraries containing Buddhist scriptures. The Great West Hall, the main hall of the Red Palace, became the final resting place of several Dalai Lamas, whose salt-dried and embalmed remains were enshrined there in elaborate funerary pagodas. Of the eight pagodas, or stupas, that are still intact, the sandalwood mausoleum of the fifth Dalai Lama is the most magnificent. Standing over 49ft (15m) high and coated with gold, this mausoleum weighs more than 4 tons, and its inlay of pearls, diamonds, sapphires, coral and lapis lazuli is sad to be worth ten times as much as gold itself. The fabulous private treasury of the Dalai Lama, a collection of ceremonial brocade robes Chinese porcelain, cloisonné, exquisite jewellery and rare gems, still rests in the Potala’s strongrooms.
Heinrich Harrer, an Austrian mountaineer who lived in Lhasa for five years after World War II and eventually became the confidant and tutor of the 14th Dalai Lama, stayed at the Potala on several occasions. During one visit he reported an unusual presence at the palace. The Maharajah of Nepal had bestowed an elephant on the young Dalai Lama, the only such animal in the country, which was escorted to Lhasa over 700 miles (1125km) of road that had been carefully cleared of stones. The gigantic beast often joined the religious processions.
Until the Chinese occupation, Tibet was the world’s largest theocracy – a society in which the ruler is also the religious leader – and the Potala was both the home and winter palace of the ruler and the physical symbol of his spiritual and earthly powers. The 14th Dalai Lama was a youth of 15 when the Chinese invaded his country in 1950. He was allowed a limited form of rule until 1959, when, after a failed rebellion, he fled to India with 80,000 devoted followers. Tibet ha since remained under Chinese control and in 1965 it became the Xizang Autonomous Region of China.
Although the god-king had departed, the Potala’s magic lingers on. It seems to possess some transcendent quality that is quite unconnected with mere bricks and mortar: a mysterious land’s central mystery.