In the 20th century, Potala Palace was still the highest inhabited palace in the world (3,700 metres above sea level). Not a single nail was used in its construction, and such a huge amount of earth was used that a lake formed in the spot the earth was taken from.
Build by thousands of workers, this still stunning today, remains Tibetans living symbol of spiritual tradition and political emancipation. It's situated on the Tibeta Upland - one of the world's least accessible regions for tourists - in the country’s most important city, Lhasa, the former seat of the Tibetan government and residence of the Dalai Lamas. For centuries the only way to reach it was along difficult paths through the mountains, which discouraged most travellers. According to Tibetan Buddhist tradition Dalai Lamas are the earthly succesors of Avalokitesvara, the incarnation of compassion and mercy. Tibetans translate his name as "he who listens to the world's tears". Successive Dalai Lamas are earthly incarnations of the deity. The name of the Potala Palace makes reference to this tradition. The word Potala most likely comes from the holy mountain of Putuo in Southern China, the mythical home of Avalokitesvara.
For centuries, Tibet's leaders lived in the palace. The complex then filled the role of the spiritual and political capital. In the second half of the 20th century, the Chinese presence in the region and the so-called Cultural Revolution interrupted this long tradition. In the 1950s, the palace was abandoned. The 14th Dalai Lama, who came from beyond Tibet's borders, the contemporary leader of Tibetans, renounced political functions in 2011.
Tibetans believe that Potala Palace was created by gods, and that people would never have been able to build such a splendid structure. The 13-storey building rises straight out of a hill looming over Lhasa. Its prominent, sloping walls made of white calcium and crimson clay, crowned with copper roofs, make it even more impressive, giving the palace a unique aura.
The first traces of construction on the hill date to the 17th century. The beginnings of the palace which we can admire today reach back to the reign of the 5th Dalai Lama, Lobsang Gyatso, who began the construction at the beginning of the 17th century. The building of the palace was a huge undertaking, involving the participation of about 7,000 people from Tibet, India and China.
In 1648, the construction of the White Palace was completed. It contained residential rooms, offices, seminaries and a printing-house. The printing press, like all of the other ones elsewhere in this country dominated by monks, was under the control of spiritual leaders. Hand-carved, wooden tablets, were used in the traditional printing process which were pressed onto paper made from bark or sieve tissue. These printed sheets were then wrapped in silk and stored in wooden receptacles.
The Red Palace, which came into use 50 years later, fulfilled the function of a religious centre of the complex. It contained a meeting room for monks, numerous chapels and temples, libraries with Buddhist, manuscripts, and also golden stupas which contained the embalmed bodies of Dalai Lamas. The largest of these stupas can be viewed in the Great West Hall. Made of sandal wood, reaching a height of nearly 17 metres, it is covered in gold weighing over 3,700 kilograms. The graves of 8 out of 14 Dalai Lamas are located here.
Presently, the palace, which is a labyrinth of about 1,000 rooms connected by numerous doors, corridors, stairways and galleries richly decorated with murals, is open to visitors. In this way, the highest-situated palace has become the highest-situated museum in the world. Even though it’s forbidden to take photos inside, and some of the rooms are closed to visitors, the Potala Palace remains a political symbol of the fate of Tibet and its spiritual heritage, serving as the most frequent destination of Tibetan pilgrimages.