DESST 2521 History II
Potala Palace a1725323
How does Potala Palace materialise the Tibet’s religious identity?
Potala Palace is a remarkable architectural structure and has been considered the symbol of religious identity in Tibet for centuries. Constructed in the 7th century, it has served many purposes, primarily as the residence of the Dalai Lamas, where it was considered the institutional heart of Tibetan Buddhism, and the administrative base of the Tibetan government. It is located in ?Lhasa, Tibet, China and sits an astonishing 3,700 meters above sea level, making it the tallest building in Lhasa.
The original building on the site of Potala Palace was the dwelling of Tibet’s founder, Songtsen Gampo. The palace was supposedly built to greet the arrival of his wife. This structure was later burned to the ground during war and was rebuilt by Tibet’s spiritual leader, the fifth Dalai Lama. Recurring repairs and expansions took place until 1645 finally brought the palace to its present scale in which we see today. Over the past three centuries, the palace gradually became a place where the Dalai Lama lived and worked and a place for keeping the remains of successive Dalai Lama, until the fourteenth Dalai Lama fled to India, after the Chinese invasion in 1959.
This essay will consider the transformation of the Potala, from its initial role intended by Gampo, to the sacred and secular residence of the Dalai Lamas and then ultimately into a vacant structure, that is now emphatically the property of the People’s Republic of China.
The Potala before the Potala Palace
7th to 16th century
Prior to the construction of the Potala Palace, the site itself held meaning in accordance to a Buddhist legend, in which suggests that the Potala materialises religious ideals. Potala Palace is situated on top of Marpo Ri (meaning ‘Red Hill’), which overlooks the Lhasa Valley from a height of 130 meters. The legend states there is a sacred cave within this hill, which was once the dwelling place of Avalokite?vara, a bodhisattva who is the embodiment of the compassion of all the Buddhas. (Wu Mingren, 2017). The first temple on Marpo Ri was established a long time before the construction of the monumental Potala Palace. As early as in the 7th century, in the times of Tibetan ruler Songtsen Gampo, who is considered to have heavily influenced the popularization of Buddhism in Tibet, a temple was erected on this hill as it was believed to be a Buddhist holy religious complex. (DeHart, 2013). The reason behind the creation of this temple is controversial, some believing it was a symbol of love and romance while others say it was politics and power that drove its creation.
According to Jonathan Dehart, writer for The Diplomat, the palace was constructed to woo a Tang Dynasty princess, the marriage part of a move to solidify an alliance with China’s Tang Dynasty. (DeHart, 2013) However, others have suggested that politics drove its creation, as stated by Mingren, it has also been theorised that the Tibetan Empire’s founder Songtsen Gampo erected the fortress to solidify his political power. (Mingren, 2017). Nonetheless, this structure was later demolished during war, with nothing rebuilt on the sacred land until the 5th Dalai Lama.
The Potala Palace of the Dalai Lamas
17th to 20th century
The Potala Palace, winter palace of the Dalai Lama since the 7th century, symbolizes Tibetan Buddhism and its central role in the traditional administration of Tibet. The complex, comprising the White and Red Palaces with their ancillary buildings, is built on Red Mountain in the centre of Lhasa Valley. Also founded in the 7th century, the Jokhang Temple Monastery is an exceptional Buddhist religious complex. Norbulingka, the Dalai Lama’s former summer palace, constructed in the 18th century, is also an iconic piece of Tibetan identity. The beauty and originality of the architecture of these three sites, their rich ornamentation and harmonious integration in a striking landscape, add to their historic and religious interest. (UNESCO, 2016)
It was the fifth Dalai Lama, who was not only the spiritual head but also, for the first time in Tibetan history, the political head of Tibet who commissioned the Potala Palace. It was one of his first acts to establish a new capital and build a new palace that was identifiable as the seat of both the spiritual and political power of the Buddhist world, and this was the Potala Palace, a vast majestic palace-mausoleum located dramatically on a hill in the middle of the valley of Lhasa, Tibet’s “forbidden city”. (Ching, 2011).
The Potala Palace is 360 meters long and 110 m wide, reaching to a maximum height of 170 meters, recognised as the highest palace in the world. (Ching, 2011). The vast size of this Palace is reinforced by figure 7, where the scale of the site can be truly appreciated. The immense size of the structure can be said to convey the power of Tibet, as both a religious and political site. It is oriented east-west, with the front facing south toward the inner city. The setting is dramatic, a jagged towering mountain range forms a towering bowl. In the middle, the rocky outcrop and the swiftly flowing Lhasa are at the centre of what literally seems like the roof of the world. (Ching, 2011). The immense scale of the height is better portrayed in a section drawing shown in figure 8. Through this extreme height and connection with the sky above, the Potala Palace is admired as the symbol of Tibet as well as an illustration for the religious journey for purification, signifying a closeness to divinity.
The palace was built in two major phases. First the main ramparts and the western part, known as the White Palace, were built. Then this was partially rebuilt, and a Red Palace, which become the primary residence of the Dalai Lamas, was constructed. The size and scope of Potala Palace is symbolic, with the numbers 13 and 1,000 repeated often when it comes to floors, number of rooms and size of certain spaces. The palace should be thought of as two distinct spaces: The Red Palace and the White Palace. The two parts are said to symbolise different ideals, white for peace and red for authority.
The Red Palace is the center of the fortress, and it is the tallest part of the palace as well as the religious section where prayer and studies take place. Inside the Red Palace, you’ll find the only remains of the original 7th century building, the Saint’s Chapel and the Dharma Cave. Red Palace also contains the salt-dried and embalmed remains of eight Dalai Lamas, marked by eight white stupas called chortens (shown in figure 9). The largest and most elaborate of these is the stupa for the fifth Dalai Lama. (Ching, 2011).
Although the Red Palace is thought to be more significant from a religious perspective, the White Palace is equally fascinating. The White Palace surrounds the Red Palace, creating two wings that are clearly visible on the sides of the fortress. It is here that you can find the administrative rooms and additional residences. The palace contains 698 murals, almost 10,000 painted scrolls, numerous sculptures as well as a large collection of important historical documents.
Furthermore, the interiors of both Palaces are covered with colourful decoration and filled with religious artefacts gathered over the centuries, creating a sense of spiritual utopia within the building, as seen in figure 11. t also features long ramps, visible from the distance, in which wind their way up the side of the hill. Their slow ascents mark them as self-conscious processional paths leading to a place of pilgrimage. As the residence of the Dalai Lamas, considered to be living manifestations of the Buddha, The Potala Palace is the sacred center of Tibetan worship. As such, the palace is just as much a pilgrimage site as a royal residence (Ching, 2011)
The Potala Palace after the Dalai Lamas
20th century to present
Today, the Potala Palace remains an iconic symbol of Tibet, materialising the Buddhist religion, more than that, though, it’s a building in which resonates with the spirit of independence. In recent years, it was evident that Tibet was no utopia, at war with China, their sense of identity being under attack. When Communist China invaded Tibet in 1950 with over eighty thousand troops, massive protests were held at the palace. It has been estimated that about one million people have been killed since the Chinese occupation and the exile of Tibetan government officials. During this time, the treasures of Potala were stolen and priceless, irreplaceable historical documents and artefacts lost. As a result, in 1959, the 14th Dalai Lama fled the country, though despite being empty, the Potala Palace remained a powerful symbol of Tibetan identity. Even with six thousand monasteries getting destroyed during the Mao’s ‘culture revolution’, Potala Palace was still preserved and China started a renovation project on the palace at a cost over six million dollars. (Mingren, 2017). The Potala Palace was then named a World Heritage site in 1994 by UNESCO, and the neighbouring Jokhang Temple and Norbulingka and were added on as extensions in 2000 and 2001, respectively. The Jokhang Temple is considered the most sacred temple in Tibet and the Norbulingka was the former summer residence of the Dalai Lama. All three structures are outstanding embodiments of Tibetan culture and despite waves of natural and human-induced damage, they are international icons that have remained spiritually relevant and intact over the centuries. (Wei, 2018).
While the Dalai Lama doesn’t call Potala Palace his home currently, there are a number of Buddhist artifacts, and local treasures, still found on the premises. On display are gold, hand-written Buddhist scriptures dating back centuries, Chinese antiques and various gifts presented to Dalai Lamas by officials, Chinese emperors and religious figures alike. Sculptures depicting things like snow lions are also found guarding the palace entrances and exits, adding additional beauty to the already impressive architecture of the fortress. (Touropia,2017). The Potala Palace has “survived harsh mountain conditions and the idealism of China’s Chairman Mao, who wanted the palace torn down after the Dalai Lama fled in 1959. Today it serves as a monument to Tibetan identity” writes Colin Bisset. (Green, 2015). This suggests that the Potala Palace remains an iconic part of the region and continues to serve as a mecca for Buddhists around the world. The name Potala is a nod to a sacred mountain in India, where the Buddha of compassion is said to dwell. Year-round, thousands of religious pilgrims circle the perimeter of the palace with prayer wheels and beads to ask for blessing. Many have travelled thousands of miles by foot just to pay their respects to the site which is now a museum in which pays tribute to the religious identity of Tibet. (Wei, 2018).
The Potala Palace remains a powerful symbol of Tibet, despite decades of cultural and political change. The Potala Palace in Lhasa a masterpiece of sacred architecture, a defensive fortress, and the once residence of the Dalai Lama. The palace is looked up to as the symbol of the country and an illustration of the religious beliefs as well as the social struggle for identity in which Tibet faced. (Mingren, 2017). Historically, the palace has served not only as Tibet’s political nerve center, but also as its spiritual heart, and the tradition that Lhasa’s three main hills – Chokpori, Pongwari and Marpori – are the symbolic “Three Protectors of Tibet” is still true to this day.
Green, Jonathan. “Iconic Buildings: Potala Palace, Tibet.” ABC News. September 05, 2015. Accessed October 07, 2018. http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/blueprintforliving/iconic-buildings-potala-palace/6746120.
Mingren, Wu. “Closer to Enlightenment? Potala Palace, the Highest in the World.” Ancient Origins. March 28, 2017. Accessed October 08, 2018. https://www.ancient-origins.net/ancient-places-asia/closer-enlightenment-potala-palace-highest-world-007800
DeHart, Jonathan. “Potala Palace: Tibet’s Towering Spiritual Sanctum.” The Diplomat. September 24, 2013. Accessed October 08, 2018. https://thediplomat.com/2013/09/potala-palace-tibets-towering-spiritual-sanctum/
Wei, Clarissa. “Discover Tibet’s Breathtaking Palace in the Clouds.” A Guide to Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave National Park. August 29, 2018. Accessed October 07, 2018. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/travel/destinations/asia/china/tibet-autonomous-region-lhasa-potala-palace-world-heritage/.
UNESCO World Heritage Centre. “Historic Ensemble of the Potala Palace, Lhasa.” UNESCO World Heritage Centre. 2016. Accessed October 07, 2018. https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/707.
Touropia. “Potala Palace in Tibet – The World’s Highest Palace.” October 04, 2017. Accessed October 06, 2018. https://www.touropia.com/potala-palace-in-tibet/.
Ching, D.K. Francis, Jarzombrek, Mar, and Prakash, Vikramaditya. A Global History of Architecture. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley and Sons, 2011. Page 499-501
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