I visited India and Nepal for the first time on a Buddhist pilgrimage led by Shantum Seth in 2007. The following is from my 2008 trip to India, Nepal, and Tibet and is about the Potala in Lhasa, the capitol of Tibet.
The Dalai Lama hasn’t lived in the Potala Palace since 1959 due to the Chinese invasion and his exile. The Potala is a beautiful looming fortress that dominated Lhasa’s scenery until the Chinese started building tall skyscrapers. The Potala was a combination palace, government building, and Buddhist monastery, but now it’s a museum. The oldest parts of the palace are from the seventh century, but the current palace is mostly from the seventeenth century, quite a golden age for Tibet.
The Potala has a thousand rooms and is thirteen stories tall. We couldn’t enter every room, but it seemed like we climbed all the stairs.
My tour guide, Gyantzing, and I went to the Potala. It’s named after the Potalaka, a rocky mountain that, according to legend, is where the bodhisattva of compassion lives, whether you call that bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara (Sanskrit), Chenrezig (Tibetan), Quan Yin (Chinese), or Kannon (Japanese). The name and gender change from one culture to another.
When we entered the Potala and were ascending a flight of steps, I paused to look at a deep window that proved the walls must be over two feet thick. In addition to narrow wooden bars, the window has a wooden frame with no glass. I doubt traditional Tibetan windows ever used glass; they can close the shutters, and this isn’t mosquito country. However, it’s such a cold climate, and they have dust storms, so you’d think they’d have glass windows. Maybe the Chinese introduced glass windows when they invaded.
On the steps, a group of three little novice monks in burgundy robes giggled at me. They had to be younger than sixteen, the age that the Chinese government allows Tibetan boys to become monks, in contrast with their tradition of starting around age five. These boys looked to be only about eight or ten, but maybe parents dress them up as monks in eager anticipation of their becoming monks at sixteen. No doubt the Chinese government doesn’t mind if this deceives tourists.
Tourists aren’t allowed to take pictures in most parts of the Potala. A couple times I did take pictures before noticing a sign with the No Photos symbol — a red circle with a line through it, in front of a black camera. This is kind of scary, since green uniformed Chinese soldiers were all over the place. We were on a roof, although not the very top roof since it’s off limits, when I took some pictures of the breathtaking view. It’s usually fine to take pictures outdoors but not in. On that one occasion, a boy in a green uniform objected.
I lost track of how many rooms we visited. The amount of gold was endless. Fortunately, most of the interior was bright and colorful, especially with red and yellow but with all the traditional colors of the Buddhist flag: red, yellow, white, blue, and green. These colors appeared on murals, rugs, brocade banners, and brocade wall hangings.
The Potala has a large east courtyard where dancers wearing masks and colorful brocade costumes formerly performed operas. High up on a balcony the Dalai Lama used to watch through a sheen red curtain. His living quarters — consisting of audience rooms, study room, libraries, meditation room, and bedroom — were high up at the top of a tall and formidable whitewashed structure facing the courtyard. From the courtyard, I looked up and imagined the young Dalai Lama up there, looking down upon the people below.
We visited some of the Dalai Lama’s rooms, though his bedroom is behind a closed door; presumably, it still has the same furnishings as when he lived there.
The “Watching room” as the balcony is called, is connected to the Audience Chamber. It contains a bright red and ornately carved stepping stool the Dalai Lama and anyone else used to enter the Watching Room. The Audience Chamber otherwise has the usual sumptuous brocade banners and draperies, in addition to a yellow brocade-draped wooden throne to the left, along the same wall as the stepping stool. Long cushy-looking benches are covered with patterned red, white, and yellow rugs, with some brightly painted tables in front of them.
The various Dalai Lamas didn’t all use the exact same rooms. Different Dalai Lamas had different suites — not entirely surprising given how big the place is.
The seventh Dalai Lama had his own little meditation room in which two walls were mostly glass, with some red- and gold-painted carved wood framing the glass. Inside, along the short wall on the right, is his meditation bench, and above it hangs a thangka. Along the back wall is a cabinet containing gold statues, and the wall facing the bench is covered with brocade draperies.
I experienced sensory overload at the Potala. Now I don’t know quite where to take this next. Oh, yes, we entered a huge prayer hall that doesn’t have the rows of red mattresses one usually sees, because as Gyantzing pointed out, “The Potala is now like a museum.” This prayer hall is on display for tourists and is no longer functional, so no monks sit on red benches to chant or play music.
I’m not sure where this happened — I think it was a different prayer hall, because I remember a bunch of people looking around. I saw a monk on a bench working on something, and right behind him was a grey and orange cat. The cat got up and scurried across the path and disappeared. Clearly it wasn’t crazy about having so many people around.
We explored many rooms containing rows and rows of gold statues, in some cases huge ones, bigger than life-size. I gasped at sight of these.
One enormous, tall-ceilinged room contained huge gold stupas covered with jewels. These were the tombs of the Dalai Lamas. Mixed in with the stupas were gold statues and little gold three-dimensional mandalas. When you see photos of the Potala’s façade, the gold roofs mark the location of the Dalai Lamas’ tombs.
We passed a row of closed red doors, a couple feet from a series of five closed red doors in a row, with the usual big round knockers. These doors led to the fifth Dalai Lama’s tomb, and these doors are all only opened on Losar, the Tibetan New Year, when countless Tibetans line up to go through the Potala.
A long line of pilgrims, whom Gyantzing explained all come from the same village, entered the corridor when we did. I watched as a couple people stepped out of the line to peak through the red double doors that were open a crack. One guy followed them and pushed the door slightly more open. Several pilgrims were excited by this and quickly moved toward the door. They all came across as simple and harmless country people.
The pilgrim’s overzealous curiosity inspired the ire of an authority figure, a guy in black plain clothes, who marched up to the crowd and shooed them away from the door. He was followed by a mean boy in a green uniform who barked at the crowd and ushered them forward, and even took off a glove and slapped a pilgrim’s shoulder with it.
Although that was nothing compared to the torture that I’ve read Tibetans experience as political prisoners in Lhasa, it was still shocking enough to leave me staring with my mouth hanging open. Maybe power-tripping malice is the primary reason the authorities don’t want pilgrims to enter certain parts of the Potala. On the other hand, some rooms might be more threadbare and in need of restoration than others.
I can understand forbidding photography because the camera flash over time damages artwork. I’ve encountered this in various museums. Of course, digital cameras can take good pictures without always using a flash.
Finally, we entered the fifth Dalai Lama’s tomb through a different door. The statues were enormous: the usual gold bodhisattvas and Shakyamuni statues. The stupa itself is covered with ornaments and contains the fifth Dalai Lama’s ashes and relics. It was absolutely enormous, like an outdoor stupa, but it was gold-encrusted with jewels rather than made of whitewashed mud. Typical Tibetan style, the big bulbous part had a curved window in front of an antique statue. Another, much smaller, Buddha statue sat in a niche in the base.
We passed through a corridor with, on our left, a glass-walled room with excessively long cabinets containing small Buddhist statues, not only from Tibet but from several countries, including Nepal, India, and Thailand. One of the cabinets contained numerous little reliquary stupas from Thailand. Most of the statues in this room were small, like those anyone might have at home. Some were six hundred years old. Hmm, I collect Buddha statues.
We walked down a dark corridor, and around a corner, on the left, was a meditation cave that belonged to King Songtsen Gampo and dated back to the seventh century. It had huge statues of Songtsen Gampo and his Chinese and Nepalese wives, the two princesses responsible for bringing Buddhism to Tibet. The walls were dark grey and, since it was a cave, uneven and bumpy. The room houses various bodhisattva statues, such as Manjushri.
It would be interesting to read more about the two wives, Princess Wencheng and Bhrikuti, for a change. Not only was I tired of dudes in Kathmandu, but this tour has involved an extremely androcentric side of Tibetan history.
At one time, the cave was, oddly, used as a kitchen. A circular metal stove stands on the right, in front of the statues. The cooks thought it was auspicious to cook there. Such a huge palace/monastery surely has a large kitchen, probably bigger than the one we visited at Drepung Monastery.
The Potala Palace is an exquisite, haunted museum of a palace.
When we stepped outdoors into the sunlight, we were at a seemingly endless white staircase. It had landings and a low wall to the right, low enough that I rested my arm on it and admired the scenery frequently. The walls of this part of the Potala were white. From the stairs, I occasionally stopped to admire the view and usually took a picture. The sky was vast and extremely bright blue.
I heard surreal music that sounded like New Age music sung by a woman, and I thought it added a dreaminess to the atmosphere. Looking around, I asked, “Is there a concert?”
Gyantzing said, “It’s music for people who are exercising.”
I chuckled and looked down below. I saw a park in which people were indeed exercising, and at least one of them was spinning a large, strange, white disk.
A few feet further away, I noticed a lake with an island in the center. In the middle of the island was a small square temple with an elaborate curving roof. Gyantzing explained that this was the Naga Temple in Lukhang Lake, which is inside Lukhang Park and behind the Potala. The island struck me as an appropriate location for a Naga Temple, since nagas are snake deities.
Beer, Robert. The Handbook of Tibetan Buddhist Symbols. Shambhala Publications, Boston: 2003.
Mullin, Glenn H. and Andy Weber. Photography by Bard Wrisley. The Mystical Arts of Tibet: Featuring Personal Sacred Objects of H. H. the Dalai Lama. Longstreet Press, Atlanta: 1996.
Namgyal, Phuntsok. Splendor of Tibet: The Potala Palace. Homa & Sekey Books in association with Encyclopedia of China Publishing House, Beijing: 2002.
Rhie, Marilyn, and Robert Thurman. Wisdom and Compassion: The Sacred Arts of Tibet. Tibet House New York in association with Abradale Press, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers: 1991, 1996.
Yue, Lai Tai, Edition Editor. Buddhist Art of the Tibetan Plateau. First Chinese Edition, 1987. First English Edition, 1988. China Books & Periodicals, San Franciso, CA: 1988.
Information on the temple at Lukhang Lake:
My travel memoir Every Day is Magical: A Buddhist Pilgrimage in India and Nepal is available on Amazon here: