Regarded as the iconic symbol of Tibet, the gigantic Potala Palace with its highest point reaching 12,139 feet (3700 m) above the sea level and towering 300 feet (100 m) above the city of Lhasa is considered as one of the most beautiful architectural buildings in the world. History of the palace dates back to the 7th century, when the Tibetan King Songtsen Gampo, the 33rd ruler of the Tubo regime, commissioned a palace as a gesture of love for his marriage to Princess Wencheng of the Chinese Tang Dynasty.
However, after the fall of the Tubo Kingdom, the original palace became almost ruined by constant wars and remained neglected until 1645, when the fifth Dalai Lama decided to reconstruct the Potala Palace on the Red Hill. As the construction of the new palace, with sufficient security provided by its elevated position, was completed with the help of the Qing Dynasty of China, the Fifth Dalai Lama moved the government from Drepung Monastery to Potala, making it the political and Buddhism center of Tibet. Apart from that, until its use declined in the mid-18th century, the Potala was a major Tibetan military fortress. Although several small reconstructions had been conducted by the later Dalai Lamas, the main structure of the Potala Palace has remained as it was in the past.
With its majestic exterior of 13 storeys, the well-preserved splendid artworks, and various kinds of religious treasures, the Potala Palace, one of the most brilliant architectural buildings standing on the precipitous hill, is regarded as the most famous spiritual sanctums in the world. The huge building measures 1300 feet (400 m) east-west and 1159 feet (350 m) north-south, with sloping stone walls averaging 9`8 feet (3 m) thick, and 16 feet (5 m) thick at the base, and with copper poured into the foundations to help proof it against the earthquakes. The interior of the palace was built of wood and stones. While the walls were piled by granite with a thickness of 6 to 16 feet, the roof and eaves were made of woods with beautiful carvings about Buddhism. Equipped with more than a thousand rooms, the palace is a treasure trove containing 10,000 painted scrolls, 200,000 exquisite statues made from precious alloys and jewels, along with 698 murals on the walls and along the corridors, depicting some important events like the marriage of Princess Wencheng and Srongtsen Gampo, and stories from the lives of the famous Buddhist masters. It also houses the tombs of eight Dalai Lamas and numerous shrines. Butter lamps light the hallways and watchful monks are stationed in nearly every public room to ensure the decorum.
The Potala Palace complex consists of two main parts, the White Palace around and the Red Palace in the centre. While the White Palace was the living quarters of the Dalai Lama and the office to deal with political and Buddhist affairs, the Red Palace has a complicated layout consisting of different Buddhist halls, libraries, and several chapels, decorated with beautiful statues. While the East Chapel houses a 615 feet tall magnificent statue of Tsong Khapa, popularly known as the Man from Onion Valley, a famous teacher of Tibetan Buddhism, a silver statue of Padmasambhava, the legendary Indian Buddhist mystic who introduced Tantric Buddhism to Tibet, is housed in the South Chapel. The North Chapel contains the statues of Sakyamuni, Dalai Lamas, and Medicine Buddha, who cures the sufferings by using the medicine of his teachings.
Completed in 1648, the White Palace, locally known as Potrang Karpo, once served as the seat of the Tibetan government, as well as the main residence of the Dalai Lama. The upper level of the palace contains the private rooms, the audience hall, and the main ceremonial hall with the throne of the Dalai Lama. It also contains 698 invaluable murals, almost 10,000 painted scrolls, numerous sculptures, curtains, canopies, carpets, beautiful porcelain, jade, and fine objects of gold and silver, as well as a large collection of sutras and important historical documents. From the mid-18th century, the White Palace serves as the Winter Palace of the Dalai Lama.
Situated higher up the mountain, the Red Palace contains the gilded burial stupas of the past Dalai Lamas. The Namgyel Dratshang, the private monastery of the Dalai Lama, is located further west.
Apart from the White and the Red Palaces, the complex of the Potala Palace contains the Jokhang Temple Monastery and Norbulingka, the former summer palace of the Dalai Lama. Situated in the centre of the old town of Lhasa, and founded by the regime during the 7th century, the Jokhang Temple Monastery comprises an entrance porch, courtyard, and the Buddhist hall, surrounded by accommodation for the monks and the storehouses. The buildings, constructed of wood and stone are outstanding examples of the Buddhist style and houses around 3,000 images of Lord Buddha and other deities and historical figures, along with other treasures and invaluable manuscripts. The walls of the buildings are decorated with mural paintings, depicting religious and historical scenes.
Constructed much later, in the 18th century, Norbulingka, the Dalai Lama's former summer palace, is located in a lush green environment on the bank of the Lhasa River, about 2 km west of the Potala Palace. It includes four palace complexes, a monastery as well as other halls and the pavilions, integrated into the garden layout to create an exceptional work of art. Closely linked with religious and political issues, Norbulingka is a place for contemplation and signing political agreements.
The three-in-one historic ensemble of the Potala Palace, with Potala the palace-fort complex, Norbulingka the garden residence, and the Jokhang Temple Monastery, each with its distinctive characteristics, forms an outstanding example of traditional Tibetan architecture.
Unfortunately, the Potala Palace was moderately damaged during the Tibetan uprising against China in 1858, when Chinese shells were launched into the palace's windows. However, the Potala Palace was enlisted in the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1994, followed by the inclusion of the Jokhang Temple in 2000 as an extension to the property, and Norbulingka in 2001 as a further extension. But the rapid modernization of the palace complex soon became a matter of concern for UNESCO and expressed concern over the construction of modern structures around the palace which threaten the unique atmosphere of the palace. Fortunately, the Chinese government responded by enacting a rule barring the building of any structure taller than 70 feet (around 21 m) in the area.
After the exile of the Dalai Lama in 1959, the Potala Palace was taken over by China, and a part of the palace has been converted into a museum. However, it remains a major pilgrimage site for the Tibetan Buddhists and is regularly visited by thousands of pilgrims from around the world.