The Potala Palace

Trip Start Mar 04, 2004
Trip End Jul 02, 2005

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Sunday, October 10, 2004

Tomorrow I leave for a 4-day trip to Nam-Tso and then immediately after that an 18(!!) day trip to Mt. Kailash in Western Tibet. Barring the rather unlikely chance of finding internet outside of Lhasa this will probably be one of the last travelogues for awhile. However, I will strive to find a computer in Shigatse and maybe make a quick update.
I think I will start with the BIG ONE of Lhasa, the Potala Palace. The Potala stands resolutely over Lhasa, dominating the skyline, the eyes of tourists, and the hopes of Tibetans. Its one of the greatest achievements of Eastern architecture and is a perfect metaphor for the fusion of religious and temporal power that was the Tibetan theocracy before the Chinese came in 1951. There are two linked but distinct palaces. The White Palace was the seat of the government and bureacracy while the Red Palace is for religious purposes and holds such wonders as the Funeral Chorten of the revered Fifth Dalai Lama, with its 3721kg of gold. It was the Fifth who constructed the Red Palace, though he died before it was finished.
My trip to the Potala began with a long walk of the steep Marpo Ri hill. The Potala is now an official Chinese musuem and access is tightly controlled. One begins near the top of the complex, winding your way through the Red Palace before viewing the Dalai Lama's old quarters on the roof of the White Palace. Then its a long tread down to the ruined and deserted Shol village which used to bustle at the foot of the mighty building.
For much of the tour of the Red Palace I latched onto two different tour groups, so I could have the benefit of their commentary added to my Lonely Planet. The feeling of the Potala is close, and dark, and a faded but waiting and watchful mystical spirituality. There are some very important and impressive chortens, thankas (religious paintings), statues, thrones, shrines and libraries to see. Sadly, much of the Palace is still off-limits and one always wonders what is being hidden. As I am very keen on learning about the Vajrayana and Kalachakra teachings I was seriously impressed with the massive 6m 3-D representation of the Kalachakra mandala.
After being in the Potala, with is narrow, dim corridors, lack of natural light and the air heavy from yak-butter lamps and the burnt incense of 500 years, I can certainly sympathize with the 13th Dalai Lama, who is said to have sped back to the Summer Palace of the Norbulinka in his car (the only one in Tibet) as soon as the official residence-switching parade was over.
The Potala is livened up by the devoted Tibetan pilgrims who shuffle through the various shrines murmuring Buddhist mantras and prostrating themselves in front of the anything representative of the Dalai Lama. In a telling moment, I saw one Tibetan young lady quickly look around for Chinese guards and then throw a bundled up white hada scarf onto the Dalai Lama's former throne.
It was pretty cool to walk through the Dalai Lama's living quarters, imagining his day-to-day life of meditation and consultation with government ministers and the occasional social visit from his brother and mother.
There is a strong sense of emptiness about the Potala that leaves many visitors with a disturbed feeling. This immense building is supposed to be the seat of a sovereign government ruling a land the size of western Europe. Its supposed to be humming with activity, bureaucratic and religious. There is supposed to be a printing press, granaries, high minister's offices, possibly even coffee break rooms! But none of this exists and most of the palace stands empty and off-limits. I wonder if the hordes of Chinese tourists realize that the Potala, by its very existence, is a call for Tibetan independence.
As I walked down the long switch-back steps out of the Potala I could see across the square to the Chinese monument celebrating 50 Years of Tibetan Liberation. I could also see the line of Tibetan pilgrims out front of the palace endlessly prostrating themselves. I wonder which of these two influences will last longer?
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