The Potala palace, one of Tibet's largest and best known landmarks, is an enormous fortresslike structure located in the Tibetan capital Lhasa. The Potala served as the winter residence of the Dalai Lamas and as the locus of the Tibetan government from the seventeenth century to the fourteenth Dalai Lama's flight from Tibet in 1959. In thirteen floors said to contain more than one thousand rooms, the Potala encompasses an elaborate conglomeration of residential chambers, reception and assembly halls, temples, reliquary chapels, monastic quarters, and offices. Located atop a small hill called Mar po ri on the northwestern edge of Lhasa, the palace's full name is the Summit Palace of Potala (Rtse potala'i phobrang). The name refers to Mount Potalaka in India, which is revered as the abode of the compassionate bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara, who is believed to manifest in the figure of the Dalai Lamas.
The earliest foundations of the palace date to the Tibetan king Srong btsan sgam po (r. ca. 614–650), who moved his capital to Lhasa from the south, erecting an eleven-storied structure on Mar po ri in 637 that served as the center for his court. Some ten centuries later, in 1645, the fifth Dalai Lama (1617–1682) began renovations to this structure, planning a new ecclesiastic residence and offices for the Dga' ldan pho brang—the central Tibetan government—all to be moved from the nearby 'Bras spungs (pronounced Drepung) Monastery. These additions included the socalled White Palace, composed mainly of administrative and residential quarters, and the upper Red Palace containing rooms used for religious purposes, which now include the reliquary tombs of the fifth and seventh through thirteenth Dalai Lamas. Construction continued for many decades and was not finished until the close of the seventeenth century. According to Tibetan histories, the fifth Dalai Lama's adroit regent Sangs rgyas rgya mtsho (1653–1705) kept news of the hierarch's death secret for more than twelve years in order to bring this monumental project to completion. Jesuit missionaries Albert Dorville and Johannes Grueber published sketches of the partially erected Potala palace, which they witnessed while passing through Lhasa in 1661.
For nearly three hundred years, the Potala served as an epicenter of Tibetan religious and political power. The outer facade was shelled by occupying Chinese troops in 1959, the time of the fourteenth Dalai Lama's
flight into exile in India. Since then, much of the Shol village, a frequent destination of the flamboyant sixth Dalai Lama (1683–1707), located at the palace's foot, has been systematically dismantled. Although the Potala's structural damage was subsequently repaired, the vacant palace remains a potent symbol for the absence of Tibet's principal religious and political leader.
The Potala's massive structure also continues to play a central part in contemporary Tibetan religious practice. It forms the northern boundary of the large circumambulation route around Lhasa called the gling skor (pronounced ling khor) or sanctuary circuit. Pilgrims visit the palace daily, winding through its many inner chambers, reciting prayers and presenting offerings at its many hundreds of shrines. In 1994 the Potala was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Bishop, Peter. "Reading the Potala." In Sacred Spaces and Powerful Places in Tibetan Culture: A Collection of Essays, ed. Toni Huber. Dharamsala, India: Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, 1999.
Larsen, Knud, and Sinding-Larsen, Amund. The Lhasa Atlas: Traditional Tibetan Architecture and Townscape. Boston: Shambhala, 2001.