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Pondering Potala Palace

May 12, 2006

Potala Palace sits towering into the sky in the old Tibetan capital of Lhasa. Formerly the main residence of the Dalai Lama until the Buddhist leader fled Tibet in 1959, the palace is perched at an altitude of 3,700 meters.

Construction on the site was started by Emperor Songtsen Gampo in the 7th century, on the top of Marpo Ri hill. The original structure had 1,000 rooms, and was largely incorporated into new building that began in the 17th century during the reign of the 5th Dalai Lama.
The immense Potala Palace from the back. The steep sheer walls of the structure give it the appearance of being precariously perched on the top of Marpo Ri hill. Yet it has survived the rugged weather of Tibet for centuries. (Source: The Potala,

Modeled after the legendary Mount Potala, the residence of Avalokitesvara, one of Tibet's bodhisattvas, or Buddhas who gave up nirvana to help other beings reach enlightenment. Avalokitesvara is known in Tibet as Chenresi.

After centuries of construction, the Potala Palace emerged as a massive structure with an interior exceeding 130,000 square meters. Protected by a wall several meters thick, the palace's golden roof stands 350 feet high. At its widest point, the building is more than 900 feet and there are more than 10,000 chapels contained within the palace walls. In comparison, the Great Pyramid of Giza is 481 feet high, and 756 feet wide.

The palace from the front. The stairways provide a gentle ascent to Potala. (Source: Lensa Malaysia,

Inside the structure is a vast treasure of relics and artifacts including stupa-like tomb of the fifth Dalai Lama gilded with tons of gold. There are massive numbers of altars, statues, paintings, murals and other valuable historical items found inside the palace.

The interior design like the exterior is complex with a labyrinth of halls, shrines, terraces and atriums.

Lhasa sits about 12,000 feet above sea level in a country that never dips below 10,000 feet. The elevation is so great that tourists and Chinese bureaucrats often must take pills and drink plenty of water to avoid high altitude sickness.

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