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History of the Potala Palace

The first temple on Marpo Ri (Red Hill) was erected a long time before the construction of the monumental Potala Palace being not only the Dalai Lama’s residence but also a Buddhist holy religious complex. As early as in the 7th century, in the times of Tibetan ruler Songcen Gampo – historians name the popularization of Buddhism in Tibet among his achievements, a temple was erected on this hill. The place for it was not chosen at random – according to legend there was a cave-monastery for bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara, a Buddhist deity, nearby the modern palace, and the Dalai Lama is believed to be his manifestation. Ruler Songcen Gampo loved to meditate in the cave, at his request the temple was erected in the 30s of the 7th century. Several years later, after the Chinese ruler agreed to the marriage between Songcen and Princess Wencheng, a huge construction started on the hill, as a result a real palace overlooked Lhasa.

On nine palace floors and inside its numerous pavilions there were 999 rooms decorated by the best masters from China and Tibet. Unfortunately, the palace wooden buildings were severely damaged because of a fire caused by a stroke of lightning, it happened in the second half of the 8th century. Then this palace complex was completely destroyed during internal feuds raging on the Tibetan land in the 9th century. The construction of a new palace complex did not start until eight centuries later, in 1645, when the fifth Dalai Lama decided to establish his own residence in Lhasa. The construction work started with erecting the lower part of the Potala Complex, Potrang Karpo (White Palace), and ended in 1648. The upper part of the Potala Palace, Potrang Marpo (Red Palace), was built a few decades later; its construction was accompanied by a pretty mysterious fact that arises disputes among modern historians.

The thing is the fifth Dalai Lama died in 1682 in the most important moment of constructing the Red Palace, and his death was kept secret from everybody for several years until the palace was finished. According to some historians the death of the Dalai Lama was kept secret so that the workers could continue the construction, whereas others think that the Dalai Lama intended to build the palace as a tomb-mausoleum, and its construction started even before the ruler’s death. One way or the other, the Dalai Lama's main advisor did not announce his death until 1694, when the body of the fifth Dalai Lama was ceremonially entombed in a just finished stupa (tomb). The huge construction of the Potala Palace required work with a tremendous amount of effort as the workers had to deliver the construction materials right on the top of the hill. Approximately 7,000 builders, 1,500 artistic painting masters, sculptors, woodcarvers, and gilders worked over the construction of the entire palace-temple complex.

With the construction of the palace, Lhasa transformed into Tibet’s central city, and the palace premises, apart from the apartments of each subsequent Dalai Lama, consisted of a great number of ceremonial halls, pavilions, religious schools, and monasteries. In a specific time the palace was also inhabited by members of the Tibetan government. It housed a treasury, a library, an armoury, archives, and a larder. In 1754 the palace-park Norbulingka Complex was erected to the south-west of the palace, so the Potala Palace started to be used as the Dalai Lama’s winter residence. In 1922 the 13th Dalai Lama had the Potala Palace renovated because a lot of wooden buildings of the complex needed immediate renovation. In that period the White Palace was slightly modified to make the monastic cells more spacious. In 1959 after the Chinese forces entered Tibet, the Dalai Lama's residence was moved to Dharamsala, an Indian city, so the Potala Palace was closed for many years. Fortunately, the architecture of the palace-temple complex was damaged only slightly during the Tibetan uprising against the entrance of Chinese forces as well as during the so-called Cultural Revolution, when Red Guards destroyed a lot of temples and religious facilities in Tibet. In 1980 it was decided to open the Potala Palace to the public. A huge renovation and long-time restoration were made, then the complex shortly became known as one of the most popular museums in the world. In 1994 the cultural, religious and historical importance of the Potala Palace was confirmed by adding it to the UNESCO World Heritage List.