Tibet, China

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Potala Palace

Jokhang Temple




Potala Palace


The Potala Palace is situated on the top of the Red Hill in central Lhasa, at an altitude of over 3,700 metres it rises over 100 metres.  The Palace was built by the King Songtsen Gampo of Tibet in 637AD over a sacred cave as a palace for his bride the Princess Wen Cheng of China. Consisting of 9-storeys it was said to have had a thousand rooms. With the collapse of the Songtsen Gampo Dynasty, and the subsequent wars the palace was severely damaged. Construction of the present palace began in 1645 during the reign of the fifth Dalai Lama and by 1648 the Potrang Karpo, or White Palace, was completed. It was at this time that it became the Dalai Lamas main residence and the centre for political and religious affairs in Tibet though later became his Winter Palace. The Potrang Marpo, or Red Palace, was added between 1690 and 1694. In 1922 the 13th Dalai Lama renovated many chapels and assembly halls in the White Palace and added two stories to the Red Palace. In 1959 the palace was slightly damaged during the Tibetan uprising against the Chinese invasion. It was not sacked by the Red Guards during the 1960s and 1970s, due to the personal intervention of Chou En Lai. Consequently, all the chapels and their artefacts are well preserved. The Potala Palace was the chief residence of the Dalai Lama until the 14th Dalai Lama fled to India, after the invasion and failed uprising in 1959. Today the Potala Palace has been converted into a museum by the Chinese government but is still a place of pilgrimage for many Tibetans.


Consisting of 13 stories with an interior space in excess of 130,000 square meters, it contains two palaces and living quarters of over 1,000 rooms, temples, stupas and 10,000 shrines. As a museum it houses about 200,000 statues and a wealth of national treasures. The building measures 400 metres east-west and 350 metres north-south. It has thick sloping stone walls averaging 3 metres with up to 5 metres thick walls at the base. In order to help protect it against earthquakes it has copper poured into the foundations. At its base to the south is a large enclosed space with stairs and gentle slopes leading to the summit and the palace buildings.


The Potala consists of two palaces, the White and Red. The White Palace contained the living quarters of the Dalai Lama, offices, the seminary and the printing house. First built in the 17th century it was extended to its present size in the early twentieth century.   A central, yellow-painted courtyard known as a Deyangshar separates the living quarters of the Dalai Lama and the monks with the Red Palace.


The Red Palace, painted red to represent stateliness and power, is devoted to religious study and prayer. It consists of many halls, chapels and libraries on a number of levels with many smaller galleries and passages. The main central hall built by the fifth Dalai Lama is the Great West Hall and chapels with cloth wrapping the many columns and murals painted on the walls. The Dharma Cave and the Saint's Chapel are the remaining parts of the 7th century building and contains statues of Songtsen Gampo, Princess Wen Cheng, and Princess Bhrikuti.


The Potala Palace was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1994. In 2000 and 2001, the Jokhang Temple and Norbulingka (the Summer Palace of the Dalai Lama) were added as extensions to the sites.

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Jokhang Temple


The Jokhang Temple ("House of the Lord") is a four-storey timber complex with a gilt roof situated in the heart of Lhasa. It is the holiest site in Tibetan Buddhism and is the place where the ceremonies of initiation for the Dalai Lama and Panchen Llamas are held.

Constructed in 647 by the first ruler of a unified Tibet, King Songtsen Gampo (617-49), itsí purpose was to house a sacred image of the Buddha, the Jowo Rinpoche which was brought to Lhasa by Queen Wengcheng the second wife of the King from China as a dowry. This statue is still enshrined within the temple and is the holiest object in Tibet.

The temple has been regularly expanded over the years, and underwent extensive reconstruction in the 17th century under the fifth Dalai Lama, although much of the central part of the temple is original, dating from the 7th century.

Today, Jokhang Temple is open to pilgrims and tourists but carefully controlled by the Chinese government as since 1951 and the Chinese occupation, the Temple has become the focus of Tibetan cultural identity and resistance.

Covering an area of about 25,000 square metres, Jokhang Temple consists of four storeys which combine local Tibetan architectural elements with influences from Nepal, India and the Tang Dynasty of China.

The exterior of the temple is decorated with deer and wheel motifs.  These are the early symbols of Buddhism and represent the Buddha's first sermon, in which he "turned the wheel of the Dharma" in a deer park near Varanasi, India.

In the front of the temple is a large plaza and open porch, where prostrate Tibetan pilgrims can be seen. Jokhang Temple is a very important pilgrimage destination for Tibetan Buddhists who come from all over Tibet. The most devout pilgrims cover the last several miles prostrating themselves on the ground. Many pilgrims bring offerings (typically white scarves and yak butter for the votive candles) to the many chapels that ring the shrine or leave scarves outside in the open porch.

The interior consists of a number of chapels dedicated to various Gods and bodhisattvas (an enlightenment-being), and although some have undergone rebuilding, many of the original elements remain. Carbon dating tests on the wooden beams and rafters have shown them to be original; the door frames, columns and finials dating from the 7th and 8th centuries.

In the courtyard are shrines and rows of votive lights (small, prayer candles) which provide a path leading to the main hall. The main central hall is over 1,300 years old and is the oldest shrine of the complex. Above the main entrance is a Dharma Wheel (chakra) flanked by two deer. This represents the unity of all things and symbolizes the Buddha.

The central hall contains the gilded and jewelled Jowo Rinpoche (or Jowo Shakyamuni) the life-sized statue of the Buddha at the age of 12, the final destination of the pilgrims. On either side of the statue are two altars, one of King Songtsen Gampo and the other of his two wives who introduced Buddhism into Tibet. As a mark of respect, no photographs were taken inside the halls and chapels.

The third floor contains an image of Palden Lhamo, the fierce deity considered to be the principal protectress of Tibet and the Dalai Lama. The roof contains many beautiful statues and gilded objects and provides fine views over the temple, the Barkor (a maze of narrow cobbled streets which is the central market of Lhasa) and the Potala Palace.


Along with the Potala Palace, Jokhang Temple has, since 2000, formed part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site "Historic Ensemble of the Potala Palace".

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