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The Potala Palace

The Potala Palace (Tibetan: Po-trang Po-ta-la; Chinese: Bùdála Gong) in Lhasa was the primary residence of the Dalai Lama until 1959, when the 14th Dalai Lama fled to Dharamsala after a failed uprising.

Today the Potala Palace is a state museum, a popular tourist attraction, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was also recently named one of the "New Seven Wonders of the World" by the television show Good Morning America and the newspaper USA Today.

History of Potala Palace

This hilltop site above the city of Lhasa originally hosted the meditation retreat of King Songtsen Gampo, who built the first palace there in 637 in order to greet his bride Princess Wencheng of China.

Construction of the present palace began in 1645 under the fifth Dalai Lama, Lobsang Gyatso, an important figure in Tibetan history. Known as the "Great Fifth," he unified Tibet and made the Yellow Hat sect the state religion. The White Palace was completed in 1648, after which it was used as winter quarters by the Dalai Lama.

Construction on the Red Palace was still underway when the Great Fifth died in 1682. Fearing the project would be abandoned, the monks kept his death a secret for 10 years until the Red Palace was completed. In the meantime, the Dalai Lama was impersonated by a monk who looked most like him.

In 1959, the current Dalai Lama fled to India amid riots against the Chinese military occupation of Tibet; he remains in exile today. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-77), the remaining monks were expelled and the abandoned palace was looted and damaged by Chinese soldiers.

Today, only a few monks are allowed to occupy the Potala Palace under strict supervision and Tibetan pilgrims are not generally admitted to the shrines. The Chinese government operates the palace as a state museum and has recently renovated the building to attract foreign tourists.

What to See at Potala Palace

Before you set out to explore every nook and cranny of the Potala Palace, grab a coat, especially if you are not traveling during the summer. As altitude increases, the temperature also drops, so it is never wrong to go prepared. Inside the Palace you are not allowed to wear hats of any sort nor sunglasses. Keep in mind that photographs are not allowed inside the Palace.

1) White Palace

Known as the Potrang Karpo, it served as the home of the Dalai Lama until the 1959 Tibetan insurgency. Built for secular uses, it is here where you can find a former seminary, several offices, and a printing house.

2) Red Palace

Devoted to study and prayer, the Red Palace is a labyrinth of halls, passageways and courtyards. Also known as the Potrang Marpo, the bulk of the Potala Palace sights are in this area:

3) Great West Hall

The central hall of the citadel, the Great West Hall contains four chapels that praise the greatness of the fourth Dalai Lama. Fine murals and Bhutan wraps cover the walls and pillars of this hall.

4) Tomb of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama

Located west of the Great West Hall is the tomb of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama, which can only be accessed with the help of a monk or a licensed tour guide. Constructed in 1933, the tomb features a gold stupa and devotional gifts such as porcelain vases, a pearl-encrusted mandala and Indian ivory tusks, to name a few.

5) The Saint’s Chapel

Dating from the 7th century, this shrine bears the statue of Avalokiteshvara and his attendants. From here, you can access the Dharma Cave, where ancient images and transcriptions can be seen.

6) North Chapel

This hall plays home to the statue of the Sakyamuni Buddha and the fifth Dalai Lama. Located left of the statue is the tomb of the eleventh Dalai Lama, who passed away at the young age of 18.

7) South Chapel

Here, you can venerate the statue of the 8th century Indian saint Padmasmbhava. His wife, consort and holy manifestations can be seen around his ornate sculpture.

8) West Chapel

Five golden stupas, including one that contains the mummified body of the fifth Dalai Lama, are preserved here.

9) First Gallery

Located above the West Chapel, this gallery features big windows and colorful murals in between.

10) Second Gallery

This gallery serves as the access way of visitors who wish to purchase souvenirs or drinks.

11) Third Gallery

Apart from fine murals, the third gallery plays home to priceless miniature bronze, copper, and gold statues.

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