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Potala Palace,world heritage

Tibet Highlights Travel Attractions, Potala Palace-World Heritage

Potala Palace, one of Tibet’s top must see cultural sites, has been capturing travelers’ imaginations as it takes them on an adventure through Tibetan history. With its highest point at about 300 meters (around 1000 feet) above the valley floor its gargantuan size often surprises travelers: this building houses over 1,000 rooms, 10,000 shrines, and around 200,000 statues.

A visit to Potala Palace is typically first on a Tibet tour itinerary. Travelers will first huff and puff their way up several flights of stairs before reaching the entrance. While challenging to those not acclimatized to the altitude, panoramic views of Lhasa and the surrounding mountain scenery reward travelers at the top! As travelers enter the front doors fantastically painted walls foreshadow the beauty to come. Next the group proceeds to the former living quarters of the 14th Dalai Lama, including his thrown room and areas where he received foreign dignitaries.

For many this is a Tibet travel experience that will not soon be forgotten. Potala Palace was the residence of former Dalai Lamas all the way back to the 5th. Over hundreds of years Potala’s interior has been ornately decorated: vibrantly colored and incredibly detailed paintings cover the walls and shelves of prayers books tower overhead. Travelers can see gold covered statues, shrines of unimaginable beauty, and even look upon the resting places of past Dalai Lamas. Incense fills the air and the glow of yak butter candles illuminates cultural treasures, creating a dream like atmosphere. As travelers are suspended in wonder and awe TCTS’s native Tibetan guides will help give a historical and cultural basis for understanding what they see.

Potala Palace is one of the most famous and important Tibet attractions. Visitors can enjoy a window into the past as they walk where Dalai Lamas and Tibetan kings have walked. TCTS will take care of making reservations for travel groups and provide a native Tibetan guide who can help introduce travelers to Tibetan history and culture as they tour Potala Palace. Whether taking time to explore Tibet extensively or only in Tibet for a short time this is a place that cannot be missed. Now that the Tibet travel season is in full swing, travelers are advised to start planning their visit to Potala as soon as possible! 

Perched upon The Marpo Ri hill, 130 meters above the Lhasa valley, the Potala Palace rises a further 170 meters and is the greatest monumental structure in all of Tibet. Early legends concerning the rocky hill tell of a sacred cave, considered to be the dwelling place of the Bodhisattva Chenresi (Avilokiteshvara), that was used as a meditation retreat by Emperor Songtsen Gampo in the seventh century AD. In 637 Songtsen Gampo built a palace on the hill.

The Potala Palace was inscribed to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1994. In 2000 and 2001, Jokhang Temple and Norbulingka were added to the list as extensions to the sites. Rapid modernisation has been a concern for UNESCO, however, which expressed concern over the building of modern structures immediately around the palace which threaten the palace's unique atmosphere.

The Chinese Putuo Zongcheng Temple, also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, built between 1767 and 1771, was in part modeled after the Potala Palace. The palace was named by the American television show "Good Morning America" and newspaper "USA Today" as one of the "New Seven Wonders".

History of Potala Palace

The former quarters of the Dalai Lama. The figure in the throne represents Tenzin Gyatso, the incumbent Dalai Lama.The site on which the Potala Palace rises is built over a palace erected by Songtsän Gampo on the Red Hill. The Potala contains two chapels on its the northwest corner that conserve parts of the original building. One is the Phakpa Lhakhang, the other the Chogyel Drupuk, a recessed cavern identified as Songtsän Gampo's meditation cave. Lozang Gyatso, the Great Fifth Dalai Lama, started the construction of the modern Potala Palace in 1645 after one of his spiritual advisers, Konchog Chophel (d. 1646), pointed out that the site was ideal as a seat of government, situated as it is between Drepung and Sera monasteries and the old city of Lhasa. The external structure was built in 3 years, while the interior, together with its furnishings took 45 years to complete.The Dalai Lama and his government moved into the Potrang Karpo ('White Palace') in 1649. Construction lasted until 1694, some twelve years after his death. The Potala was used as a winter palace by the Dalai Lama from that time. The Potrang Marpo ('Red Palace') was added between 1690 and 1694.

Architecture of Potala Palace

Built at an altitude of 3,700 m (12,100 ft), on the side of Marpo Ri ('Red Mountain') in the center of Lhasa Valley, the Potala Palace, with its vast inward-sloping walls broken only in the upper parts by straight rows of many windows, and its flat roofs at various levels, is not unlike a fortress in appearance. At the south base of the rock is a large space enclosed by walls and gates, with great porticos on the inner side. A series of tolerably easy staircases, broken by intervals of gentle ascent, leads to the summit of the rock. The whole width of this is occupied by the palace.

The central part of this group of buildings rises in a vast quadrangular mass above its satellites to a great height, terminating in gilt canopies similar to those on the Jokhang. This central member of Potala is called the "red palace" from its crimson colour, which distinguishes it from the rest. It contains the principal halls and chapels and shrines of past Dalai Lamas. There is in these much rich decorative painting, with jewelled work, carving and other ornament.

The White Palace

The White Palace or Potrang Karpo is the part of the Potala Palace that makes up the living quarters of the Dalai Lama. The first White Palace was built during the lifetime of the Fifth Dalai Lama and he and his government moved into it in 1649. It then was extended to its size today by the thirteenth Dalai Lama in the early twentieth century. The palace was for secular uses and contained the living quarters, offices, the seminary and the printing house. A central, yellow-painted courtyard known as a Deyangshar separates the living quarters of the Lama and his monks with the Red Palace, the other side of the sacred Potala, which is completely devoted to religious study and prayer. It contains the sacred gold stupas—the tombs of eight Dalai Lamas—the monks' assembly hall, numerous chapels and shrines, and libraries for the important Buddhist scriptures, the Kangyur in 108 volumes and the Tengyur with 225. The yellow building at the side of the White Palace in the courtyard between the main palaces houses giant banners embroidered with holy symbols which hung across the south face of the Potala during New Year festivals.

The Red Palace

The heart of the complex is the Red Palace (Potrang Marpo), painted a deep red and used primarily for religious purposes. Richly decorated with painting, jewelled work, carving and other ornament, it contains several shrines and the tombs of eight past Dalai Lamas. Before the tombs are precious votive offerings, including a pagoda made of 200,000 pearls.


Especially celebrated throughout the Red Palace is the fifth Dalai Lama, whose life story is depicted in murals. His mummified body rests inside a 50-foot stupa covered with four tons of gold and encrusted with semi-precious stones. In another chapel he is shown enthroned as an equal to the Buddha. Also impressive is the golden tomb-stupa of the last Dalai Lama, who made Tibet an independent country.

Potala Tour site sightseeing tips

The number of visitors to the palace was restricted to 1,600 a day in the previous years, with opening hours reduced to six hours daily to avoid over-crowding from 1 May 2003. The palace was receiving an average of 1,500 a day prior to the introduction of the quota, sometimes peaking to over 5,000 in one day. Visits to the structure's roof was banned after restoration works were completed in 2006 to avoid further structural damage. Visitorship quotas were raised to 2,300 daily to accommodate a 30% increase in visitorship since the opening of the Qingzang railway into Lhasa on 1 July 2006, but the quota is often reached by mid-morning. Opening hours were extended during the peak period in the months of July to September, where over 6,000 visitors would descend on the site. For the entrance ticket, tour agency has to book about 1 day in advance for a tour group and the fee is RMB 100 in low tour season but RMB 200 from May1 to Oct.31 since 2012.