Potala Palace in Tibet

Tibet - Lhasa - Potala Palace 2

Tibet - Lhasa - Potala Palace 2 by McKay Savage. Sourced via Flickr under Creative Commons Attribution License.

The Potala Palace, Jokhang Temple and Norbulingka are three famous sites in the city of Lhasa, Tibet, China. They are, together, inscribed as a world heritage site by the UNESCO. Of the three, the Potala Palace has become the iconic image of Tibet. The extreme remoteness of Lhasa creates even more mystic for those courageous enough to brave the altitude sickness that frequents visitors to this Himalayan sanctuary.

The Potala Palace was the one time home of the Dalai Lama of Tibet. It was both the religious center and also the government centre. However, the Palace has not been used for the later purpose since the Dalai left Lhasa to live in exile, over the border in India. The palace is still used for religious purposes and is a major centre for the teaching of Tibetan Buddhism.

The Palace building is constructed in the centre of Lhasa, on a hill known as Marpo Re (The Red Hill). It consists of 13 stories which rise 117 metres above the summit of the hill. The total hill and building together rise over 300 metres above the surrounding city. The palace measures 400 metres east to west and 350 metres north to south. The walls slope inwards with height and have an average thickness of 3 metres and are 5 metres thick at the base. The foundations are re-enforced with copper, supposedly to protect against earthquakes which are common in the area. Within the palace are over 1,000 rooms, 10,000 shrines and about 200,000 statues.


The site on top of Marpo Re was first used by King Songtsen Gampo who build a palace there in order to receive his bride Princess Wen Cheng who was from China. This was in the year 637 AD during China's Tang Dynasty period.

Construction of the current Potala Palace began in the year 1645 AD, under Lozang Gyatso, the Great Fifth Dalai Lama. It had been seen by his adviser, Konchog Chophel, that the site was ideal for the seat of government as it was between the Drepang and Sera monasteries and within Lhasa city. The Dalai Lama and his government took residence in the Potrang Karpo (White Palace) of the Potala in 1649. The Potrang Marpo (Red Palace) was added to the Potala between 1690 and 1694. Construction of the whole palace was completed in 1694. The Potala was used by subsequent Dalai Lamas as a winter palace until the present Dalai's exile to India.

The palace was slightly damaged in 1959 by Chinese artillery during the Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule. It escaped the worst ravages of the Cultural Revolution, which destroyed or damaged much of China's historical sites, through the direct intervention of Premier Zhou Enlai. However, almost all of the 100,000 plus volumes of scriptures, historical documents and other works of are were removed, damaged or destroyed during that time.

In 1994, the Potala Palace was inscribed in the UNESCO world heritage list. Concern has be expressed about the modernisation of the surroundings. The government has ruled that buildings taller than 21 metres are not allowed in the area, so as to preserve the look and feel of the palace area. Several restorations have been undertaken to keep the palace in a good state of repair. From 1989 to 1994, 55 million RMB was spent restoring the palace. In 2002, work commenced with a restoration budget of 180 million RMB. The palace's director, Qiangba Gesang ensured that only traditional materials and craftsmanship were used.

Tourist Access

The palace is a large site. Most guided tours of Lhasa include the palace and may allow 1 hour for visiting. However, the size and height of the area require much more time than that to fully appreciate the building. Visitors should ensure they have been fully acclimatized to the Tibetan altitude before visiting as the 13 story building and the similar height of steps leading up the outside of the hill, are exhausting. Entry to the palace complex costs 100 RMB. The number of visitors is restricted to just 2,300 tickets per day. These often sell out by mid morning, so it is important to go early if you wish to go inside.

Map showing location of Potala Palace in Tibet

Above: Location of Potala Palace in Tibet in Lhasa, Tibet, China