Thursday, October 16, 2008

A Palace fit for a King

Perched on a rocky upcraging in the middle of the city, standing as a constant reminder of Tibet's culture and, to many, it's struggles, is the Potala Palace (not to be confused with the Polenta Palace, a great northern Italian restaurant on 5th and Main). The building holds itself 13 stories high, but resting on the only rocky upwelling in the otherwise flat river valley the palace appears to be a 30, which for a building largely erected in the 1600's makes it the original skyscraper. Inside, the building houses a stunning collection of Buddhas, Mandalas and countless reliquaries stocked with dazzling delights. My visit was a glimpse into one of the fascinating times when a society rallied around a common cause during a time of prosperity to create something lasting and beautiful.

The most impressive part of the compound, the Red Palace, was constructed to house the numerous relics, tombs and texts of the Dali Lamas. The centerpiece of the structure is a grand meeting hall, where the Dali Lama could meet with a large collection of monks. Interestingly, most of these large halls were much darker than I expected, lit only from above on perhaps two sides, as there were no windows at ground level.

Other rooms house hundreds of small statues, donated by the people of Tibet for hundreds of years. The immense wealth of the Dali Lama and his government (most of the statues in the Palace were carted away by the Chinese when they invaded in 1949, only a fraction of the original treasure remains), was almost exclusively donated by the people of Tibet as a means of resolving family disputes. Rather than giving a precious stone or sculpture to one son instead of another, Tibetans would give any precious artifacts to the temples and monasteries when they died. As an added bonus if someone prayed to Buddha using the statue you gave, some of the prayers would rub off on you too!

Yet the finest display of the accumulated wealth was in the burial stupas (tombs) of the 5th-9th Dali Lamas. These tombs, roughly contemporary to Napoleon's in Europe (the earliest, biggest and most impressive was constructed about 1690), are the most elaborate funerary structures I've ever seen. Towers of gilded gold covered in rare and precious stones stand upon golden lion-like demons, housing the remains of these holy men. Truly wondrous burial monuments are rare in this world, but this palace holds some of them. The picture here isn't from the Potala Palace, because photography is forbidden, but is instead the stupa of the 10th Panchen Lama in the Tashilhunpo Monastary in Shigatse.
Across from the Red Palace is the White Palace, or the living quarter of the Dali Lama. Though only a small portion is open for viewing, visitors are afforded the chance to see the reception room, where the Dali Lama would receive visitors and confer with is officials. The room is splashed with colors everywhere, from the paintings on the support beams to the brightly colored prayer cushions to the bright yellow hat which sits waiting for the Dali Lama's return. The crowds shuffle through the room, pushing ever onward (as the Chinese are wont to do) without offering the faculty to look around and admire the incredible detail and beauty the room bestows. It is one of the rare rooms we stand in knowing full well that important events in history were decided at our feet.

The palace is a beautiful place, its white and red walls towering above the city. It is market by a combination of history, which surrounds every room, and intense relevance evidenced by the pilgrims who still bring yak butter to fill the candles in the chapels with on their pilgrimage to Lhasa. From the first time I'd ever seen it on TV, watching a documentary of the far off wonders of the world, I was fascinated by the awesome aura that seemed to be emitted by the building, which I now feel fortunate enough to have seen first hand.

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