• Last Updated on Jun 28, 2024

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Constructed atop the majestic Mar-po-ri (Red Mountain), rising 130 meters (425 feet) above the Lhasa River valley, the Potala Palace stands as a symbol of Tibetan culture, spirituality, and architectural grandeur. As a tour organizer of Lhasa from the early days of my career, I have witnessed that Potala Palace is the awe and reverence that inspires visitors from around the world. This article delves into the rich history, architectural marvels, and profound spiritual significance of this monumental edifice.

Origins and Early History

The origins of the Potala Palace trace back to the 7th century when King Srong-brtsan-sgam-po commissioned the construction of the first palace on this site. Although significantly smaller and less elaborate than the present-day structure, the original palace was built as a meditation retreat and to celebrate his marriage to Princess Wencheng of the Tang Dynasty which laid the foundation for what would become a cornerstone of Tibetan heritage. The name "Potala" is believed to derive from Mount Potala in India, the mythical abode of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara (Chinese: Guanyin), who Tibetan Buddhists believe incarnates as the Dalai Lama.

The Fifth Dalai Lama and the Grand Reconstruction

In 1645, the fifth Dalai Lama, Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso, ordered the construction of the current Potala Palace. This decision was driven by the need to create a residence that could accommodate his dual roles as a spiritual leader and head of the Tibetan government. The construction, completed in 1648, resulted in the Potrang Karpo (White Palace), which served as the main residence of the Dalai Lama and the seat of the Tibetan government. In 1694, the Potrang Marpo (Red Palace) was completed, housing several chapels, sacred statues, and the tombs of eight Dalai Lamas, thus solidifying the Potala’s status as a religious and administrative center.

Architectural Brilliance

The Potala Palace is an architectural masterpiece that spans 13 square kilometers (5 square miles) and boasts over 1,000 rooms. Its design reflects a blend of Tibetan and Chinese architectural styles, featuring massive stone walls, intricate woodwork, and gold-plated roofs. The White Palace contains the living quarters, offices, and seminar rooms of the Dalai Lama, while the Red Palace is dedicated to religious study and prayer, with numerous chapels, shrines, and libraries.

Among the most sacred rooms are the Chogyal Drubphuk and Phakpa Lhakhang, remnants of the original 7th-century palace. The Phakpa Lhakhang houses the revered Arya Lokeshvara statue, a focal point for pilgrimages. The palace complex also contains more than 200,000 statues and 10,000 altars, each a testament to the profound spiritual devotion embedded within its walls.

The Potala’s Spiritual Significance

For centuries, the Potala Palace has been a major pilgrimage site for Tibetan Buddhists. The Dalai Lama, regarded as the incarnation of Avalokiteshvara, imbues the palace with deep spiritual significance. Pilgrims from across Tibet and beyond journey to the Potala to pay homage, seek blessings, and immerse themselves in the sacred atmosphere.

The palace’s location was chosen for its proximity to the three main Buddhist monasteries in Lhasa—Sera, Drepung, and Ganden—further cementing its role as a spiritual hub. The elevated position of Mar-po-ri provides not only strategic defense but also a symbolic elevation, reflecting the spiritual ascent that pilgrims aspire to achieve.

Preservation and Modern Recognition

Despite the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution, the Potala Palace was spared significant damage, thanks to the recognition of its cultural and historical value by China’s Cultural Relics Commission. In 1994, UNESCO designated the Potala Palace as a World Heritage site, acknowledging its outstanding universal value. Subsequently, the Jokhang Temple and the Norbuglingka (the Dalai Lama’s former summer residence) were also added to the World Heritage site list in 2000 and 2001, respectively.

Inside the Potala Palace

The interior of the Potala Palace is as impressive as its exterior, filled with intricate artwork, ancient relics, and sacred spaces.

• The Great West Hall: This is the largest hall within the Red Palace, covering an area of 725 square meters. The walls are adorned with intricate murals depicting historical events and Buddhist teachings. The hall serves as a space for important religious ceremonies.

• The Golden Tombs: These are stupas containing the remains of previous Dalai Lamas, elaborately decorated with precious metals and stones. The tomb of the Fifth Dalai Lama is particularly notable for its lavish adornment with over 3,700 kilograms of gold.

• The Assembly Hall: Located in the Red Palace, this hall is used for religious gatherings and is adorned with statues of Buddha, religious texts, and intricate wood carvings.

• Private Apartments of the Dalai Lama: These rooms, located in the White Palace, offer a glimpse into the daily life of the Dalai Lama. They are furnished with traditional Tibetan furniture and decorated with thangkas (Buddhist paintings on cloth) and other religious artifacts.

How to Get There

Reaching the Potala Palace involves traveling to Lhasa, the capital city of Tibet.

• By Air: Lhasa Gonggar Airport is the main gateway for air travel, with flights connecting to major cities in China such as Beijing, Chengdu, and Xi'an. From the airport, it's about a 60-kilometer drive to the city center. Alternatively, you can get into Tibet from Kathmandu with a connective Lhasa Flight.

• By Train: The Qinghai-Tibet Railway offers a scenic and unique journey to Lhasa, with routes starting from cities like Beijing, Shanghai, and Xining. The train ride provides stunning views of the Tibetan Plateau.

• By Road: Lhasa is accessible by road from other parts of Tibet and neighboring provinces, though the journey can be long and challenging due to the rugged terrain. From Kathmandu, you can drive to the Kyriong Border, follow immigration, and Drive to Lhasa via Saga, Shigatse, and Gyantse.

We can get you to Potala Palace with various options in our Tibet Tour Packages or you can message us your requirements.


The Potala Palace is more than an architectural wonder; it is a living testament to the enduring spirit of Tibetan Buddhism and culture. Its towering presence, historical depth, and spiritual significance make it a beacon of Tibetan identity and a symbol of resilience. As someone who has spent a lifetime exploring and explaining its many facets, I am continually amazed by the Potala’s ability to inspire and enlighten all who visit its hallowed halls.

Sameer Bhatta

Sameer Bhatta

Sameer Bhatta is a young, innovative character who inspire to travel and explore beyond limits, providing everyone with tons of travel information and updates, and also has a strong grasp of research and technology.