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Historic Ensemble of the Potala Palace, Lhasa

Updated: 2017-07-18 15:14:09

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Category of site: Cultural site

Brief introduction

The Potala Palace, winter palace of the Dalai Lama, has symbolized Tibetan Buddhism and its central role in the traditional administration of Tibet since the 7th century. The complex, made up of the White and Red Palaces with their ancillary buildings, is built on Red Mountain in the centre of Lhasa Valley, at an altitude of 3,700 meters. The Jokhang Temple Monastery founded in the 7th century is an exceptional Buddhist religious complex. Norbulingka, the Dalai Lama’s former summer palace, built in the 18th century, is a masterpiece of Tibetan art. The beauty and originality of the architecture of the Historic Ensemble of the Potala Palace, Lhasa, their rich ornamentation and harmonious integration in a striking landscape, add to their historic and religious interest.

Situated on Potala Mountain in Lhasa, capital of the Tibet autonomous region, the palace was first built in the 7th century, for the wedding of the Tibetan king Songtsan Gompo and Princess Wencheng of the Tang Empire. Since its completion, the palace has been expanded many times. In 1645, the 5th Dalai Lama was appointed by the government of the Qing Dynasty as the local temporal and religious leader of Tibet, and the palace was reconstructed. In 1653, the 5th Dalai Lama moved from Drepung Monastery to the palace. Thus the palace became the political center of Tibet.

The palace’s halls include worship and pagoda halls, the North Square, the South Square and the Dragon King Pond. The main building has 13 floors, with a height of some 110 meters and a width of about 360 meters. It is surrounded by eight temples, where there are tens of thousands of Buddhist statues. In the Buddhist Practice Cave are preserved the paintings of Songtsan Gompo and Wencheng made in the 7th century. Pagodas in the pagoda halls for each Dalai Lama are well built, in particular, the pagoda for the 5th Dalai Lama, which has a gold covering and is decorated with valuable jewels. Another important building is Qingsha, where the ministers for Tibetan affairs of the Qing Dynasty presided over the inauguration of the Dalai Lamas.

First built in 647, and located in the center of Lhasa city, the Jokhang Monastery is Tibet’s oldest wood-and-stone building in existence. With a total area of 25,100 sq m, the monastery consists of temples and scripture halls. The main Buddhist Hall has four stories, and the gilded copper statue of Sakyamuni brought by Princess Wencheng is still worshipped in its own hall. In front of the monastery stands a monument to the establishment of alliance relations between the Tang Dynasty and Tibet, and the willow tree planted by Princess Wencheng, They are historical evidence of over 1,000 years of friendship between the Han and Tibetan peoples. On the front of the monument is inscribed the history of the monument in both the Chinese and Tibetan languages, and the process and significance of the establishment of the alliance.

Norbulingka, the Dalai Lama’s former summer palace constructed in the 18th century, is situated on the bank of the Lhasa River about 2 km west of the Potala Palace in a lush green environment. It consists of a large garden with four palace complexes and a monastery as well as other halls, and pavilions all integrated into the garden layout to create an exceptional work of art covering 36 hectares. The property is closely related to religious and political issues, having been a place for contemplation and for signing political agreements.

The Potala Palace, Jokhang Temple Monastery and Norbulingka were added to the list respectively in 1994, 2000 and 2001.

Cultural heritage

The Historic Ensemble of the Potala Palace is an exceptional work of human imagination and creativity, in terms of its design, its decoration and its harmonious setting within a dramatic landscape. The three-in-one historic ensemble of the Potala Palace, with Potala the palace-fort complex, Norbulingka the garden residence and the Jokhang Temple Monastery the temple architecture, each with its distinctive characteristics, forms an excellent example of traditional Tibetan architecture.

The scale and artistic wealth of the Historic Ensemble of the Potala Palace, symbolizing the apogee of Tibetan architecture, make it an outstanding example of the last surviving theocratic architecture in the modern world. The palace is a model not only for its magnificent building, but also its delicate furnishings, including carvings and paintings

The Historic Ensemble of the Potala Palace forms a potent and outstanding symbol of the integration of secular and religious authority. The palace is the most successful structure integrating Tibetan Buddhism with palace buildings among dozens of Tibetan monumental buildings.

The palace used to be a center for both temporal and religious administration. It is closely connected with many important figures in the history of Tibet, such as Songtsan Gompo, Princess Wencheng and several generations of Dalai Lamas.

Tibetan Buddhism

Potala is a transliterated Sanskrit word. It is said that Tibetan Buddhists thought that Mt. Hongshan, the original name of the Potala Mountain, was as pure as Potaraka Mountain, the sacred place where Mother Buddha lived. So they renamed the mountain. When the palace was built, it was named after this sacred mountain.

Tibetan Buddhism believes in the doctrine of Three Realms, that is, the desire realm, the form realm and the form-free realm. The vertical layout of the Potala Palace - from the Red Palace on the very top to the White Palace at the bottom - corresponds to that Buddhist doctrine. Expanded size and striking contrast in layout fully demonstrate the power and dignity of Buddhism. The symbolic appearance of the palace indicates that only by detaching oneself from the secular world and converting to Buddhism can one reach the Heavenly Paradise.


Located in Bajiao Street, Lhasa, the Jokhang Monastery was first built in the middle of the 7th century. It is said that Lhasa was still a vast swampland when Princess Wencheng arrived. She found no Buddhist temple there, and had to set up her statue of Sakyamuni in a tent. By observing the terrain of Lhasa, the princess believed that the whole place was just like the figure of a female demon. In order to conquer this demon, the princess decided to fill in the swamp and build a large Buddhist temple. She hoped that the boundless power of Sakyamuni could bring stability and prosperity to the local people. Her proposal was actively supported by Songtsan Gompo. The king ordered the construction at once and he himself even did some of the labor. Two years later, the grand Jokhang Monastery was completed. As it attracted more and more monks, Lhasa became prosperous.

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