Dalai Lama's Potala retains magic despite urban boom

By Rafael Canas

The number of daily visitors to the historic palace was limited to 1500 before 2006, but now it receives around 5000 a day.

Potala towers more than 300 metres over the Lhasa river valley. Photo / 123RF
Potala towers more than 300 metres over the Lhasa river valley. Photo / 123RF

Potala, the historic palace of the Dalai Lama in Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, retains its magic despite a tourism boom and urbanisation.

The building, whose origins date back to the seventh century — although much of the construction dates back to the 17th century - presides over Lhasa from the Red Hill and towers more than 300 metres over the Lhasa river valley.

The building has 13 storeys and measures 400 metres from east to west and 350 from north to south, with some thousand rooms spread over 400,000 square metres, of which only 130,000 square meters are currently in use.

The palace that served as the winter residence of the Dalai Lama till the current Dalai Lama went on exile in 1959, is divided into a "White palace" and "Red Palace".

The White Palace houses the private residences of the Dalai Lama, administrative offices and other units, while the Red Palace was exclusively dedicated to religious activities, mainly studies and prayers.

Tourists are allowed to visit the private quarters of the Dalai Lama, such as his office, the meeting rooms and study, except for his bedroom, and photography is strictly prohibited.

In the religious section, one can see sarcophagi and funerary monuments of the last eight Dalai Lamas.

Certain walls, dating back to the seventh century, bear testimony to innumerable historic incidents, while one room houses more than 3700 small gold Buddha statues, donated by pilgrims and visitors.

The rooms and corridors in the palace display the Tibetan tradition of coffered ceilings and columns of carved wood, and everything (doors, ceilings, walls and beams) painted and decorated in geometric patterns.

The Potala palace was declared a UNESCO heritage site in 1994, but the organisation has had disputes with China regarding successive renovations that were required to preserve a monument constructed mainly of stone and wood and subject to extreme temperatures.

The number of daily visitors to the palace was limited to 1500 before 2006, but now it receives around 5000 a day. Photo / 123RF
The number of daily visitors to the palace was limited to 1500 before 2006, but now it receives around 5000 a day. Photo / 123RF

Chinese authorities claim that the restoration work has been conducted with materials that were used in the original construction, and had said there won't be any high-rise constructions in its vicinity, although a giant communication tower looms over it on a nearby hill to the west of the palace.

The palace looks beautiful in the night as it is completely illuminated but heavy lighting from the tower often interferes with the view.

However, the main problem for Potala is perhaps overcrowding; although the annual number of visitors is not disclosed, during peak season, from July to September, around 5000 tourists visit daily.

The number of daily visitors to the palace was limited to 1500 before 2006, when the Beijing-Lhasa train was inaugurated and tourism picked up in the region.

From less than four million tourists in 2005, the region is expecting 24 million this year.

From the palace, one can also see the plaza known as the Monument of Peaceful Liberation of Tibet — which is how China refers to its 1951 occupation — that bears posters of Chinese President Xi Jinping and political slogans.

Meanwhile, in the outskirts, Lhasa is growing at an accelerated pace, with plenty of housing developments — mostly high-rise buildings — and although some of them have Tibetan architecture or designs, they are more reminiscent of concrete explosion in other Chinese cities.

According to official figures, the population of Lhasa has increased 26 per cent in the last 15 years, reaching 600,000, mainly due to migration from villages and cities and from other regions of China.

- AAP

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