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Potala tallest ancient palace

Almost no visitor in Lhasa would leave the capital of Tibet Autonomous Region without a deep impression of the towering and stately Potala Palace.

Sitting on the Marpo Ri, or Red Hill, more than 3,750 meters above sea level, the 110-meter-high, 13-story Potala is the tallest ancient palace complex in the world.

Stretching more than 360 meters east to west and 350 meters north to south, the complex covers a total area of more than 130,000 square meters and contains several thousand rooms and shrines. So, Potala Palace also is one of the largest of its kind in the world.

Such a grand construction is said to have been built without a blueprint. It is composed of palaces, castles and temples erected in different ages.

Construction of Potala Palace first began under the rule of Songtsan Gampo (AD 617-650), the 33rd ruler of the Tibetan Empire, when he moved the empire’s capital to Lhasa. The palace was then called Red Hill Palace, the new political center of Tibet.

However, according to some Chinese historians, Potala Palace was originally dedicated to mark Songtsan Gampo’s marriage with Princess Wencheng from China’s Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), and it was used as a symbol of friendship between the ethnic Han and Tibetan peoples.

In AD 634, Songtsan Gampo sent an envoy to the Tang imperial court to express his intention to marry one of the Han princesses, but the proposal was refused.

In the following years, the Tibetan ruler launched several attacks against towns under Tang rule and won a few battles. But in the autumn of AD 638, he suffered a fiasco at the hands of Tang troops.

So, again, he sent an envoy to the Tang court asking for a marriage with a Chinese princess as a gesture of peace and reconciliation.

This time, Songtsan Gampo’s request was granted by Tang Emperor Taizong. Princess Wencheng, one of the Tang emperor’s nieces, was picked as the bride. She spent one year on the road and arrived in Lhasa in AD 640. Princess Wencheng not only helped spread advanced technologies and Han culture to Tibet, but also, together with Nepalese Princess Bhrikuti, introduced Buddhism to the region. And under the influence of the two princesses, Songtsan Gampo himself later became a follower of Buddhism.

In addition to Potala Palace, Songtsan Gampo also built the Jokhang Temple and the Ramoche Temple in Lhasa as shrines for Buddhist statues and sutras the two princesses had taken to Tibet.

After Songtsan Gampo passed away in AD 650 and particularly after the fall of the Tibetan Empire in the 9th century, most parts of Potala Palace were ruined in wars and natural disasters such as lightning strikes. At one time, the remnants of the palace were managed by Jokhang Temple as one of its branches.

It was not until the 17th century that Potala Palace began to undergo reconstruction during the reign of the Fifth Dalai Lama. The first phase of the reconstruction took nearly 50 years. Then, the Dalai Lama and his government moved into the White Palace in 1649.

The reconstruction continued until 1694, 12 years after the death of the Fifth Dalai Lama. And then, it was used a winter palace for the Dalai Lama.

The rebuilt palace consisted of two parts, namely, the White Palace and the Red Palace. The former was the home of the Dalai Lama and contained offices of his government, and the latter served as the house of prayer for the Dalai Lama.

The western part of the palace also contains the mummified body of the Fifth Dalai Lama.

Together with Jokhang Temple and Norbulingka, also an ancient palace in Lhasa, Potala Palace was included in the World Heritage List by UNESCO in 1994. Today it attracts thousands of visitors yearly, not only for its majestic architecture, but also as the Holy Temple of the Tibetan people and the sanctum of Tibetan Buddhism.

脊饰 (jí shì) roof-ridge ornament

For more than 2,000 years, Chinese architecture, especially palaces, temples and mansions, have featured a rich variety of roof-ridge ornaments.

Made of glazed or color-coated clay, wood or ceramic objects, most such ornaments are in zoomorphic shapes, such as fish, birds, horses, tigers and monkeys. They also include imaginary animals like the dragon, phoenix and unicorn-like qilin.

The ornaments not only add great beauty to those buildings, but also symbolize the hopes of the builders and owners for protection, harmony, prosperity and happiness.

Potala Palace’s roof-ridge ornaments fully reflect its unique architectural style, a perfect integration of the Han and Tibetan cultures and that of a temple and a palace.

For instance, in addition to the traditional Chinese zoomorphic ornaments, Potala Palace’s roof-ridge ornaments also include Buddhist symbols of the Dharmacakra (also known as the Wheel of Dharma or the Wheel of Law) surrounded by a pair of kneeling deer, Dharani pillars (usually stone pillars inscribed with Buddhist scriptures) and animal heads with long noses and tusks, which originally came from India.


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