Commissioned by Dalai Lama V (17th c.), the Potala was built around the fortress of King Songtsen Gampo, which had stood on Mount Mapori for a millennium. "Potala" refers to a mountain in south India, the abode of Tibet's patron deity, Avalokitesvara (Chenresik). Both the ancient kings and the Dalai Lamas are said to be manifestations of this bodhisattva, feminized in the Chinese Buddhist pantheon as Guanyin, the goddess of mercy. A monastery, a palace, and a prison, it symbolizes the fusion of secular and religious power in Tibet. Early Tibetan temples, such as Samye Monastery, followed the Indian practice of modest locations, allowing temples to adhere to a mandala design. The Great Fifth, the last significant Dalai Lama before Dalai Lama XIII, was fond of imposing hilltop locations, making adherence to the mandala pattern impossible. Tibetologist Giuseppe Tucci saw the Potala as an "outgrowth of the rock underlying it, as irregular and whimsical as nature's work," and it was not a simple project. Podrang Marpo (Red Palace) was completed under the regent Desi Sangye Gyatso, 15 years after the then-Dalai Lama's death in 1682, and involved over 8,000 workers and artisans.
Most visitors enter the palace via the central staircase up to the Eastern Courtyard (Deyang Shar). Buildings are denoted numerically. You first reach the Eastern Apartments of the Dalai Lama XIV (3). Portraits of Dalai Lamas XIV and XIII once hung above the entrance, but they were removed in 1996. Inside the entrance is a splendid mural of Wutai Shan in northeast China, the earthly Pure Land of Manjusri, a bodhisattva who symbolizes wisdom. The simplicity of the present Dalai Lama's personal chambers, with prayer beads still resting by the bed, is moving, particularly for those who have met His Holiness. You next enter the Red Palace, the spiritual center and home to the remains of all the Dalai Lamas (except Dalai Lama VI, who was fonder of wenches than worship, and was eventually chased into exile by the Mongols). The throne room of Dalai Lama VII, Sasum Lhakang (6), contains an exquisite silver statue of Avalokitesvara and an inscription on the north wall, dated 1722, wishing that the Chinese emperor would reign for 10,000 years. The Kangxi emperor died in 1722. The most sacred chapel is Phakpa Lhakang (10), part of the original 7th-century palace and housing a "self-arising" image of Avalokitesvara. Even Chinese visitors are awed. As Tucci observed in the 1950s, "The crowds of pilgrims daily ascending the stairs of the Potala were a tangible proof of devotion. Rich or poor, dignitaries or peasants, they kneeled before each image: faith and ecstasy could be read on their faces. Holding copper pitchers full of clarified butter, they went to feed the temple lamps."
A meditation cave, Chogyel Drupuk (17), contains an image of Songtsen Gampo, with his Nepali and Chinese wives; it dates from the 7th or 8th century. The Dalai Lama V's death was kept secret for 12 years; his reliquary stupa is the most magnificent structure in the palace, with over 3,000 kilograms (6,600 lb.) of gold, encrusted in jewels, and disappearing into the darkness of Serdung Lhakang (21).
The Potala is firmly entrenched on Lhasa's must-see list, but it's hardly the most stalwart of structures, which has led authorities to limit the number of visitors per day to 2,500. Sounds like a lot, but if you come during one of the major Chinese holidays you'll struggle to get a ticket. Plans to build a museum housing the Potala's greatest treasures below the building and cease visits to the palace itself are as yet unsubstantiated.
Warning: Visits to the Potala are best made after you are accustomed to the altitude.