We begin our discovery. If you have any knowledge of Tibet, then your most visual cue is the Potala Palace. Today it is a UNESCO World Heritage site which is leased from China and acts primarily as a museum for Tibetan culture. Resting on top of “Red Hill” overlooking Lhasa, it was first the site of the king in the mid-seventh century. It actually was the 5th Dalai Lama who decided to move the seat of his Gelugpa government to this site and work began on the White Palace in 1645. It was completed in 3 years with 9 stories. The accompanying Red Palace was not completed for 12 more years and the 5th Dali Lama’s death was concealed until it was completed and he was buried there.
Since construction the Potala has been the home of each of the successive Dali Lamas. The opening of the Norbulingka summer place in the late 18th century, changed the Potala’s occupancy to only a winter residence. It was the seat of the Tibetan government as well as its religious functions – self contained.
It suffered both in the 1959 uprising and the Cultural Revolution although Zhou Enlai, the Chines premier, is said to have protected it during the Revolution. It reopened in 1980 and completed with US $4 Million in 1995.
It is 13 stories, housing 1000 rooms, numerous chapels, and tombs of previous Dali Lamas. Since the public opening of the Potala, areas have been systematically shut down for repair and/or safety reasons. There are about 20 rooms currently open for viewing. The monks are given a stipend to watch over the building, there is a fire division on-site, and the police.
We had tickets for a 10:40 but spent over an hour in line following our appointed time. Many pilgrims, country people, Chinese visitors and other foreigners were waiting. The upper levels of the building have some very narrow passages and with the number of people moving through the darkened halls it is a challenge for navigation. Still it is amazing to see the sheer wealth in the number of statutes, holy elements, clothing, and written teachings used by the monks for study, chanting, etc.
Leaving the grounds, we moved on to the Sera Monastery, founded in 1419. It originally consisted of an Assembly Hall, 3 colleges and 33 houses. At its peak, 5000 monks were in residence here, now several hundred remain. It is thought to be the 2nd largest monastery in Tibet, although in much disrepair.
We had lunch in the monk’s cafeteria and then walked its grounds.
The monks regularly practice their learning in a form of open debate on the monastery grounds. It is part drama with shouting and slapping of the hands and part serious digging for the appropriate questions for answers.