Sunday, 31 July 2011

Preview: The Potala Palace

If the maiden will live forever
The wine will flow evermore.
The tavern is my haven;
With wine I am content

These are the words of the sixth Dalai Lama, Tsangyang Gyatso ("Ocean of Melodious Song"), around the start of the 18th Century. Plucked from his home as a five-year-old upon being acclaimed the reincarnation of his predecessor, Tsangyang was the leader of the Gelug branch of Tibetan Buddhism, responsible for promoting the teaching of Buddha and bringing followers closer to spiritual enlightenment. Except upon reaching his later teens, it became clear that his interests lay elsewhere.

If I could meditate upon the dharma
As intensely as I muse on my beloved
I would certainly attain enlightenment
Surely, in this one lifetime

Yes, the sixth Dalai Lama rather enjoyed his wine and women, and was a little less keen on his monastic studies and training as a good Dalai Lama. Just wanting a normal life, he shunned protocol and refused to have servants, and at night would creep out of his heavenly abode to hit the town.

I sought my lover at twilight
Snow fell at daybreak
Residing at the Potala
I am Rigzin Tsangyang Gyatso
But in the back alleys of Shol-town
I am rake and stud
Secret or not
No matter
Footprints have been left in the snow

Yes, the sixth Dalai Lama was Dalai Lama by day, secret lover at night, surely to the exasperation of his venerable and holy teachers. When meant to be listening to Buddhist mantra, instead he would be furtively writing poetry, very often about love. Lots and lots of poetry, that remains popular and acclaimed in Tibet to this day, as does Tsangyang himself as a folk hero.

Gyatso lived at the Potala Palace, the sprawling winter home of the Dalai Lamas since 1649, sitting atop Marpo Ri hill 3700 metres above sea level in the middle of Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, a modern province of the People's Republic of China. This 13-storey, 117.19m high palace dates way back to the 7th Century, when a great warrior king and unifier of Tibet called Songtsan Gambo built a palace to welcome his five prospective brides that were travelling from afar to marry him. This keenness to please became the birth of Tibetan Buddhism, as upon arrival and what I assume must have sometimes been a testing domestic situation, Gambo began building monasteries to spread his wives' religion. I bet it didn't stop the nagging, but at least it got him out of the house.

This was a brief period of light between the earlier unrecorded era and the 700 years of strife that followed, with Tibet torn to pieces by different political factions although always united by a common religion and language. The palace on Marpo Ri was left to ruin, but some parts survive on, now buried deep within the huge palace complex we see today.


This arose in the 17th Century, by order of the fifth Dalai Lama - the "Great Fifth" - who built it upon advice that it was in the ideal position as a seat of government. Work began on the first and larger part, the White Palace, in 1645 with the exterior being completed three years later and the interior taking a further forty-two years; the central part, the Red Palace, was built between 1690 and 1693. Corvee labour was used - tens of thousands of unpaid labourers working under the orders of a variety of aristocrats and officials, with a cosmopolitan crew of precisely 6743 craftsmen also used, according to historical records. Tibetan Buddhism now had an appropriately grand home.

And up until 1959, it remained their home. From the fifth to the fourteenth, the Dalai Lamas all woke, washed and slept in the Potala Palace, filling their days with religious devotion, studies and ceremonial duties. As homes go, it wasn't a bad one either. With over 1000 rooms and 10,000 shrines, there was certainly plenty of space to wander, and due to the structural alterations over the centuries plenty of opportunities to get pretty damn lost. For entertainment, with over 20,000 cases of books and scriptures and something in the region of 200,000 statues and endless amounts of historical and religious art, there was plenty to occupy the mind, so long as you were in a highbrow kind of mood. Being the highest point in Lhasa, the view was great, especially as the Dalai Lama's bedroom was on the top floor. The White Palace was used for the daily stuff, such as general administration, teaching, and eating (not to mention a prison being at the very bottom), with the Red Palace becoming a mausoleum for each successive Dalai Lama and being used for quiet prayer and study.

But in 1959, Tenzin Gyatso, the fourteenth and current Dalai Lama, age 23, had to wave goodbye to Potala Palace, when he disguised himself as a soldier and sneaked out of the country. With Tibetan rebel forces uprising after China having occupied for a century, and the Dalai Lama's position as a religious leader in a Communist regime where the leader, Chairman Mao Zedong, was on record as having said "Religion is poison", his situation had become increasingly perilous. Imprisonment/death or exile as his options, he chose exile, where he remains to this day, now age 75. The Potala Palace is now frozen in time as a museum, the Dalai Lama lives in Dharamshala in India, and the Chinese government have, with the predictable lunacy of totalitarian bureaucracies, have declared that they have the final say as to where people are reincarnated.

But at least the fourteenth Dalai Lama fared better than our poet friend, Tsangyang Gyatso, the sixth, whom the Chinese weren't much friendlier. Under attack from the ruling Mongol power, which had the full support of the Chinese emperor, he surrendered himself to prevent a massacre. En route to Beijing, he disappeared without trace, almost certainly murdered. His last poem, written just before his capture, went:

White crane!
Lend me your wings
I will not fly far
From Lithang, I shall return

Lithang was the town that his successor and reincarnation, the seventh Dalai Lama, was later found.

I'll be visiting Potala Palace in February, and will give a fuller account of the history and the building then, as well as my own impressions. I'll leave the poetry to the Dalai Lamas, I promise.

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