Decline of the Potala Palace

Is it necessary to describe the Potala Palace? This great architecture, like a thousand beams of light illuminating the ancient city of Lhasa, is seen as the symbol of Tibet by people throughout the world. Straddling the peak of Marpo Ri at the centre of the Lhasa Valley, whether by its appearance or in the eye of the beholder, it holds an irresistible attraction. At the beginning of the twentieth century, an English correspondent who entered the rooftop of the world with armed troops invading Tibet, seeing the Potala Palace from a distance “like flames shining brilliantly under the sun,” sighed with emotion: “This is not a palace sitting on top of a mountain; it is a mountain of a palace.”

One thousand three hundred years ago the Potala Palace had already taken on its citadel shape during the period of Tibetan King Songtsen Gampo; in 1642 the Fifth Dalai Lama established the Ganden Phodang authority and unified the country, becoming the highest religious and secular leader in all of Tibet. Another of his great achievements was to build the Potala Palace on the site which — according to Buddhist sutras — was where Avalokitesvara preached his sermons. Since then the magnificent Potala has been the political and religious centre of Tibetan theocracy, and its sacred status lasted until 1959.

Once upon a time this song was written and became popular among Tibetans:

On the golden roof of the Potala, rises the golden sun
It is not the golden sun, but the precious face of the Lama

On the slopes of the Potala, starts the sound of the golden oboe
It is not the sound of the golden oboe, but the voice of the Lama chanting

At the foot of the Potala, multi-hued khatak are fluttering
They are not multi-hued khatak, but the robes of the Lama

It is obvious to everyone that the Lama glorified in the song is none other than the Dalai Lama, for Tibetans the embodiment of Avalokitesvara, worshipped by Tibetans living in the snow land. But, 1959 arrived. Late in the night of 17 March, the Dalai Lama was forced to escape from another of his palaces, the Norbulingka. Two days later, in the midst of unprecedented shelling of Lhasa, the Norbulingka and the Potala Palace were turned into killing fields, silent witnesses to this earthshaking event in Tibetan history. A soldier from the People’s Liberation Army who took part in “pacifying armed rebels in Tibet” recalls that the PLA’s 308 Artillery Regiment, which had been stationed for years at the foot of Bumpa Ri on the far bank of the Lhasa River, had long been targeting several howitzers at the Potala Palace. So finally, during the “pacification of the rebellion”, every single shell was shot precisely through the red-framed windows edged in black and exploded inside the palace. Yet, a onetime “rebellious villain” of that era recalls that they gave up on their resistance just because they could no longer bear those demon-like shells damaging the Tse Potala. Therefore, in some surviving photos and documentaries we can see “rebellious villains” walking down from the smoke-blackened Potala, holding white khatak above them, to surrender their weapons to the Liberation Army who were “liberating” Tibet. (Actually this scene was filmed after the “pacifying rebellion”; those captives who were marched back to the Potala to re-enact the scene were then all thrown in jail).

The Potala Palace has been an empty building since then.

In the years that followed, the Potala was no longer the centre; it has been turned into a backdrop by the occupiers in each period and for each situation. It’s a backdrop of unlimited interest, a must-have backdrop, but also a backdrop which is a mystery to people. The Potala has never been, with the changing of time and space, so colourful, so odd, and even helpless and sad, as it has been during this half century.

Backdrop to revolution

At first the new offices and dormitory buildings of the government, and the assembly hall called “The Cultural Palace of Working People”, were built on the vast meadows, parks, and swamps in front of the Potala. All these buildings looked exactly like a military camp, without any sense of beauty. Furthermore, as described in the songs of those revolutionary singers, Lhasa had by then “been connected” with Beijing. Every political movement that started thousands of miles away in Beijing would be energetically responded to in Lhasa, often with the same zeal and excitement. Since The Cultural Palace of Working People could no longer hold the thousands of “liberated serfs” who’d been mobilized, the location to stage 100,000-person assemblies had to shift into the open, still with the silent Potala Palace as its backdrop.

In 1966 the red terror and madness of the Cultural Revolution swept across Tibet. Under the call of Mao Zedong to “destroy the old and launch the new”, one after another monasteries were damaged, one after another stupas were toppled, one after another statues of buddhas were crushed, one after another stacks of scriptures were burned to ash: even the Potala Palace — being scathingly denounced as “one of the feudal castles of the head of the three feudal lords who cruelly oppressed the working class people” — nearly met a disastrous fate. Its survival was because throughout the vast Qinghai-Tibet plateau there is no other more suitable backdrop than the Potala Palace. It’s probably for the same reason that, although the Norbulingka was re-named “People’s Park”, and although someone suggested re-naming the Potala Palace “The Red Palace of the East”, the Potala still retained its old name which is also a primary asset for the backdrop. Revolution needs targets; revolution needs backdrops. With the five-star flag raised over the Potala Palace, and with the portrait of Mao hung high on its facade, a New Tibet of “changed world” is born. Therefore the effect of the Potala as a backdrop is incomparable.

However, while being extolled as “the true treasure of Tibet”, the Potala was almost robbed empty. According to the records, over a hundred thousand volumes of scriptures and historical documents were amassed in the Potala Palace, many of which were written with powders of gold, silver, turquoise and coral; also, there were many storerooms for housing precious objects, handicrafts, paintings, wall hangings, statues and ancient armour, etc., from the various eras of Tibetan history, all perfectly preserved. Everything was priceless. Yet, nearly nothing remains in the Potala Palace where flourishing art and treasure was once collected. Those precious, those superlative, those countless and those priceless objects, all that could be taken was taken away, leaving behind only those heavy stupas because the relics of Dalai Lamas of eight generations preserved in the stupas were of no use to the atheists; leaving behind only the mural paintings, though they too were painted red and quotations from Mao were written on them; leaving behind only those immovable statues and mandalas and some thangkas and ritual objects, to be displayed solely as decoration; leaving behind only the appearance of the Potala Palace which — while still looking magnificent — was almost an empty shell.

A real story can be proof. In 1988, a budget of US$5 million was allocated by the Chinese government to renovate the Potala Palace for the first time. At the ceremony launching the renovation, an official from the finance department repeatedly emphasized that, despite the central government having financial difficulties, they still tightened their belts to allocate a large amount to Tibet. Meanwhile, Ngabo Ngawang Jigme, vice-chairman of the National People’s Congress, the only high official from Old Tibet accepted by the Chinese Communist regime, the well-known political vessel, made this remark: “Since the nation has its difficulties, we shouldn’t ask money from the central government. There’s a storeroom called Namsay Bangzod in the Potala where a large quantity of gold and jewels was deposited annually from the time of the Fifth Dalai Lama. This never stopped for over three hundred years, nor was it used. So let’s just open the storeroom today and use the treasure there to renovate the Potala Palace. That would be more than sufficient.” In fact, this storeroom had been emptied, nothing was left there. It is said that Ngabo knew this fact. He just deliberately made this remark. So, someone responded immediately: “The storeroom has already been emptied. So, how could there be gold and jewels? They were all taken away by the nation and transferred to national exchequers in Shanghai, Tianjin and Gansu.” Then the official from the finance department stopped talking and kept quiet.

Forget about the material loss, the Potala Palace — used only for the purpose of a backdrop — has been heavily painted with the colours of ideology. No matter whether to criticize “the darkest, the most reactionary, the most barbaric, the most cruel” Old Tibet, or to eulogize the “brilliant” New Tibet, the Potala Palace is needed for performances of this kind; as a result the revolutionary stage simply sits at the foot of the Potala.

For instance, the once very popular “Revolution Exhibition Hall of Tibet”, in order to show “all sorts of astonishing atrocities committed under the old system”, dramatically displayed more than a hundred extremely tragic sculptures, augmented with music and captions, dioramas of unbearable misery designed to provoke anger in visitors. In 1976, China Reconstructs, the magazine created to publicize achievements of the New China to foreigners, commented on the exhibition: “As soon as one pushes open the black curtain of the hall, one enters a hell-on-earth of Old Tibet.”

In addition to an exhibition hall there is a square, exactly the site needed for the revolution. The bigger the square the higher the excitement at gatherings of what is called the “ocean of the masses”. The effect thus produced is unique. Hence the scale of the square kept on expanding; hence the village of Shol — once situated below the Potala Palace — with its traditional houses and their typical Tibetan lifestyle and customs, was demolished in 1995. The thirtieth anniversary of the founding of Tibet Autonomous Region was celebrated on the “Potala Square”, constructed with a huge allocation of money. This “Great Celebrating Project” was one of the sixty-two “Aid Tibet Projects”; very huge, inappropriate, and out of proportion. Moreover, right at the centre of the square a platform was built, an imitation of the national flag platform on Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Since then, whenever nationwide political holidays are celebrated, the flag-raising ceremony is held here by fully-armed soldiers.

Due to construction of the new square, the exhibition hall also fell under the relocation; it had completed its historic mission and it’s said that the hall is due for reconstruction. The Tibet Museum, which was built in 1999, having the Norbulingka in front of it and the Potala Palace to its rear, is located exactly between those two historic landmarks. The purpose of the museum is to display Tibet’s history and culture through thousands of antiques and works of art, yet it cannot be compared with the Potala Palace. But, even though there’s no revolutionary exhibition hall, there is a revolutionary memorial, the one called “The Memorial to the Liberation of Tibet” erected on the square in 2002 and directly facing the Potala Palace. It claims to be “an abstract representation of Mount Everest”, yet it has no sense of beauty at all; on the contrary it looks more like a shell being shot into the sky, deeply piercing the hearts of Tibetans. It is exactly as the Czech writer, Klima, observed: The goal of building memorials is “to evoke people’s loyalty towards the ruler,” but the armed soldiers guarding the square are a stronger warning, all the time intensifying the real situation of the Potala or that of Tibet.

The square’s unlimited potential for fame and profit

Of course, nowadays the Potala Palace is no longer merely being used as a political symbol. Because of the changing times, because of the Western Development Program, and because “development is the absolute rationale”, the world-renowned Potala Palace has become — as it’s described in the hip lingo of advertisements — a mine of “unlimited commercial opportunities”. The place where once-upon-a-time were gathered the Great Religious King and many high lamas, the centre where the power of secular and religious leaders was concentrated, has now become a tourist site like a bustling market. Deyang Shar, where the sacred and mysterious religious dances used to be performed, is now full of tourists yelling, shouting, and having their photos taken as they wish. While the fragrant smoke of incense lingers, the atmosphere in the most sacred halls is no longer quiet and solemn; tourists, pointing their fingers at everything, brush shoulders with pilgrims carrying their butter lamps. In several rooms marked as the “White Palace” in tourist pamphlets, one can hear the voices of tour guides everywhere reciting in Chinese, English, and other languages: “This was where Dalai chanted, this was where Dalai slept, this was where he ate, this was where he met with his guests, this is his radio, this is his tea cup.” This is similar to what happens in the newly-opened Takten Mingyur Palace in the Norbulingka, where everyone can tour through the secrets of someone else’s life by simply spending a few yuan for the entrance ticket and can even make uninhibited comments. “The dignity of the past has all gone.” On a visit to Tibet in 1979, Lobsang Samten, elder brother of the Dalai Lama, made this heartbroken remark as he looked at the Potala Palace — still shining brilliantly under the sun, but not the same as before.

According to a report of 2003, in recent years the Potala has received over half a million tourists and pilgrims annually, around 1,500 per day on average, and the number is increasing at the speed of twenty percent. Even though the entrance fee has been raised to over US$12, the highest record of visitors has been up to 5,000 on a single day. The pressure generated by such a heavy flow of people has made the Potala Palace — constructed from clay, timber and stone — sag, various parts of the structure have cracked and even collapsed. Even though there’s a new regulation that within the four morning opening hours there are no more than fifty visitors every twenty minutes, and fifty visitors every half hour during the two- and-a-half hours in the afternoon, even by doing this the number of visitors is still as high as 850. The Potala Palace is on mobile phone advertisements, on 50-renminbi currency notes, on MTV, and on T-shirts … the Potala Palace has even been miniaturized into models made from very cheap materials for use as window displays in hotels, restaurants, and shops, decorating the vulgar landscape of this commodity-driven society controlled by ideology. Like this the Potala Palace, through such a process of being endlessly reproduced, has been thrown down into the world of mortals from the heights of heaven.

In this world of mortals, all kinds of political slogans — “An Open Tibet Welcomes You!” “Creating An Excellent Market Environment” or “Oppose Splittism; Unify the Motherland” — appear one after another on the high walls around the Potala Palace. As for the square in front of the palace, it has been put to use in more ways. In order to display gradually “modernized” New Tibet, either real estate promotions and car exhibitions are held, or various kinds of commercial fairs are organized here. Sleek, sexy girls in Tibetan dress — though not necessarily Tibetans — are enthusiastically promoting the sale of real estate in far away Chengdu or Chongqing, and various models of sedans and SUVs; amidst yelling and shouting, the daily necessities from inland China are hawked at double their price, some of which are bad quality fakes. Furthermore, lottery tickets in this or that name are also sold here, luring people with monetary or material rewards, making their minds covetous.

Under the dizzying Lhasa sunlight, the material desires of Tibetans have never been fuelled with such excitement; but, after all, how many average Tibetans can actually afford those luxurious cars and houses? Look at those shops and restaurants that stretch along the two wings of the Potala Palace wall and spread around the square; they all look like clones of large or small cities in inland China. Together with the “modern” buildings covered in porcelain tiles, with windows framed in aluminum inlaid with dark blue glass, they are the culture of “contractor troops” made up of peasants-turned-construction-workers from the inland.

Most of the old willow trees have been felled, most of the prayer flags that used to fly above the pond have all gone, transforming the Zonggyab Lukhang (also called the Pond of the Dragon King) into a place for playing mahjong and cards, drinking Muslim tea and eating kebabs, further rendering the Potala Palace a lonely island isolated in the centre of a secular ocean. But, rather complacently, the officials in TAR declare to the world that “the rooftop of the world” has reached its greatest period as never before in history.

So, shall we all sing and dance to celebrate this greatest time in history? Shall we add more functions — entertainment or circuses — to the Potala which has been insulted through politicization and commercialization for over half a century? Specifically speaking, this square — with the Potala Palace as its backdrop — has once in a while become the entertainment stage for guests arriving from all directions for their publicity, for their fame and for fishing around to make profits; this trend has gone too far to control.

So came a performing arts group called “Hearts Joining Hearts” from Beijing, bringing with them the utmost solicitudes of the Central Government. A group of TV stars, with khatak presented by Tibetans hanging around their necks, was out of breath performing a programme eulogizing the solidarity of all the nationalities. It is said some of them even had to perform with oxygen bags because of serious high-altitude sickness. This pampered performance was finally exchanged by thunderous clapping in the midst of them singing “Fifty-six Nations, Fifty-six Flowers”, and those masses who were energetically clapping were as usual selected from respected units, schools, and military establishments in Lhasa.

So, the location of a fashion model contest was also moved here. It was reported: “Fifty-one models from different parts of the nation gathered here, with the brilliant Potala as the backdrop, to the unique rhythms of Tibetan music, in their modern apparel, with their model gaits, were displaying astonishing modern styles on the huge T-shaped stage” … “Thousands of Lhasans were there, squeezing around the T-shaped stage.” What’s more interesting is that the high-ranking officials and military leaders of TAR were also there to “deliver their congratulations”, and “offer Tibetans’ highest honour, the sacred khatak, to the winning models.”

Known as “Asia’s Number One Flying Man”, Ke Shouliang, a Taiwanese actor, before his sudden death, “offered a special gift to the national holiday, and the people who celebrated the holiday, by means of a flying car performance in a domestically-produced Jili on the Potala Square” on 1 October 2002. “Although this was not his best record, Ker felt very honoured to be able to perform on the Potala Square — particularly on the nation’s birthday. ‘The two sides of the straits belong to the same family; China will become stronger if all the nationalities gather together in solidarity,’ he said to the reporter.”

What’s a pity is that the pop singer Han Hong, who has half Tibetan blood, also took the Potala as the backdrop for her publicity. She plans to hold her personal concerts on the Potala Square in the summer of 2004. To hype up the programme she has told the media that she’s going to “ride in a helicopter” and “land on the Potala Palace.” Of course, the landing place — rather than being the golden roofs of the Potala Palace — will be the Potala Square. Yet, such an explosive headline is shocking enough.

Please, ladies and gentlemen! Please do respect the Potala! Please respect this sacred religious place, this miracle of the human realm! Simply because the Potala has been listed as a “World Heritage Site” by the United Nations — not even considering the fact that the palace is actually the soul of a race — everyone who is rushing over to the Potala is repeatedly requested: please respect the Potala Palace. Or else it is not beyond imagination that there probably will be a day that, driven by the motivation of extreme greed, the Potala Square will even become the playground for the world’s most famous circus. And the great magician, David Copperfield, who once “disappeared” the Statue of Liberty in New York, would also visit, re-enacting the same programme that captured the eyes of the world: disappearing the Potala Square. Once such a day comes, the TAR officials would again proudly declare: the rooftop of the world has been successfully “hooked up” to the world and “globalization” has been achieved.

Inside story of the renovation

Yes, the authority has indeed invested US$7 million and gold, precious stones, and five years of labour to renovate the Potala Palace. Yes, the authority has again invested a large sum of money, and again for the renovation of the Potala Palace. Yes, all that is fact, but some facts that have been disguised, revised, and forgotten are more worth mentioning.

For instance, who knows whether the shells that were fired at the Potala Palace in 1959 to “pacify the rebellion” at the same time destroyed rooms full of statues, of buddhas, mural paintings, and other traditional artefacts, and the destruction was not even minor to the building’s structure of clay and timber.

For instance, the agitation of “destroying the Four Olds” at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution also spread to the Potala Palace. The general circumstances were similar to what has been outlined above.

After 1969, to carry out Mao Zedong’s strategic guidelines to “dig holes deeply, collect crops widely, and not claim to be a superpower”, Lhasa too with other respected provinces, municipalities, autonomous regions went into construction of the so-called “Civil Defence Project” which launched an upsurge in digging trenches and constructing air raid shelters. These shelters can even be seen today, right beneath Marpo Ri on which the Potala Palace stands. While the one to the eastern side of the mountain has been sealed, the other to the west has been turned into a bar selling barley beer. Across the road from the Potala Palace, next to Chakpori, where the water company is today, used to be the headquarters of air raid defence. It is said that beneath Chakpori there also air raid shelters. The reason for building them there was, according to popular belief, that since the location is close to the compound of the TAR Party Committee, if there was an air attack by enemies, the officials could quickly run into those shelters. Of course, it is well know among Lhasans that digging holes under Marpo Ri, and using explosives to excavate the mountain, largely damaged the foundations and the Potala building itself. A Tibetan who studied in those days in Lhasa Middle School can still remember the deafening sound of explosions when they were in class. “When you passed by the area, sometimes you could feel the ground shaking.” So the renovation of the Potala Palace in recent years is precisely the result of the deeds of that time.

Yet even the renovation itself has created many problems and still further destruction. According to a broadcast on Voice of America on 3 February 2004, a cassette recording smuggled out of Tibet denounced: “The renovation project of the Potala was left to Chinese construction workers who know nothing about the delicate and complex nature of traditional Tibetan architecture and technology. It treated the renovation of the world-famous cultural heritage as a children’s game.” For instance, “According to Tibetans’ traditional architectural technology, a special wooden beam must be inserted into the wall; but, to make things easier, the Chinese used concrete and steel instead of it. Everyone knows that the history of concrete and steel used as construction material is only around a hundred years old. Using those materials for the renovation of the Potala Palace of over 1,300 years is not only a travesty of history, but also these new materials are not compatible with the original ones, so damage has been done to the structure of the palace.” This kind of renovation destroys the cohesiveness of the traditional Tibetan architecture of the Potala.

The Potala Palace was built by Tibetans so it should also have been renovated by Tibetans. Why has it been left to the Han Chinese construction teams, who are called “contract workers” by Lhasa people? The subtlety within is just as the cassette recording pointed out. “The renovation project has been entangled with the phenomenon of corruption and wasteful spending”, which is the result of some kind of deals. As a matter of fact, the winds of corruption are prevalent in China, so are bribery and corruption everywhere in Lhasa, displayed to the full. But for all these years they have never been laid bare. Isn’t Tibet really the last land of purity on earth? In fact, on “the rooftop of the world” that is no longer a land of purity, evils under the sun have never been extinct and even stop at nothing under the cover of power. But there are reasons for the cover; one of the most tangible reasons is “Stability over-rides all”. Therefore, in order not to disturb the “stability” of Tibet, even if the income from selling entrance tickets to the Jokhang, Drepung, or Sera Monastery were shared among the children of high-ranking officials, people would not dare voice their anger to stop this robbery. Even though the Potala Palace is a World Heritage Site, it has been stained by black hands behind the curtain.

“Defeated, but never cried”

Today’s Potala Palace, still standing atop the mountain, is without its previous height. Today’s Potala Palace, still appearing as a land of purity, is wounded by time-weathered changes. To Lhasans who live their lives in communion with the Potala, the inherited lifestyle has been changed, replaced — what’s done cannot be undone, this is a reality. But on the other side of this reality there is a hidden, continuous and indomitable spirit being sustained. Nowadays, early in the morning, and even earlier, exactly during the darkest time before dawn, one after another Tibetans walk out of their houses for the fulfillment of faith in their hearts. Those Tibetans who are rolling the beads of their rosaries; those Tibetans who are turning prayer wheels; those Tibetans who are doing full-body prostrations; those Tibetans who are making offering with tsampa, grains and juniper incense; those Tibetans who are circumambulating with their dogs and sheep whose lives have been saved, all are like whirlpools in a river circling around Lhasa. At the centre of the river, like a lonely island, Tse Potala silently stands there. A few dim lights shining from the Potala Palace highlight its loneliness and vastness, but even though the path of light is slow-moving, nothing can stop its course.

So, in the summer of 1994, on the outer white wall of the Potala Palace dotted by many windows with red frames and black surrounds, two giant, precious thangkas were displayed. This great traditional ritual had not been held for over forty years, and it’s never been celebrated since then. A Chinese poet from inland China recorded the scene on that day: “Every spot in Lhasa from where one could catch a glimpse of the Potala was crowded. I saw many country folk. From where they were standing there was no way they could see the thangkas, yet facing towards the direction of the thangkas they silently shed their tears … on that day thousands upon thousands of people moved clockwise, circumambulating the Potala Palace. Dust was everywhere. Yet Tibetans, Chinese, Westerners, monks and everyday folk … carrying babies, helping the elderly, looked like a great migration in human history.”

When the year of 1999 was about to end, exactly at the time when the twenty-first century was nearing, after forty years of the Dalai Lama’s exile, the young tulku Karmapa — who was less than fifteen years old — suddenly left, becoming another famous exile of Tibet. India, this country of freedom which accepted the Dalai Lama and so many other exile Tibetans, also became the shelter of the Karmapa. There he wrote a profound poem composed around the Potala Palace:

Moon-like flowers,
in the majestic medicinal land of snow,
bubbles of joy now mounting up.
Amidst the melancholic flute of a drizzle,
in the arched drum of the rainbow
blow the winds of truth
chasing the clouds to the far north

Ah …
Now then,
Flowers of our prayers in thousands bloom.
The pain of our suffering slowly wanes
as the south wind of solidarity blows.

In the clear blue sky
once again,
flipping, flopping

white clouds of joy start to dance.

neither being rich,
nor being a beggar,
sparkling spectacle Potala,
in the illuminated small window
dazzles your face like a blossom.

Oh … the grand mellowed sun,
now in serene golden rays.

The heart that bled inside
was all for truth to prevail.

Defeated, but never cried

Note: This poem was written by XVII Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje

(Translated by Jampa, Bhuchung D. Sonam, Jane Perkins, and Tenzin Tsundue)


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