Tibet and the Potala Palace
From Riches to Ruins

by Richard S. Ehrlich

LHASA, China -- The Dalai Lama may remember the Potala Palace as his center of power in Tibet, but the Chinese have turned the stunning 1,000-room structure into a slick corporate logo, decorating beer bottles, computer screens and plastic packets of dried yak meat.

For some people, the ultimate blasphemy -- or commercial success in the eyes of the Chinese regime -- appears deep inside the Potala Palace where Tibetan Buddhist lamas formerly received religious offerings from devotees. Mindful of the popular capitalist chant, "location, location, location," the heart of the Potala Palace is now occupied by a tacky, spacious, Chinese-run gift shop.

"When visiting the Potala Palace, the Sitting Room of the Red Palace is an ideal place for you to have a rest, as well as to do some shopping," invites the store's sign, erected inside the palace near exquisite Buddhist murals. "Originally, this Sitting Room is used for laying offerings. Now it is used as a Sitting Room for the tourists to take a break," the sign adds, hoping to lure customers into a seemingly unpopular showroom, where glass display-cases highlight bland trinkets.

In addition to its cache as an advertising icon, cash flows into the pockets of the Chinese government every time a tourist buys a 4.70 US dollar ticket to enter the Potala, or chooses to pay more to photograph, or explore special roped-off sights inside.

China heralds the Potala Palace as a magnificent trophy "liberated" from Tibet's medieval theocracy, from where generations of "reincarnated" Dalai Lamas ruled through a repressive, "superstitious" system. All the treasures and "Tibetan cultural relics" which weren't looted from the Potala are now regarded by China as proof of how a wealthy "elite" of Tibetan Buddhist clergymen and their political collaborators -- known as regents -- enjoyed unimaginable splendor, while the Tibetan people suffered horrific poverty.

Richard S. Ehrlich is from San Francisco, California, and first journeyed to Asia in 1972. Reporting news from across Asia since 1978, his bases have included Hong Kong, New Delhi, and now Bangkok.  His coverage has focused on the guerrilla wars in Afghanistan, Kashmir, Punjab, Sri Lanka and Cambodia, as well as the region’s cultures and other events.  He received his Master’s degree from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, and won their 1978 Foreign Correspondents Award.  He has also co-compiled a book entitled, “Hello My Big Big Honey,” which contains interviews with members of Bangkok’s notorious and infamous nightclub scene.
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"When the 14th Dalai (Lama) ruled Tibet, 95 percent of the Tibetans were serfs and slaves, with no human rights at all," noted a Beijing-published magazine self-consciously titled, "China's Tibet," and typical of the government's position regarding pre-1959 Tibet. "But the 14th Dalai, and people like him, enjoyed full rights. In terms of human rights, Tibet today is much, much better than under his rule.
"Seeing the West accuse China of 'violating human rights in Tibet,' the 14th Dalai, who hates to see Tibetans enjoy much more human rights than under his rule, joins the West in making the accusation," it added.  The Dalai Lama, meanwhile, claims the Chinese killed one million of the toiling Tibetans that China supposedly was freeing -- especially during the 1960s and 1970s. 

China insists the missing one million Tibetans actually perished from epidemics and poverty under the neglectful reign of the dalai lamas, before Chinese communists arrived in the 1950s, and the population statistics were then juggled by the Dalai Lama and the West. 

Meanwhile, the vast, 13-storey Potala Palace, which dates back to the 1600s when the 5th Dalai Lama resided there, has been reduced to a stunning, lifeless museum. A few senior monks watch over priceless shrines, and discreetly tell visitors of the holiness inhabiting big, jewel-covered tombs of dead dalai lamas, which the palace contains on view for public adoration. A Chinese security officer, in pale green uniform, relaxes near a row of single flames which delicately sway from bowls filled with burning yak butter.
The Potala Palace's giant, white-and-maroon, cake-like architecture dominates Lhasa's skyline, and is the only Tibetan structure to appear as a logo on a myriad of Chinese and Tibetan products. Department stores in front of the Potala sell attractive desk ornaments, which include a framed photo of the palace, in matching design. On nearby shelves, Chinese-made computers attract customers by showing how a ful Potala picture can fill the screen. Big posters of the Potala sell alongside portraits of Hollywood film stars and China's late dictator Mao Zedong. The Potala also appears above a hairy yak emblazoned on hand-sized, US .40-cent packets of delicious jerky – made of "yak meat, sugar, salt, cooking wine, sesame, chilli (and) vegetable oil." Every bottle of Lhasa Beer sports the Potala's picture, as do the brew's cardboard packing crates. 

Travel agencies and tourist brochures understandably use the Potala as their most attractive cover, usually without having to name the easy-to-identify fortress-temple. Tibetans revere the Potala Palace as the place where the Dalai Lama's spirit continues to blossom, despite his self-exile in India. Each day, and night, Tibetans kowtow near the palace's stone gate, and walk a worn circle around its outer wall, praying for his return and other boons. 

When Tibetans wander the Potala Palace's dark halls and shrines, their worshipping appears as a sobbing of souls. Lhasa's majority Chinese enjoy the palace's physical beauty, perched on a small, central outcrop called Red Hill, surrounded by flat city streets. But the Chinese do not pilgrimage in reverence to the Dalai Lama's empty throne.
Han Suyin, an apologist author for Chinese rule over Tibet, wrote in her book, "Lhasa, The Open City," that the Potala was a "termite nest" and "an evil, parasitic monster, despite the glamor." A wealthy Chinese businessman, waiting his turn at the Bank of China within sight of the palace, said he didn't know much about the Potala, though he passed by nearly every day. "That place? No, I haven't gone in. Is it worth visiting?" he asked in an interview. He was curious about the Potala's value, but not as an advertising logo. Squinting at the Potala's mammoth white walls, he asked, "How much does it cost to see inside?" 

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