Pico Iyer: Why Potala Palace Is a Wonder

For centuries, Tibet developed a remarkable and entirely unique culture.

The country, hidden behind the highest mountains on earth, spreads across a plateau that is, on average, 15,000 feet above sea level with a sharp light and thin air that add to its wild intensity.

With up to a quarter of its people in monasteries, Tibet created a society in which a monk -- discovered through a series of omens at the age of 2 or so -- was ruler of the people. Philosophers and lamas developed astonishing powers of the mind and body at a time when other cultures built roads and railways.

The very center of Tibet is Lhasa, and the very center of Lhasa, for more than three centuries, has been the Potala Palace. An unfathomable building erected on a rock face 13 stories high, it has golden turrets on the roof that can be seen 12 miles away, and stretches for more than a 1,000 feet along a ridge against the snowcaps. The Potala looks and feels like no other building on the planet.

But more extraordinary is its meaning. It was at once a center of government, a residence of Tibet's ruler (the Dalai Lama), the site of a monastery and a mausoleum for eight previous Dalai Lamas. It's as if the White House, the Houses of Congress, Arlington Cemetery and the National Cathedral were all concentrated in a single building.

And the Potala stood for a unique system in which administrators would be monks, politicial meetings would include prayers, and law and order was in the hands of a meditating clergy.

A Time and Place, Radiant and Rare

The Potala belongs on any list of seven modern wonders because it is not just a stunning palace, though it is as heart-stopping as anything in Windsor Castle or Versailles.

It is not just a sometime center for a National Assembly, though it was that, too; it is not only an architectural marvel, though it is so inspiring as a building that it was the one monument that Frank Lloyd Wright always kept a picture of on his desk.

It belongs on the list because, like the Great Wall or the Taj Mahal, it was meant to stir wonder and affection and gratitude in the viewer. It was the home of one of the most admired spiritual figures on the planet today, the XIV Dalai Lama. And wherever you sit in old Lhasa, its 1,000 windows look over you in what can seem a kind of protection.

What gives the building added power is, of course, the otherworldly plateau on which it stands. The skies are often blue, blue, blue in Lhasa, giving off a cobalt radiance seldom seen at lower altitudes. The country is so desolate that the occasional foreign visitor reported not seeing another soul for 81 days.

You can contract frostbite and sunburn simultaneously in Tibet, the conditions are so extreme, and the temperature differs between sunlit and shady spots, or between day and night, by as much as 40 degrees F.

When the current Dalai Lama was living in the Potala Palace in the 1950s, Tibet had not even seen an airstrip, or a road.

Until 1950, moreover, Lhasa had been seen by fewer than 2,000 Westerners, 1,000 of them in a single British expedition in 1904. In all its history, fewer Europeans and Americans had visited it than attend a typical urban high school.

That is the other reason why it belongs on such a select list. It speaks for a time, already gone, when a culture could remain unseen for centuries and develop its powers as intensely as a person might when alone.

And it speaks for a system of benign theocracy -- a respected spiritual figure as leader of his people -- that now is all but obsolete.

When you look at the Potala Palace, you see not only one of the most stirring structures on the planet -- "the most extraordinary building in the world," according to the great British traveler Peter Fleming -- but also a culture that is fast fading.

It is a remnant of a system that the rest of the world increasingly looks at, for all its imperfections, as enlightened, radiant and rare.

© 2006 Pico Iyer