Tibet's Potala palace spruced up but nobody home

By Lindsay Beck, The Star (Reuters), Aug 4, 2005

LHASA, Tibet (China) -- The renovation of the Potala palace, once the administrative heart of Tibet, is nearly complete but the imposing red and white monument stands empty of its most important occupant.

<< Potala Palace, built in the 7th century to commemorate the unification of Tibet

With the 14th Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual leader, in exile in India, the palace first built in the 7th century to commemorate the unification of Tibet has become a symbol of the gap between the region and the Chinese government that has ruled it since 1950.

The Tibetan community that once lived in the village of Shol, a cluster of low-slung buildings at the base of the imposing palace, is also gone, relocated in a move officials say is for the villagers' own good.

Three years of renovation work to shore up the foundations of the palace, set steep into a hillside in the centre of Lhasa, clean its frescoes and repair its treasured wall hangings will be completed in October.

While showing off the palace's facelift, its administrative director, Qiangba Gesang, was silent on whether the Dalai Lama would ever return to live there after an abortive uprising against Chinese rule in 1959, while he was still in his twenties.

"I am in charge of the renovation project. I don't have any exchanges with the Dalai Lama so I don't know about that," he told reporters, a Chinese flag pin fastened to his lapel.

Pilgrims prostrate themselves before an empty throne in the meeting room of the Dalai Lama. His picture is conspicuously absent beside that of his predecessor, the 13th Dalai Lama.

When asked who they are praying to with no one there, a tour guide says "They are praying to the historic Dalai Lama", before hustling the group of reporters along.

Without a trace

The reception room where the Dalai Lama once met Marshall Chen Yi, who headed a delegation of Chinese leaders to Lhasa 1956 for talks on establishing the Tibetan Autonomous Region, is also devoid of traces of their encounter.

Groups of workers sing in time as they pound mud into the roof in unison.

"For the Potala palace, only the Tibetan people can do the work. The other ethnic groups can't do this kind of work," Qingba Gesang said.

But beyond the construction workers, there is little evidence of the Tibetan life that once surrounded the palace, a UNESCO world heritage site.

Beyond the Potala lies a broad, modern square, which stands empty but for a 17-metre-high (56-foot-high) high monument built by the Chinese government to commemorate what it calls the "peaceful liberation" of Tibet.

The 300 households of Shol, historically comprised of people who served the palace, have been relocated, their whitewashed houses under renovation to become a display.

"The Potala palace caught fire several times. To protect it, the people were moved out," Qiangba Gesang said, adding 43 million yuan was spent on their new housing.

"If they move back it will endanger the security of the palace," he said.