August 4, 2005

Tibet’s Potala palace spruced up but nobody home

By Lindsay Beck

LHASA, China (Reuters) - 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.

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 center 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

"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.


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-meter-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.