Six hundred years in one hour

The rules for visiting Potala Gong, the palace of the Dalai Lama, are the same as when boarding an airplane. Everyone must have a ticket. Everyone must be on time. No smoking. No liquids. No knives.

The rules are strict, at least in part, because for some decades the palace was sinking. The stone and mud construction could not bear the crush of all the people who came to see it, including the religious pilgrims who arrive each day and don’t need a ticket. Billions of yuan in renovations later, and the palace looks to be stabilized. Still, the number of foreign visitors is capped each day, and everyone gets just one hour to pack in all the sights.

There were breathtaking frescoes; towering, jewel-encrusted tombs of former lamas; stacks upon stacks of gilded, sacred texts prescribing everything from what to read to when to ride on an airplane; and surprisingly intricate tapestries of woven yak hair. Still, something else really struck me.

The floors. The floors are a shiny, pinkish marble. The tops of the walls are made of this too. The material is actually a composite of sand, dirt, and oil called agha. The wet mixture is poured in place, smoothed by hand, and then pounded flat with wooden bats until it gleams. When done right, the process takes about two weeks of pounding to create a water-tight surface. So, the construction of agha is itself a Buddhist lesson, requiring patience until blisters become callouses. The tapping echoed all over the palace grounds.


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