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Why are most of Tibet's temples and palaces built on cliffs?

By Source:China Tibet Online 2015-07-01

When speaking of Lhasa, a clear image of the Potala Palace will immediately emerge in people's minds.

The palace seems to grow out of the top of the exposed rock, shaped like a "Z" on the peak of the mountain. The white palace has walls as wide as city walls that cluster around the central red palace, and three gold-plated pagodas stand tall and upright on the top, glittering in the sun.

The Potala Palace is built on an isolated mountain near the river called Red Hill, whose peak is 3,700 meters high, nearly 100 meters higher than the valley that lies below.

The Red Hill is steep, and the structure of the Potala Palace depends entirely on the topography of the mountain, as if the structure wraps itself up the mountain, blending together as one entity.

Because it was built on the flatlands of an isolated peak, it looks like an imperial palace of the heavens. You can see its majestic appearance from more than a dozen kilometers away.

The Potala Palace is not the only one of its kind in Tibet, a building that both rests on the mountain and combines parts of the mountain into its structure. Other famous structures like this include the Yumbu Lhakang in Nedong County of Lhoka Prefecture, Karchu Monastery in Lhodrak County of Lhoka Prefecture, Gyantse Castle in Shigatse, Tsedrup Monastery in Tengchen County of Chamdo City and the site of the Guge Kingdom Relics in Zhada County of Ngari Prefecture.

Some experts refer to this kind of architecture as fortress-style, while some call it cliff-style architecture, referencing the architecture's most important feature.

Some people believe the purpose of placing this kind of building on a cliff is for defense, while others believe it has to do with religion, in order to be able to speak with the gods. If the palace belongs to a secular political power, then the purpose is probably to express the idea of the "divine right of kings".

Aside from defense, placing a palace on a cliff also expresses the Tibetan belief of holy mountain worship. The structures that are built on top of and that blend together with the mountain are the epitome of holy mountain worship, a representative of the physical world. Building a structure in a high place is a way for devout Tibetans to communicate with the gods in the heavens, in order to let the mind be at peace.

Yumbu Lhakang was the first palace built in Tibet, though it later became an area for many eminent monks to practice Buddhism. The original structure itself is not very large, but it stands tall thanks to the features of the mountain. It appears towering and imposing, and it has become a model of Tibetan cliff-style architecture.

Karchu Monastery stands on a high place on Karchu Mountain, among the peaks of the Himalayan mountain range. It is located in Lhodrak County of Lhoka Prefecture, Tibet Autonomous Region. There is a light or thick fog cover almost every morning, enveloping Karchu Monastery in mist as if from a fairytale. The monastery's builders and worshippers believe that the gods are in a high place close to the heavens.

Gyantse Castle is built on a cliff in the center of the Gyantse old town. The structure rests on the irregular features of the mountain, and the two are perfectly fused together. The Gyantse Castle appears even more magnificent and dignified under a starry night, towering aloft on the mountain peak.

Tsedrup Monastery is located on the famous Tsedrup Mountain in eastern Tibet, in Tengchen County, Chamdo City. Located at an altitude of around 4,800 meters, it is one of the highest monasteries in Tibet.

The Guge Kingdom Relics consisted of more than 40 rooms that were mainly concentrated on the top of a mountain. All of the structures were made of earth and wood and had a flat roof. Each room was between 12 and 18 square meters large. Most were single-story, but there are some that were two or three stories high. Most of these buildings have already destroyed, but the craftsmanship of the design is still evident to this day

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