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The palace is named after Mount Potalaka, the mythical abode of the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara. The5th Dalai Lama started its construction in 1645 after one of his spiritual advisers, Konchog Chophel (died 1646), pointed out that the site was ideal as a seat of government, situated as it is between Drepungand Sera monasteries and the old city of Lhasa. It may overlay the remains of an earlier fortress called the White or Red Palace on the site, built by Songtsän Gampo in 637.
Built on a rocky hill overlooking the city of Lhasa, the Potala Palace has a sturdy fortress-like appearance. It contains more than a thousand rooms spreading over an area of 1,300 feet by 1,000 feet. The stone walls are 16 feet thick at the base, but more finely constructed (without the use of nails) in the upper stories.
The palace is fronted by a great plaza at the south base of the rock, enclosed by walls and gates. A series of fairly easy staircases, broken by intervals of gentle ascent, leads to the summit of the rock. It is important to become acclimated to the high altitude of Lhasa before making the climb.
The Potala Palace is made of two main parts, easily distinguished by their color: the Red Palace and White Palace. The two are joined by a smaller, yellow-painted structure that houses the sacred banners hung on the exterior for the New Year festivals. The rooms inside the palace are identified by numbers as well as names.