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Norbulingka Summer Palace, A UNESCO World Heritage Site in Tibet


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Norbulingka (literally: "The Jewelled Park") is a palace and surrounding park in Lhasa, Tibet, built from 1755.It served as the traditional summer residence of the successive Dalai Lamas from the 1780s up until the Chinese takeover in the late 1950s. Part of the "Historic Ensemble of the Potala Palace", Norbulingka is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and was added as an extension of this Historic Ensemble in 2001.It was built by the 7th Dalai Lama and served both as administrative centre and religious centre. It is a unique representation of Tibetan palace architecture.

Norbulingka Palace is situated in the west side of Lhasa, a short distance to the southwest of Potala Palace. Norbulingka covers an area of around 36 hectares (89 acres) and considered to be the largest man made garden in Tibet.

Norbulingka park is considered the premier park of all such horticultural parks in similar ethnic settings in Tibet. During the summer and autumn months, the parks in Tibet, including the Norbulinga, become hubs of entertainment with dancing, singing, music and festivities.The park is where the annual Sho Dun or 'Yoghurt Festival' is held.

The Gate of Norbulingka

The Gate of Norbulingka

The Norbulingka palace has been mostly identified with the 13th and the 14th Dalai Lamas who commissioned most of the structures seen here now. However, during the 1959 Chinese invasion of Tibet a number of buildings were damaged. It was only from 2003 that the Chinese Government initiated renovation works here to restore some of the damaged structures, and also the greenery, the flower gardens and the lakes.

Geography and Environment of Norbulingka

The palace, with 374 rooms, is located 3 kilometres (1.9 mi) west of the Potala Palace, which was the winter palace. It is in the western suburb of Lhasa City on the bank of the Kyichu River. When construction of the palace was started (during the 7th Dalai Lama's period) in the 1740s, the site was a barren land, overgrown with weeds and scrub and infested with wild animals.

The park situated at an elevation of 3,650 metres (11,980 ft) boasted of flower gardens of Roses, petunias, hollyhocks, marigolds, chrysanthemums and rows of herbs in pots and rare plants. Fruit trees of apple, peach and apricot were also reported (but the fruits did not ripen in Lhasa) and also poplar trees and bamboo. In its heyday, the Norbulingka grounds also witnessed wild life in the form of peacocks and Brahminy ducks in the lakes. The park was so large and well laid out that cycling around the area was even permitted to enjoy the beauty of the environment. The gardens are a favourite picnic spot and provides a beautiful venue for theatre, dancing and festivals, particularly the Shodun or 'Yoghurt Festival', at the beginning of August, with families camping in the grounds for days surrounded by colourful makeshift windbreaks of rugs and scarves and enjoying the height of summer weather.

Dancingshow in Norbulingka

Dancing at Sho Dun Festival, Norbulingka

There is also a zoo at Norbulingka, originally to keep the animals which were given to the Dalai Lamas. Heinrich Harrer helped the 14th Dalai Lama build a small movie theatre there in the 1950s.

Sho Dun Festival

Dancing at Sho Dun Festival, Norbulingka, 1993Sho Dun Festival, also spelt Zhoton Festival, (popularly known as the "yogurt festival") is an annual festival held at Norbulingka. The date for the festival is set according the Tibetan calendar, which is a Lunar based calendar. The festival is celebrated during the seventh month in the first seven days of the Full Moon period, which corresponds to dates in July/August according to the Gregorian calendar. The week long festivities are marked by eating and drinking, with Ache Lhamo, the Tibetan opera performances as the highlight, held in the park and other venues in the city. On this occasion yak races are a special attraction held in the Lhasa stadium. During this festival, famed Opera troupes from different regions of Tibet perform at the Narubulingka grounds; the first opera troupe was founded in the 15th century by Tangtong Gyelpo (considered the Leonardo da Vinci of Tibet). Over the centuries other opera formats of the 'White Masked Sect' and the "innovative" 'Black Masked Sect' added to the repertoire, and all these forms and subsequent innovations are enacted at the Sho Dun festival.The Chinese also observe the anniversaries of the Chinese political calendar at the Norbulingka grounds with Tibetan music and dance under Government patronage and the officials give long speeches on the occasion. The Chinese local administration coerces Tibetans to observe traditional holidays with Tibetan music and dance at this venue.

During the reign of the Dalai Lamas (from 7th Dalai Lama onwards, their annual shifting of residence from the Potala Palace to Norbulingka Palace was also an elaborate festive event. The Dalai Lama used to be escorted in a glittering procession to spend 6 months of the summer season in the Norbulingka Palace.