The palace is named after Mount Potalaka, the mythical abode of the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara. The 5th 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 Drepung and 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.
The building measures 400 metres east-west and 350 metres north-south, with sloping stone walls averaging 3 m. thick, and 5 m. (more than 16 ft) thick at the base, and with copper poured into the foundations to help proof it against earthquakes. Thirteen stories of buildings—containing over 1,000 rooms, 10,000 shrines and about 200,000 statues—soar 117 metres (384 ft) on top of Marpo Ri, the "Red Hill", rising more than 300 m (about 1,000 ft) in total above the valley floor.
Tradition has it that the three main hills of Lhasa represent the "Three Protectors of Tibet". Chokpori, just to the south of the Potala, is the soul-mountain (Wylie: bla ri) of Vajrapani, Pongwari that of Manjusri, and Marpori, the hill on which the Potala stands, represents Avalokiteśvara.