Welcome to Designing From Bones, where we use archaeology, myth, mysteries and history to unearth the stories of tomorrow.
This week continues a Special DfB series on unusual historical settings and how we can use them as inspiration for our fiction. If the planet provided a place to build, humans have tried to live there. What is a ruler to do when they want to both live above the people and command authoritative respect? Well, they build their own mountain and call it home. Today we will take a look at two such locations and see what lessons they have to teach us.
Leh Palace, India
Near the northern most tip of India lays the city of Leh, nestled into a curve of the Himalayan mountains the region holds a stark beauty that belies its history. At one time, Leh was both the convergence point of a compass array of trade routes and the seat of power for the Kingdom of Ladahk.
In the early 1600’s, King Sengge Namgyal ordered a magnificent palace built on a ridge overlooking the city. A powerful mountain-like edifice to impress the many travelers that passed through his capital. King Namgyal made sure that the Himalayan mountains served as backdrop to his palace so that it would appear to be a part of the mountain chain – a testament to his greatness and towering authority.
Leh Palace served as the seat of power for nearly 300 years, until it was besieged and abandoned in the mid-1900’s. The palace is nine-stories tall, with royal apartments on the top and areas for livery and support services below (a design similar to the cave structures in Kandovan). The interior is a maze of hallways and rooms and the roof (should one find their way there) gives a stunning view of the region and part of the Indus valley. The palace is currently under restoration by the Archeological Survey of India.
The palace itself is modeled after, or perhaps a response to, another lying in nearby Tibet, which is also our next stop.
Potala Palace, Tibet
Were the Potala Palace set in Greece it would be the home of the ancient Greek gods and be called Olympus. The Palace is a massive edifice of smoothly sloping white stone begun in 1645 by the fifth Dali Lama. The palace was magnificently crafted onto the existing Red Palace (seen at its center in the photo). I would call it an elegant mountain worthy of the gods (take a look at the picture and see if you disagree).
Situated between two primary monasteries and the old city of Lhasa, the location was well placed as a controlling seat of power. But, it is also placed well in legend. The three hills of Lhasa are seen as the Protectors of Tibet and the one on which the Potala Palace is placed is dedicated to Chenresig (a.k.a. Avalokitesvara), the bodhisattva (enlightened one) that embodies the compassion of all the Buddhas (yes, there is more than one). This makes the location a spiritually significant one to the local culture thus reinforcing respect and authority.
At its highest point, the building is thirteen stories tall (384 feet, plus a 1,000 foot natural rise above the valley) with walls up to sixteen feet thick and a copper-filled base for stability against earthquakes. The Potala contains 1000 rooms, tens times that many shrines and an amazing 200,000 statues! The palace currently serves as a museum and if you ever get there it is well worth a day or twos exploration.
Location is everything.
Over the past six weeks we’ve looked at homes built into the sides of pits, homes carved into massive natural phallic symbols, others built on the side of cliffs or atop remote pinnacles and one set alone on the sea. The Leh and Potala are both set upon a height, using the majesty of the mountains as a backdrop and both are designed for a single purpose, to showcase the power of the local rulers.
What is a more powerful vision – a king standing in front of a grey cloth with penciled in mountains or a king standing on top of a nine story palace with the Himalayas rising behind him? What if Captain Ahab had hunted a giant fish on a small lake rather than “the sea”? Would Hunger Games be as exciting set on a prairie instead of in a forest?
Setting is not just a theater drop cloth, rather it is a drama enhancer. When the setting, dramatic tension and action of the story combine into a cohesive force the effect is unstoppable – and, will feel organic. Every element of fiction is precious to the story – choose your settings with care.
What is the greatest use of setting as a dramatic multiplier from a book you’ve read or movie you’ve watched? Have you visited or read about any other historical locations that would serve as powerful dramatic settings? I’d love to hear from you.
Next week will be the final one for this series on settings, something special that I saved for the end. An ancient city that attained heights of greatness before what we now consider antiquity and yet remains virtually lost to history. I hope you’ll join me.