Kelzang Gyatso (1708–57), the seventh Dalai Lama, was born in a cold, dark, cave-like room in the basement of this house during a period of intense political struggle. He eventually grew into a visionary leader, and under his rule Tibet established a national archive, instituted civil-service training programmes and formalised the Tibetan government structure. While the building is officially open from 9.30am to 5pm, in practice the hours are erratic. Chinese tourists are normally forbidden from entering inside the building.
Not all Tibetans shared the belief Gyatso was the reincarnate; to escape the ongoing civil war, the Dalai Lama was raised and educated largely in exile. Qing Emperor Kangxi issued a proclamation affirming his identity, and in 1720 sent his son and troops to install the Dalai Lama to power in Lhasa. Mongol uprisings, rebellions and several coups later, the Dalai Lama gained the support of the clergy and the people.
The main house is a series of rooms crowded with devotees lost in prayer, and displays of sacred relics of the Dalai Lama and the 13 other lamas born here. If you ask, the guardian will show you the exact spot where Gyatso was born. There is a small footprint visible in the rock, plus a number of other auspicious signs and markings. Tibetan Buddhist or not, a visit here can be a deeply powerful experience, especially if there are many other pilgrims present.
Gyatso's descendants still live in the house next door and it's likely that it will be one of them who shows you around.
The area around the house has recently been completely renovated in a sympathetic style and is now one of the more attractive urban neighbourhoods in all of the Tibetan regions.