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Korean Temples from Above | Bulguksa Temple and Seokguram Grotto on Mt. Tohamsan __ Shin Byeong-mun
Epitomizing Buddhist belief and art, Seokgatap (National Treasure No. 21)
and Dabotap (National Treasure No. 20) pagodas transform the temple compound
into a Buddha-land.
The cave temple of Seokguram consists of a rectangular antechamber and a
round main chamber. The dome was created with trimmed natural stones,
and then the roof was covered with dirt, giving it the appearance of a cave.
Situated at the southern tip of the Taeback mountain range, all of Mt. Tohamsan is considered a sacred Buddhist site. In the mountain’s southwestern foothills lies Bulguksa Temple, steeped in over a thousand years of history, and near its summit is Seokguram Grotto, often said to be the apex of Buddhist art and architecture.
According to Samguk yusa (Legends and History of Korea’s Three Kingdoms), the grand project of building Bulguksa was launched in 751 by Kim Dae-seong, Silla’s then chief minister, by royal decree of King Gyeongdeok. And after Kim’s death in 774, the state saw the project through to its completion. However, a different story is told in the Bulguksa gogeum changgi (Chronicles of Bulguksa), saying, “In 528, the year after the martyrdom of the Buddhist monk Yi Cha-don, Bulguksa was officially established by Lady Yeongje, the mother of then King Beopheung. In 574, Lady Jiso, the mother of then King Jinheung, had the temple rebuilt and enshrined Amitabha Buddha there.” Later, in 751, the temple seems to have been renovated by Kim Dae-seong, who had stone pagodas and bridges built, raising its stature as a major temple.
The 8th century, when Bulguksa reached the height of its prosperity, corresponds to Silla’s peak years in terms of national power and culture. Silla’s great artworks, like the Medicine Buddha image at Bunhwangsa Temple and the Sacred Bell of King Seongdeok, were also crafted in this period. Bulguksa is a structure that epitomizes these pinnacle years of glory. However, the temple could not escape the disaster of the Japanese invasion. In 1593 the Japanese army set fire to the temple after uncovering some weapons hidden there, destroying most of the buildings. Its reconstruction began in 1604 and continued for a century until Bulguksa was finally restored to its former stature in the 1700s. In the modern era, a large-scale restoration project was launched in 1973.
Since then, remodeling has also been done on two Buddha halls, Daeungjeon (Main Buddha Hall) and Geungnakjeon (Paradise Hall), and on two gates, Jahamun and Anyangmun. Another restoration project reestablished four structures on their original sites: Beomyeongnu Pavilion, and three Buddha halls, Museoljeon, Birojeon and Gwaneumjeon. The Bulguksa temple compound largely consists of four independent areas: Main Buddha Hall area, Paradise Hall area, Vairocana Hall area and Avalokitesvara Hall area. Each area symbolizes an independent Buddha-land dedicated to a different worship system, and the boundaries are clearly demarcated by walls or corridors for the sake of doctrinal differentiation.
Yangdong Village in Gyeongju. If Korea’s
famous Hahoe Village can be called a river village
because the Nakdong River flows around it, Yangdong Village is a mountain
village as it sits in the foothills of a mountain.
Walking uphill along the mountain path from Bulguksa Temple, one finds Seokguram Grotto near the summit, National Treasure No. 24. Samguk yusa says Seokguram was originally named Seokbulsa Temple, but beginning in the 1910s, Japanese colonialists began to call it Seokguram. Samguk yusa says Seokguram was inaugurated by Kim Dae-seong, like Bulguksa, by royal decree, but its completion was undertaken by the state. As can be guessed, both Bulguksa and Seokguram began as major Buddhist projects based on the desires of all the Silla people and the royal families to manifest the Buddha-land on Earth.
Embodying the devout faith and artistic sophistication of the Silla people, Seokguram is a world-class masterpiece of architecture. In the center of Seokguram Grotto is enshrined a stone statue of Sakyamuni Buddha (3.48 m high), and on the walls of the grotto’s antechamber and entrance are carved standing images of eight guardian deities, Vajra warriors and the four heavenly kings. The walls surrounding the seated Sakyamuni Buddha are carved with standing images of heavenly beings, bodhisattvas, arhats and an Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva. Ten niches are carved into the rotunda’s domed ceiling.
Padosori-gil (“sound of the surf trail”) near Gyeongju’s Yangnam is a coastal trail stretching along 1.7 km of shoreline
that features spectacular rock formations of columnar joints. Diverse forms of such formations include the lying-flat,
inclined, protruding and fan-shaped. They are breath-taking to see.
The directional orientation of Seokguram corresponds to Donghaegu, a sacred site of communal tombs for the royal Kim clan of the Silla Dynasty. Donghaegu refers to the area where Daewangam is located, the underwater tomb of King Munmu who unified the Three Kingdoms. King Munmu declared he would defend Silla by becoming a dragon of the East Sea even after his death. His patriotic spirit is embodied not only in Daewangam but also in Gameunsa Temple and at Igyeondae Lookout. Considering that the Sakyamuni Buddha at Seokguram looks toward Donghaegu, the establishment of Bulguksa and Seokbulsa (Seokguram) was a project on a national scale as was Gameunsa and Igyeondae.
Both Bulguksa and Seokguram, the embodiment of Silla’s aspiration to protect the nation, were registered on the World Heritage list in 1995 and continue to attract Buddhist devotees as well as tourists from home and abroad.
In front of Bulguksa’s Main Buddha Hall stand a stone lantern and two pagodas called Seokgatap and Dabotap. Behind these pagodas are two pavilions (Beomyeongnu and Jwagyeongnu) which exude a sense of tight tension created by their bilateral symmetry. The space in front of the Main Buddha Hall exudes harmonious energy because the placement of these stone structures is well-planned and balanced.
Author | Lee Min (freelance writer), Photo | Shin Byeong-mun (aerial photographer)
Buddha Statue, Seokguram Grotto - History
Seokguram (Stone Cave Hermitage)
Located some distance up Mt. T'oham from Bulguksa itself, Seokguram is justifiably world famous. It has been designated National Treasure No. 24. More recently, in December 1995, together with Bulguksa it was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list.
Seokguram was carved at about the same time as Bulguksa was originally constructed, in the middle of the 8th century during the reign of the Silla King Kyongdok. Its grandeur, indeed, has been related by some scholars to the increasing deployment of Buddhism as a ruling ideology at the time. Legendarily it was the work of Prime Minister Kim Taesong, who also planned Bulguksa, and was constructed to honor the parents of his former life (see Bulguksa section). However, some details, particularly the placement of the central Buddha statue such that it gazes precisely in the direction of the underwater tomb of King Munmu located just off the coast in the East Sea, suggest that the carvings may have been executed to glorify the king or the royal lineage instead.
During the Choson period, or at least during portions of it, Buddhism was officially discouraged and both Bulguksa and Seokguram fell into disrepair. The story is sometimes told that Seokguram was rediscovered by a Japanese postman taking shelter on T'oham Mountain in 1909. It is, however, probably something of an overstatement to say that it had been completely forgotten by local people up until that point. "Rediscovery" might be more accurately described as "discovery for the Japanese authorities," who at that moment just prior to formal annexation had a great interest in Korean antiquities, and indeed had for some years.
*Restoration and preservation
The various attempts to repair and renovate Seokguram during the twentieth century form a complex narrative in themselves and are the focus of a good deal of controversy. One fundamental reason is that, while the artistic importance of Seokguram's carvings is readily apparent, the complexity and subtlety of the engineering that went into the original construction of the cave have often been inadequately appreciated. Those with a special interest in such matters may wish to visit the Silla Science History Museum, located in Kyongju's Folk Craft Village, where the design and repair of Seokguram is explained more extensively by means of a series of displays and cutaway models.
Between 1913 and 1915, the grotto was dismantled as part of the original repair effort undertaken by the Japanese authorities. During this process, a complex infrastructure of stone was found beneath the visible carvings. This design had permitted the circulation of air, regulating the temperature of the inner chamber. A lack of appreciation for the reasons for this design, however, led to the decision to repair the chamber using cement. As a result, air circulation was blocked, and the stones began to sweat, leading to a serious water leakage problem that threatened the integrity of the sculptures. A second reconsruction effort in 1920, focused on waterproofing, did something to alleviate the immediate threat but did not fix the underlying problem. Finally, between 1961 and 1964, a further effort was made under the auspices of UNESCO air conditioning and heating were installed at this point to regulate the temperature of the chamber precisely. While this restoration program has stabilized the situation, it is no improvement over the original design, and is far from ideal for other reasons: the glass window that now separates visitors from the inner chamber is partially justified by the need to control the chamber's air temperature.
VENTURING INTO KOREAN HISTORY AND NATURE
Sunrise in Gyeongju
It’s 6 a.m. The first rays of sunlight break over the horizon as a load of sleepy-eyed westerners stumble out of a bus to greet the dawn at the top of Mount Toham, in Korea’s historical Gyeongju region in the south of the country.
The sky is an impressive blush of salmon pinks and golden yellows but the wind splashes over the lookout like ice water. The road-weary westerners stand rigid with cold, knowing that they are in the midst of an amazing experience but secretly wishing they could be under the covers of a warm bed.
Undaunted by the frigid air and seemingly unaffected by a night of cramped sleep on a bus is Park Seok Jin, founder of Adventure Korea travel club and organizer of this weekend trip to Gyeongju.
Athletically built and wearing little more than a windbreaker, Park stands beside the motley crew of Canadians, Americans, Aussies and Brits, patiently letting them soak in the scenery and adjust to the temperatures of a late fall morning.
Members of Adventure Korea enjoy the late fall colors.
Park’s laid-back style, speaks to his experience as a tour leader. Four years ago, Park was an average salaryman working for Samsung. On the weekends he would tour his American friends around Korea, hitting must-see tourist sites as well as the lesser-known gems of Korea’s beautiful countryside.
In the past three years, Park’s hobby has turned into a full-blown enterprise that organizes day trips, weekend adventures and extended vacations for foreigners living in Korea.
Sokkat’ap Pagoda (Pagoda Without Reflection) is on the Korean 10 won coin.
Like many tour groups before them, Park knows that this Gyeongju group will be grateful for their nightlong bus ride and the early rise once they see the amazing historical and natural sites that are to come.
Park’s mandate for any trip he plans is simple.
“I want to organize trips that give people the opportunity to see a nice view,” he says, and a mountaintop sunrise in one of Korea’s most historical regions certainly lives up to that objective.
Dawn quickly turns to morning and Park led his group up the mountain to a second breathtaking site.
(Top) Seokguram Grotto, (below) a small shrine
High up on Mount Toham, is one of Korea’s most prized historical treasures — the Seokguram Grotto.
A masterpiece of the Silla Dynasty (668 – 935), the grotto is a testimony to the ingenuity and artistry of this ancient Korean culture.
Carefully preserved behind a wall of glass, the 1,500-year-old man-made cave is a myriad of intricate carvings of ancient Buddhist imagery, including the sacheonwang or “Four Heavenly Kings.” The brave warrior kings stand proudly along the wall, framing the main chamber of the cavern, which houses a magnificent Buddha carved of pure white stone.
Sitting in a posture of peace and contemplation, the gigantic Buddha’s serene stature inspires a sense of tranquil awe. Disregarding the “No Photography” sign, a number of tourists sneak a couple of choice shots of this artistic treasure. The Buddhist nun selling postcards in the corner of the tiny cave makes no protest.
“This is fantastic!” says a young Canadian woman as she steps out from the shadowy cavern. “If this is what’s left, I can only imagine what has been lost.”
Having endured time, weather, war and foreign occupation, sites like the grotto, while magnificent, is a mere shadow of the mighty Silla Dynasty, which was advanced in the facets of science, art and architecture.
The perfect marriage between artistry and the beauty of nature, Tohamsan Temple becomes even more spectacular in the fall when the colors are at their most vibrant.
The sun is now shining brightly and, as Park expected, the brisk fall air invigorates the Adventure Korea group. They are grateful for their early wake-up and the crowd-free exploration of this unique Buddhist monument.
It is not yet 9 a.m. and Park leads his enthusiastic adventurers to the third site of the day — the grounds of Pulguksa Temple. Built in 528 A.D, the temple endured a number of attacks by the Japanese. It underwent a full restoration in the late 1960’s.
Maintaining its historical integrity, the temple is a stunning example of Silla masonry and woodwork. The elaborate murals and colorful designs that decorate every beam, door and windowsill of this phenomenal structure have a uniquely Korean flair.
The grandeur of the temple’s architecture is pleasantly offset by its rustic, mountainside setting. It’s an especially lovely sight in late fall, when the leaves of the maples are their richest colors of ruby red and rustic orange.
Park lets his group freely roam around the grounds of this magical place, letting them explore at their own pace. Park is available to answer any questions or to highlight the less noticeable points of interest, like the line of 1,500-year-old toilets, located just outside of the temples main courtyard.
After everyone takes advantage of the amusing photo opportunity in front of an ancient squatter, Park leads his group back down the mountain once again, letting his group amble down the mountain at their own pace.
A quick bus ride and Park brings the Adventure Korea group to the base of Mount Nam. Not to be confused with the mountain of the same name in central Seoul, this mountain in greater Gyeongju provides a rigorous hike to several ancient sites of Buddhist worship.
Beheaded Buddhas are a clear example of Korea’s turbulent past.
Close to the base of the mountain is a large Buddha statue that was beheaded by the Japanese during their occupation in the first half of the 20th century.
Park explains that by beheading the Buddha, the Japanese were negating every prayer that had ever been made to it, thereby destroying the spirits of those who had worshipped it. Not to be mistaken for a symbolic violation, the beheading of Buddha statues were direct attacks on the Korean people and their faith.
A Buddhist engraving at the top of Mt. Nam.
Standing there, in the glorious sun of mid-morning, a group of Westerners are made painfully aware of Korea’s tumultuous past. Yet, having Park lead them up the mountain with such energy and spirit reminds these Westerners of the Korean people’s remarkable resilience and amazing national pride.
Further up the mountain are many more Buddhist carvings, fashioned from the natural grooves of the mountainside. Close to the peak, a 10-foot-tall Buddha rests against the wall of the mount, basking in the rays of an easterly sun, looking over a fantastic panorama of Gyeongju’s countryside.
And this is what makes Gyeongju such a great weekend trip — a perfect mix of outdoor adventure and historical study. Each trek up a mountain holds a secret treasure. It’s where natural beauty meets human artistry, casting light on an ancient culture and giving insight into the roots of present-day Korean society.
Such a full day and it is not yet lunchtime! Park and the Adventure Korea group trek back down the mountain and head off to a much needed rice and veggie mix lunch called bibimbap. After a leisurely lunch and some much needed rest, Park packs his group up again and hits the road to Tumuli Park, in the heart of Gyeongju city.
Home to 23 tombs dating back to the Three Kingdoms period (57 B.C. – 668 A.D), these gigantic, grassy mounds are the burial sites of the kings and queens that ruled this region up to 2,000 years ago.
A surrealistic landscape in honor of an ancient dynasty, these mounds exemplify marriage between human ingenuity and the simplistic beauty of nature. The hills are perfectly symmetrical and covered with the rich velvety green of closely shorn grass. Young families meander through the grounds, careful to keep their children from treading on the sacred monuments.
Excavation of the mounds has gone on in recent years, and while the preservation of this historical area and respect for its sanctity is of the utmost importance to Korean scholars, some of the burial sites hold open exhibits for the public, showing off some of the amazing gold and jade treasures that lie buried beneath the surface of these mammoth structures.
The author reaches for some fresh mountain water.
The mounds begin to obscure the sun, evening falls and a group of tired foreigners jump back on the bus, heading to their night’s lodging. It’s only the end of day one and Park has yet another full day of hiking planned for Sunday.
Eight a.m. on Sunday morning and Park rallies his group to set off for a jaunt through Mount Juwang National Park. The air is warmer and the so-called hike is more like a rigorous walk.
The ease of this trek allows the Adventure Korea group to chat and get to know one another better. Mostly comprised of English teachers, Adventure Korea attracts a lot of people who are interested in exploring as much of Korea during their relatively short stays in the country.
“I’ve met so many friends through Adventure Korea,” says one American, who has been working in Korea for nearly a year. “It’s a group of like-minded people, who would rather spend their time and money learning about this country and do a little physical activity”
Adventure Korea offers a variety of trips, ranging from jam-packed weekends to noted tourist destinations like Gyeongju, to white water rafting trips, mountain climbing adventures and wilderness camping.
Park organizes most of these trips and is always looking for the lesser-known hotspots that the young adventurer would enjoy. Spending 10 days out of every month touring around Korea looking for perfect places, Park plans trips that he thinks will cultivate unique experiences for his participants.
Park hopes that his one-of-a-kind adventures will promote membership amongst both foreigners and Koreans. “In addition to being a travel club, I want to make Adventure Korea a place for cultural exchange,” he explained, and with the success like this trip to Gyeongju, that objective is certain to be achieved.
On a late Sunday afternoon Park packs up his crew and heads back to Seoul. Spirits high and energy low, this adventuresome bunch doze off to sleep, as the sets on this fantastic weekend.
‘It’s a group of like-minded people who would rather spend their time and money learning about this country.’
Buddha Statue, Seokguram Grotto - History
Since Monday was Liberation Day (celebrating freedom from Japan) and a national day off, we spent the long weekend with a friend of Matt’s in Gyeongju. We viewed many relics from the Silla dynasty (57BC-935AD) by visiting Buddhist temples, museums, historical sites, and Namsan Mountain. We were also fed way to much food by the friend’s parents.
There were many tombs all around Gyeongju, but only one you could enter. These tombs were created by encasing the person in a large stone room with many items to be used in their afterlife. Jewelry and clothing were often created solely for the purpose of being worn by the deceased.
Researchers believe that this relic was an observatory, but since there was not form of magnification, no one is really sure. It’s hard to believe that the view would be so much better 10 meters off the ground.
Gyeongju National Museum had many treasures recovered from the tombs of kings. Silla wealth is apparent by the vast amounts of gold items found and restored.
We participated in a tea tasting after listening to this woman play. There may have been other significance to this event, but I did not understand the Korean well enough to do more than accept the tea.
We took an evening bike ride around Lake Bomun and took in the view of the (almost) full moon. The full moon has significance in Buddhism, and so the next day many events were occurring at the Buddhist temples we visited. Lake Bomun was created in the 1970s as a tourist complex without any historical value, but it was a nice place for biking.
These stairs leading into this Buddhist temple were built during the Silla dynasty. We were told to take a picture in front of them because it is very popular place for a picture in Korea.
This Silla pagoda is at the same Buddhist temple. The sign at the site said that it is different from pagodas in other Buddhist countries, that it was built in 751, and that it is named for a person that is/was always verifying the truth of Buddhism. (The details are a bit sketchy for me.)
Many Koreans were visiting this temple due to the Buddhism event on the full moon. No pictures were allowed closer out of respect for the worshipers. The chanting of the monks inside was very moving. I was told that it was a chant of specific readings. I did not understand the words, but the music almost brought tears to my eyes.
As we were visiting a Buddhist temple, there were many places filled with balanced rocks. This one with a balanced Buddha was the most interesting.
The Seokguram Grotto, constructed in 751, contains what is argued to be the best oriental Buddhist work. No cameras were allowed inside, but the Buddha statue was very impressive. (I’m not sure what qualities, however, make it the best.) The person that constructed this grotto and Buddha dedicated the art to the parents of his previous life. The grotto had been lost for many years until a mudslide in the early 1900s (I believe) allowed it to be rediscovered.
As we left the temple grounds and with the donation of a dollar, we rang the bell for mercy. I’m still not sure who the mercy was for.
We spent the rest of the day climbing Namsan, a 494 meter peak in Gyeongju National Park. There are hundreds of carvings, pagodas, statues, and other Silla relics scattered throughout the mountain. We took about 4 hours climbing up and then down and hardly turned around without seeing something. The view of the valley and surrounding mountains was also amazing!
We reached the peak and paused for a photo by the monument.
The view was fantastic! You’ll notice I’m just in socks. There is a Buddha statue and shrine behind me. Before walking onto this ledge, it is polite to remove your shoes.
We took a different path down that required a knotted rope in a couple different places. I was extremely grateful we didn’t take this trail up.
The 1500 year old history was very interesting, but the highlight of the trip was meeting Matt’s friend’s parents. In their 70s and still working at their farm every day, their hospitality was generous, feeding us so much that it took well over 24 hours before we felt the need to eat might ever be an issue again. Although we spoke different languages, kindness and generosity is universal. I hope I was able to communicate respect and thankfulness in the same manner.
Seokguram was founded in 774 in a beautiful mountain, the Tohamsan mountain. It has a fantastic statue of Buddha in very good state of preservation. The path to the Buddha is cool, easy. It may take 10 minutes to arrive to the Buddha. You have to pay a ticket. You cannot take pictures. The place is very relaxing and the landscape is beautiful.
Together with the temple of Bulguksa, the Seokguram is a UNESCO site. Our hotel was in Gyeongju. We took a bus a Bulguksa (
40-50 minutes), we visited the temple and then we took a bus to Seokguram (
30 minutes). Transportation is very easy, always on schedule, cheap, and comfortable. To go back, you have to stop in Bulguksa and look for the bus stop to Gyeongju accross the street. We were so excited that we continue our visit until late at night in Gyeongju.
It was a beautiful day in September. Yes, I suggest to visit this place during the Fall. The colors are incredible! We have wonderful memories!
My husband and I took the local bus next to Starbucks opposites the main bus terminal in Gyeongju. Go to the information booth next to the bus terminal for up to date information and a timetable. It only cost a couple of won to take the bus to Bulguska temple and change to go up to the grotto. We also used our Tcard so you don't need loose change.
The bus ride to the sites were great as you drove through the country side and up in the hills. I must admit the drive in the mountain was a little hairy as the bus driver hit the curves in the mountain pretty close but we made it in one piece.
There were ladies selling their wares at the entrance of the site - usual food etc.
The walk up to the grotto was beautiful with lanterns leading the way. It was a week day and there were not too many people there. Walking in the hills was a lovely way to reach our destination.
We entered the building protecting the statue but was unable to take photos. Just beautiful.
There was a temple and there were monks chanting, just adding to the experience.
I paid 1000 won to ring the temple bell. So cool.
We would highly recommend this and wouldn't do it on a tour as it's very easy to find your way around.
Interesting Facts about Gyeongju
- Gyeongju was the capital of the Silla kingdom of ancient Korea for a thousand years (BC 57 – AD 935).
- Silla unified Three Kingdoms in the mid-7th century by conquering Baekje and Goguryeo.
- After the unification, Gyeongju became the center of economy, culture, arts, and science. Foreign trades by land and sea with China, Japan, and Arab led to the economic boom in Silla.
- A prosperous economy and cultural interactions encouraged Silla to learn and advance its artisanship with precious metals such as gold, silver, and glass from Persia.
- At its peak time, the Unified Silla is believed to have almost 1 million inhabitants.
- Buddhism was first introduced through the Silk Roads in the 5th century. Queen Seondeok declared it as the national religion.
- During the Silla period, the capital city used to be called Seorabeol or Gyerim. When Goryeo absorbed the Unified Silla in AD 935, it was renamed as Gyeongju to celebrate its victory without bleeding a single drop of blood.
- Silla is the only kingdom in Korea ruled by three queens.
- In 1995, Seokguram Grotto and Bulguksa Temple became the first UNESCO designated heritage sites in the country.
- In 2000, Gyeongju Historic Areas was listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
- In 2010, Yangdong Folk Village, along with Hahoe Folk Village (in Andong), was designated by a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
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I t is a massive open-air museum, scattered across a swathe of lush land in Korea’s southeast. Hundreds of historical remains from imperial mausoleums to temples, pagodas, castle sites, statues, and stone lanterns together tell the story of Gyeongju. For almost 1,000 years, this city was the capital of the Silla Kingdom, a realm of stately power and political might. This reign may have ended in the 10th century but its impressive remnants remain, making Gyeongju one of the most significant historical and cultural sites in East Asia.
Gyeongju today is a tiny city by Asia’s standards, home to only about 280,000 people. Unlike the hulking South Korean metropolises of Seoul (population 10 million) and Busan (3.5 million), Gyeongju is not spiked by dozens of gleaming skyscrapers. It is a comparatively modest, low-rise city with a far slower pace of life. Yet 1,100 years ago it was one of the biggest cities the world had ever known. At its peak, in the early 10th century, it is believed to have been home to almost one million people.
Back then Gyeongju was called Sorabol, which in the Korean language means “capital”, the hub of the Silla Kingdom that lasted for nearly a millennium from 57 BCE to 935 CE. Initially no more than a town, Gyeongju began to grow into a major urban center in the 7th century, with efforts made to replicate the sophisticated urban planning of Chang’an (now known as Xi’an), which was then the world’s largest city. When Korea was unified by the Silla Kingdom in 668 CE, Gyeongju received a major boost to its economy and population. Trade poured into Gyeongju from Japan, China and the Middle East.
ABOVE: Ornamental lanterns and sculptures in Gyeongju.
Local artisans learned from the techniques used to create the then luxury products coming from overseas, leading to a boom in religious art. Buddhism arrived in Gyeongju in the 5th century and the city, to this day, is one of the richest troves of ancient Buddhist art and architecture on the planet – so much so that in 2000 the Gyeongju Historic Areas were listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. These areas together boast 52 designated cultural assets including the commanding Bulguksa, a revered Buddhist temple, and the Seokguram Grotto, a Buddhist shrine in a hillside cave.
Dating back more than 1,200 years, Bulguksa has been damaged and rebuilt many times over and is now in an immaculately-restored condition. Spread across a large, landscaped site embellished by dense forest, stone arched bridges, and decorative ponds, the temple boasts picturesque grounds. This cluster of colorful wooden buildings, built atop raised stone terraces, include the Vairocana Buddha Hall, the Hall of Great Enlightenment, and the Hall of Supreme Bliss.
ABOVE: Gyeongju fall foliage.
They blend into this natural setting and visitors are free to wander throughout most of this gorgeous complex. Within the grounds of Bulguksa are no less than eight National Treasures of Korea, including Seokgatap Pagoda, Dabotap Pagoda, Chilbo-gyo, Yeonhwa-gyo, Cheongun-gyo and Baegun-gyo bridges, the Golden Seated Vairocana Buddhist figure, and Seokguram Grotto.
The latter of these treasures is just as extraordinary as Bulguksa. Built into the slope of Mount Toham in the 8th century, Seokguram is a cave shrine which contains some of the most unique pieces of Buddhist art in Korea. Dominating this shrine is a 3.5-metre tall stone carved statue of the Sakyamuni Buddha sitting looking out to sea. Surrounding it on the walls of the grotto are sculptures of more than 40 Buddhist gods and disciples, carved with a remarkable degree of detail.
ABOVE: Roof architecture in Gyeongju.
The two biggest attractions of Gyeongju, Bulguksa and Seokguram are located in Gyeongju National Park, about 15km south-east of the city center. There also are a host of ancient sites closer to the downtown area. In Namsan, in the city’s south, are the remains of Poseokjeong Pavilion, Cheollyongsaji Three-story Stone Pagoda, Chilbulam Maae Stone Buddha and Bulgok Seated Stone Buddha, each of which date back to the Silla Kingdom.
Not far from there, in the Wolseong area, is the site of a palace from the Silla era. The most significant remnants there are Cheomseongdae, a stone observatory from the 7th century, and the site of Donggung Palace, which once was one of the most magnificent structures in all of Asia.
Scattered across the rest of Gyeongju are many Royal tombs, and remains of fortresses, temples and pagodas. There are so many historic sites in this city form the Silla era that to attempt to list them all would be folly. Trying to visit them all, meanwhile, would take weeks. Fortunately, the tale of the Silla Kingdom is told with great detail at Gyeongju’s wonderful National Museum. This well-organized facility is home to hundreds of cultural artefacts from the Silla Kingdom. It is a great place to start your visit to Gyeongju. Once you have an overview of the phenomenal backstory of this city you will be better placed to decide just which of its endless ancient sites to visit. Gyeongju is dense with history.
Ancient Korean history is still alive in Gyeongju
King Munmu, the 30th king of Silla
He succeeded King Taejong Muyeol, and unified the three kingdoms. He defeated the Tang forces, and laid a foundation for the prosperity of the unified Silla.
“When I die, take my ashes to the East Sea. I will become a dragon and protect Silla against Japanese raiders!”
- King Munmu’s will
According to his will, an internationally unprecedented underwater royal tomb came to existence in the waters off Gampo, Gyeongju. It is ‘the Underwater Tomb of King Munmu.’
The country whose king wished to protect it even after his death
Silla was ‘a millennium kingdom’ that achieved the cultural unification of the three kingdoms, Goguryeo, Baekje, and Silla. Gyeongju is a historic city that has preserved Silla’s culture, relics, and soul.
It is a rare city that has 1000 years of history as a capital of a country. The entire city is like an ancient history museum of Korea.
Named as one of the 10 most important historic sites by UNESCO in 1979
Introduced in UNESCO’s World Heritage Series
The entire city is registered as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage with 5 main areas.
Gyeongju fascinates its visitors with its rich cultural and historical assets.
The pinnacle of Eastern Buddhist art
There is no comparison to this masterpiece in the East.
- Sekino Tadashi, Japanese art historian and architect
Common materials used in the world’s famous architectures:
Soft and more amenable limestone or soil
However, the Seokguram Grotto used something different that surprised the world:
‘Granite’ Silla’s sculptors created this soft and exquisite artwork by finely cutting tough granite. The Buddha statue in Seokguram has attracted high praise internationally.
“The niches were created like weaving silk with stone.”
Ideal proportions and symmetry
Face: chest: shoulder: knee = 1:2:3:4
There is a round dot in the middle of his forehead. This dot was sculpted multi-dimensionally in order to reflect sunlight to the foreheads of the eleven-faced Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, in the rear.
Such design maximizes lighting effects in the grotto, which attests to Silla’s advanced technology. It reveals the height of Silla’s technology that even modern technology cannot reproduce. Seokguram is evidence of the level of Silla’s technology and the essence of its art.
The zenith of an outstanding combination of science, art, and religion
Designated as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage in 1995
There is no other temple in the East that reveals better techniques in carving stone and interlocking wood than this one. – Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms
Bulguksa has preserved Korea’s rich Buddhist cultural heritage until today.
Delicate and magnificent temple
There are two pagodas that represent the Bulguksa Temple.
Perfect proportion and balance
Simple and dignified grace
The perfect symmetry and stability were the result of careful calculations. It was designed to create an ascending optical illusion.
Individual stones were assembled perfectly with no use of adhesive. Exact symmetrical balance and exquisite decorations. Seokgatap and Dabotap pagodas are the products of the combination of Silla’s Buddhism, technology, and artistic soul. The world cultural heritage of Bulguksa hosts both of these two pagodas.
Cheomseongdae,the world’s oldest observatory
Cheomseongdae presents a great harmony of straight lines and curves.
It is composed of 362 stone pieces, representing the days of a lunar year, and a square-shaped upper stone that points to the directions of east, west, south and north. Cheomseongdae reflects the wisdom of the Silla people, who attempted to use the knowledge gained from observing astronomical changes. Silla’s advanced scientific knowledge was integrated into the construction of Cheomseongdae.
The treasure houses of Silla’s millennium history
Geumgwanchong, Geumnyeongchong, Seobongchong,
Cheonmachong, and Hwangnamdaechong tombs
23 tombs of Silla’s kings, queens and nobility
The tombs contained invaluable artifacts that show life during Silla.
Golden crowns, Cheonmado (painting of a heavenly horse), glasses, and pottery
Old tomb parks are like time capsules that bring visitors into the glorious Silla culture.
A golden crown of Silla, a country of golden artwork
The Silk Road started in Europe and ended here.
Around 70% of the unearthed golden crowns in the world are concentrated in Korea. Korea is highly praised as a country of golden crowns.
Among all of them, Silla’s golden crowns are the most exquisite.
Beyond China, across Qansu, there is a country with many mountains and an abundant of gold, called Shilla. Muslims who happen to go there are fascinated by the good environment and tend to settle there for good and do not think of leaving the place.
- Kitabu’l Masalik wa’l Mamalik (Ibn Khurdadhibah, Arabic geographer)
The reputation of Silla’s golden culture spread even to the Arab world. The result of the advanced golden culture was the golden crowns of Silla.
The place to experience Silla’s spirits
Namsan Mountain was the realization of Buddha’s land that the Silla people had longed for.
147 temple sits
13 royal tombs
118 Buddha statues
13 national treasures
13 historical sites
Namsan Mountain in Gyeongju is called the outdoor museum of Silla.
Throughout Gyeongju, there remain many Buddha statues from Silla’s 1000 years of history.
Na-eul Shrine and Namsanseong Fortress
The historic sites where many important events occurred during Silla
Mt. Namsan in Gyeongju witnessed everything throughout Silla history.
A legendary flute that reflected Silla’s wishes for peace
According to a legend, the sound of this flute would resolve all the worries and concerns of the country and the people.
The legend shows what the Silla people desired the most.
This flute delivers the Silla people’s old wish to us.
Can you hear this flute’s sound?
The country whose king wished to protect it even after his death
The beginning and the end of Silla’s millennium history
The Eastern end of the Silk Road
Long live Silla
Home of the millennium kingdom, Gyeongju
Gyeongju holds a collection of Silla’s history, science, culture and art.
Gyeongju is a time-honored fascinating city with over 200 cultural assets.
This city will take you to the glorious past of Silla.
Are you interested in a trip to Gyeongju?
VANK members are here for you.
We will take you through the culture and history of Silla.
The flute of hope, Manpasikjeok
In Gyeongju, you will hear the resonant sound of Manpasikjeok.
India began a tradition of carving the image of Buddha in stone, holy images, and stupas into the cliff walls and natural caves. This practice was transferred to China and then Korea. The geology of the Korean Peninsula, which contains an abundance of hard granite, is not conducive to carving stone images into cliff walls. Seokguram is an artificial grotto made from granite and is unique in design. The small size of the grotto indicates that it was probably used exclusively by the Silla royalty.
The grotto is symbolic of a spiritual journey into Nirvana. Pilgrims were to start at Bulguksa or at the foot Mt. Tohamsan, a holy mountain to the Silla. There was a fountain at the entrance of the shrine where pilgrims could refresh themselves. Inside the grotto, the antechamber and corridor represented the earth while the rotunda represented heaven.
The basic layout of the grotto includes an arched entrance which leads into a rectangular antechamber and then a narrow corridor, which is lined with bas-reliefs, and then finally leads into the main rotunda. The centerpiece of the granite sanctuary is a Buddha statue seated in the main chamber. The identity of the Buddha is still debated. The Buddha is seated on a lotus throne with legs crossed. The Buddha has a serene expression of meditation. The Buddha is surrounded by fifteen panels of bodhisattvas, arhats and ancient Indian gods in the rotunda and is accompanied by ten statues in niches along the rotunda wall. The main hall of Seokguram houses a Bojon statue Bodhisattva and his disciples. Forty different figures representing Buddhist principles and teachings are in the grotto. The grotto was built around these statues in order to protect them from weathering. The ceiling of the Seokguram grotto is decorated with half moons, the top is decorated with a lotus flower. Silla architects used symmetry and apparently employed the concept of the golden rectangle.
The grotto is shaped by hundreds of different granite stones. There was no mortar used and the structure was held together by stone rivets. The construction of the grotto also utilized natural ventilation. The dome of the rotunda is 6.84 meters to 6.58 meters in diameter.
Sculpture within the grotto
The main Buddha is a highly regarded piece of Buddhist art. It is 3.5 meters in height and sits on a 1.34 meter tall lotus pedestal. The Buddha is realistic in form and probably represents the Seokgamoni Buddha, the historic Buddha at the moment of enlightenment. The position of the Buddha's hands symbolizes witnessing the enlightenment. The Buddha has an usnisa, a symbol of the wisdom of the Buddha. The drapery on the Buddha, such as the fan-shaped folds at the crossed-legs of the Buddha, exemplifies Korean interpretations of Indian prototypes. Unlike other Buddhas that have a halo attached to the back of the head, the Buddha at Seokguram creates the illusion of a halo by placing a granite roundel carved with lotus petals at the back wall of the rotunda. The pedestal is made of three parts the top and bottom are carved with lotus petals while the central shaft consists of eight pillars.
Accompanying the main Buddha, in relief, are three bodhisattvas, ten disciples, and two Hindu gods along the wall of the rotunda. Ten statues of bodhisattvas, saints, and the faithful are located in niches above the bas-reliefs. The ten disciples were disciples of Seokgamoni and are lined five on each side of the Avalokitesvara. Their features suggest a Greek influence. The two bodhisattvas are of Manjusri and Samantabhadra. The two Hindu gods are Brahma and Indra.
The Four Heavenly Kings guard the corridor. There are also images of Vajrapanis, which are guardian figures and they are on the walls of the entrance to the corridor, in the antechamber. Eight Guardian Deities adorn the antechamber.
Another notable figure is the Eleven-faced Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. It is on the back wall of the rotunda and stands 2.18 meters in height. This figure is the only one of the bas-reliefs facing forward, the others face the side. The Avalokitesvara wears a crown, is dressed in robes and jewelry and holds a vase containing a lotus blossom.
Two statues from the niches and a marble pagoda that was believed to have stood in front of the Avalokitesvara are missing from the grotto and are believed to have been looted by the Japanese.
Gyeongju, South Korea
My first visit to Gyeongju, South Korea was in September 2003 when I first came to South Korea. The Korean head teacher of my elementary and middle school academy took my co-worker David Miretti (who I still keep in contact with) and myself to the two most famous places in Gyeongju: Bulguksa (Bulguk Temple) and Seokguram. Seokguram is a grotto that is a part of the Bulguksa complex, that holds a stone Buddha statue.
Bulguksa is located on the slopes of Mt. Toham in North Gyeongsang province in the city of Gyeongju. It's considered to be the masterpiece of Buddhist art in the Silla Kingdom. The history is a long one. In 528, King Beopheung built a small temple on this site. However, according to Samguk Yusa records, the current temple began to be built under King Gyeongdeok in 751. The prime minister at the time was led by Kim Daeseong in order to pacify his parents. The temple was completed in 774 after Kim's death and was later named Bulguksa (The Temple of the Buddha Land).
|I loved the bridge leading to the temple. It's called Sokgyemun.|
The temple went through renovations during two Dynasty periods (Goryeo and Joseon). During the Imjin Wars (1592-1598 Japanese invasions of Korea), the wooden buildings were burned to the ground. After 1604, reconstruction and expansion of Bulguksa started, followed by 40 renovations until 1805.
After World War II and the Korean War, a partial restoration was conducted in 1966. President Park Chung Hee ordered a major restoration of Bulguksa between 1969 and 1973 after an extensive archeological investigation.
Bulguksa and Seokguram were added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1995.
My second visit came this month as I went to Gyeongju to do a project for the Hotel Hyundai in Gyeongju to help promote their hotel on my blog as well as on Instagram. I also wrote a review for them on Trip Advisor. My wife's brother-in-law drove and thankfully he did. Gyeongju is not easy to get around without a car. You can get a bus to Bulguksa with no problem and you can take the bus to Seokguram but that task might be a bit more difficult. This will be mentioned later.
Comparing my first visit to Gyeongju in 2003, I didn't see any major differences except for a lot more cafes as we were driving along the way to our hotel. There were a few more restaurants but not a whole lot. I'm happy to see that Korea hasn't done anything to ruin Gyeongju's charm. Of course back then there wasn't an amusement park but overall Bulguksa and Seokguram look exactly the same as when I saw them in 2003 and that's a great thing!
The two towers that haven't changed at all are Dabotap and Seokatap. They are structures that were both created in the Silla Dynasty. Despite them having a different appearance from each other, they have relatively the same height and are both made of stylobate to create a proportional and balanced look of the temple. You can see them here.
As you walk along this quiet path for about 10 minutes you might encounter at least three squirrels along the way as I did! It was nice to just enjoy the nature and the true feel of real Korea.
Then you arrive at the main complex of Seokguram. However, you need to climb up some stairs to get there now. I especially loved the lanterns during the season of Buddha's Birthday (May 3rd).
Here's my wife with her sister and brother-in-law as we start to make the climb up to the Seokguram Grotto..
|My lovely wife with her sister and brother-in-law a few steps ahead of us|
Once you get to the top, you find the grotto that holds the Bonjonbul figure of Buddha which is 3.3 meters in height and 2.7 meters in width. You can't take pictures of it once you're inside unfortunately but here is a pic that I found from a tourism site of Korea. It is an artificial stone Buddha made of granite. As mentioned earlier, the construction started by King Dae-Seong in 751 and finished in 774 by King Hye Gong.
Not only will you see the Bonjun Statue as you walk into the grotto, but you'll also see the Bodhi-sattva, and his disciples. The statue has a generous smile and is engraved with a lotus flower design. The ceiling is half-moon shaped and has a lotus flower designed cover on it.