Bunhwangsa Temple - 분황사석탑 (芬皇寺石塔) (634)
Bunhwangsa (Famous Emperor Temple) was built in 634 during the reign of Queen Seondeok. It is the oldest datable pagoda from the Silla Era. Once it had seven or nine stories, but the upper stories have been lost over the years.
Bunhwangsa was once a grand temple complex that covered several acres. It ranked among the four preeminent temples of the kingdom, a distinction it shared with nearby Hwangnyongsa temple. Unlike Buddhist temples of today, it was not a place where the common people came to worship. Instead, it was a state-sponsored facility where monks supported by the state prayed constantly for the welfare of the kingdom.
So few pagodas survive from the Silla era because stone buildings were rarely constructed in Korea. The stonemasons of the time, lacking the long tradition of their contemporaries in China, were forced to borrow techniques from Tang China and improvise with their experience in wood. As a result, Bunhwangsa looks like an imitation Tang pagoda with Korean details. Most of the experience the masons had was with brick-making, which they adapted at Bunhwangsa by stacking the stones to resemble brick.
It is believed that the interior was once hollow, but over time debris has completely filled the temple. A 1915 excavation into the interior uncovered a relic box lodged between the second and third stories, containing the calcified remains of a cremated priest. It is common to entomb the remains of cremated priests, called sari, in pagodas such as these. Also found were gold and stone ornaments, coins, scissors, and a needle with a case. This rich lode certainly belonged to a woman of royalty, perhaps even Queen Seondeok herself.
On each face of the pagoda are doors that may have once been entrances. Flanking the openings are carvings of Buddhist guardians called Geumgang-yeoksa (Mighty Diamond Men). On the base platform at the four corners are stone lions guarding the pagoda. In the fields south of the temple are flagpole support pillars that also survive from the original temple.
Bunhwangsa is still an active temple today, though it is a fraction of its original size. There are a few tiny worship pavilions nearby.
Buddhism was relatively new to Silla at the time of Seondeok's reign, having been introduced only in the previous century from Silla's more advanced neighbors. For more on the introduction of Buddhism to Silla, see the Hwangnyongsa page on this website.
Address: 경북 경주시 구황동 313 분황사.
(Designated National Treasure #30).
The approximate location of the temple is 35.840456' N, 129.233705' E (WGS 84 map datum).
All images copyright 1998 Timothy M. Ciccone & Abraham C. Ahn
Adams, Edward B. Korea's Kyongju: Cultural Spirit of Silla in Korea
Seoul International Tourist Publishing Company, 1983. Seoul
Korean Office of Cultural Properties