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Seokguram Grotto - 석굴암석굴 (石窟庵石窟) (8th century)

Seokguram temple is an artificial cave grotto fashioned in the hills above Bulguksa temple. Assembled sometime during the 8th century, it is the only wholly intact building from the Silla era. The site is so unique that the visitors are only allowed a glimpse of the interior (photographs are prohibited). Strikingly similar to the Longmen Grottos in Luoyang, China, the architecture of the temple is derived from rock-hewn caves commonly found in China and India. Another Korean example that is crude by comparison (but older) is the Gunwi Grotto in Daegu.

Historical references to the Seokguram are nonexistent but for a single account recorded in the Samguk Yusa (Legends of the Three Kingdoms) written by the monk Iryon in the 14th century. Iryon relates the legend that Kim Tae-song, the architect of Seokguram, was carving the central ceiling stone when it cracked before his eyes. The mason wept freely at his blunder and he fell into a deep trance. In a dream, he saw celestial beings descend from heaven and repair the critical ceiling stone. When he awoke, he found the stone healed but for the faint traces of cracks on the surface. Modern historians are amazed at the tale's accuracy: even today, cracks can be seen in the ceiling stone dividing it into three parts.

Kim Tae-song, the legendary architect of Seokguram, is also known for designing Bulguksa. Both Bulguksa and Seokguram are said to have been built in memory of his parents. For more information about Kim Tae-song, see the Bulguksa page on this website.

For long centuries Seokguram was abandoned. Although some local inhabitants may have visited it from time to time, it was not rediscovered until 1909 when a traveling postman happened upon it by chance. The tale goes that during a thunderstorm a postman was caught outside in the rain and sought shelter in the nearest cave he could find. When he was safely inside, he lit a candle and found a gigantic stone Buddha staring back him. One can well imagine his surprise!

When word of the discovery reached the Japanese occupation authorities in Seoul, the Governor-General expressed interest and ordered that the Seokguram be dismantled and shipped to Seoul. Planning for the operation went ahead but local authorities stymied his efforts, and the plan was dropped. Several years later it was decided to begin repairs on the grotto. Using what are now considered primitive methods, the Japanese archaeologists dismantled the entire grotto and reinforced it with iron and concrete. Unfortunately in the process they destroyed the hidden stone scaffolding that had supported the dome since the Silla era. The concrete and iron replacement proved to be inferior. Soon condensation began to collect in the dome and water dripped from the ceiling. In 1920, the exasperated crew removed the soil above the grotto and installed tar and asphalt waterproofing over the ceiling before replacing the soil. Not until 1961 was the grotto touched again, when UNESCO began a major renovation that lasted until 1964. Air conditioning and heating were installed to keep the stones at a constant temperature and prevent damage.

A range of unknowns:

There is considerable controversy over the identity of the images carved in the grotto. Even the identity of the Buddha is in doubt. If indeed the tomb was built in memory of Kim Tae-Song's parents, it is likely that the Buddha is an image of Amita, the Buddha of the Western Paradise. But it is also possible that the image represents the Sakamuni Buddha or the Pirochana Buddha�the Buddha revered by the Hwaom sect, the order of monks that managed nearby Bulguksa. Although most historians would wager that the image is Amita, the issue is far from resolved.

One problem is that it seems unlikely that the construction of the grotto�an enormous undertaking�was nothing but a memorial to a mere minister's parents. One tantalizing theory is that the Seokguram was something far greater�a supernatural barrier against Japanese invasion. Proponents of this theory have amassed compelling evidence, such as the proximity of the Seokguram to the underwater tomb of King Munmu, which is known to have been built to resist Japanese invasion. King Munmu was a sovereign of Silla who asked to be cremated in the sea so that his spirit could become a dragon to protect the kingdom from the east. The mountain on which the Seokguram stands, Tohamsan, is listed in the Samguk Sagi as the easternmost of five mountains protecting Silla from foreign invasion. Furthermore, the Buddha image in the Seokguram faces east toward the sea. From inside, it is even possible to see the ocean in the far distance. The question arises: Did the Silla kings build Seokguram so that the Buddha, facing east, could help the kingdom resist invasion?

Granite panels and Guardian Devas

Along the walls of the rotunda are fifteen granite images of Bodhisatvas and disciples. Ten of these depict disciples of the historical Buddha and are carved with distinctively Indo-European features such as elongated heads and long noses. The remaining five images depict various Bodhisatvas: four of which are located on either side of the support pillars inside the rotunda. The fifth is Gwanseum, the Goddess of Mercy, located on the wall of the rotunda directly behind the central Buddha statue.

In the antechamber leading to the rotunda are numerous guardian deities. Directly inside the front entrance are eight bas-reliefs of palbujung (Eight Congregated Devas) facing each other across the chamber. Although some are dressed in armor, their general attitude seems less than threatening. By contrast, the two Inwang guards depicted just beyond seem poised in the middle of a martial arts move, their bare chests rippling with muscle.

Further on just before the rotunda are the familiar Four Heavenly Kings that can still be found at the entrances to Buddhist temples even today. On the north wall is the king of the east, Chiguk Chonwang (Protecting the Country Heavenly King) followed by the king of the north, Tamun Chonwang (Many Hearing Heavenly King). On the south wall is the king of the south, Chungjang Chonwang (Increasing Prosperity Heavenly King), followed by the king of the west, Kwangmok Chonwang (Wide Vision Heavenly King).

Inside the rotunda above the granite panels are ten niches that one once contained 10 small sculptures, although only eight remain after two were stolen in the early days of the Japanese occupation. The images vary in height from 28-32 inches and are known as kamshil, after the hut-shaped niches in which they reside. It is believed that two stolen images were taken to Japan by high-ranking officials.

* * *

Before the last renovation, sunlight entered the Seokguram for brief moments as the sun rose from the east. Although the sun no longer shines into Seokguram, the monument will continue to delight tourists and puzzle historians for many years to come.

Address: 경북 경주시 진현동 891 석굴암.

(Designated National Treasure #24).

Location

The approximate location of the site is 35.794813' N, 129.349081' E (WGS 84 map datum).

Bibliography:

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

Iryon or Kim Kyonmyong. Samguk Yusa (Additional Materials of the Three Kingdoms). 14th century Korea.

Korean Office of Cultural Properties


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