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    Seokguram Grotto and Bulguksa Temple | Haeinsa Temple Janggyeong Panjeon, the Depositories of the Tripitaka Koreana Woodblocks | Jongmyo Shrine | Changdeokgung Palace Complex | Hwaseong Fortress | Gyeongju Historic Areas | Gochang, Hwasun, and Ganghwa Dolmen Sites | Jeju Volcanic Island and Lava Tubes | Royal Tombs of the Joseon Dynasty | Historic Villages of Korea: Hahoe and Yangdong | Namhansanseong | Baekje Historic Areas
     Seokguram Grotto and Bulguksa Temple vodview
    Epitome of Silla’s Divine Buddhist Art

    In December 2000, UNESCO added Gyeongju, the old capital of the Silla Kingdom (57 B.C.-A.D. 935), to its World Heritage List, designating five areas that contain a total of 52 officially recognized cultural properties of Korea. However, the two most prominent sites of Gyeongju, Seokguram Grotto and Bulguksa Temple, were not included among the monuments and relics achieving UNESCO’s highly coveted inscription. In fact, they had already been inscribed in 1995.

    Seokguram: World of Eternity beyond the Human Realm
    Overlooking the East Sea beyond mountain ridges from the southeastern tip of the Korean peninsula, Seokguram lies 565 meters above sea level near the summit of Mt. Toham. The cave chapel was originally built as a hermitage affiliated with a temple named Seokbulsa in accordance with the wishes of Kim Dae-seong, a state councilor during the reign of King Gyeongdeok of Silla. Its construction began in 751 and was completed in 774 under the reign of King Hyegong. The temple became dilapidated due to poor management in modern times but the hermitage has survived with its sublime beauty and profound religious symbolism.

    Seokguram literally means “stone cave hermitage.” Unlike most other ancient cave temples in Asia, which were formed by nature or dug into hillsides and carved on rocks, Seokguram is a man-made grotto built of some 360 granite pieces and covered with earth. Cave shrines originated in India and became popular in the Dunhuang and Yungang regions of China before reaching Korea, where they attained a new level of development.

    The interior of Seokguram consists of a circular main chamber, or rear chamber, with a dome ceiling, a rectangular antechamber and a corridor connecting the two chambers. The floor design reflects the ancient view of the universe that heaven was round and earth was square. It is reminiscent of the ancient burial mounds of the Silla royalty with a square front and round back, which are also known as keyhole-shaped tombs.
    The undisputed centerpiece of Seokguram is the majestic Buddha in the circular main hall. A serene but powerful image epitomizing the aestheticism of Korean Buddhist sculpture, it envisages Sakyamuni, the Historic Buddha, at the moment he achieved enlightenment overcoming all obstacles and temptations. The 3.5-meter-high Buddha is seated cross-legged on a lotus throne placed slightly toward the back from the center of the main rotunda, granting more space in front of him. He wears a faint, all-knowing smile with half-closed eyes in deep meditation. With a beautifully proportioned body and a robe with expressive fluid folds, the Buddha has his left hand in dhyanamudra, or the mudra of concentration, with the palm facing upward near the abdomen, and his right hand in bhumisparsamudra, or the earth-touching mudra, extended straight downward to call the earth as witness to his victory over the demon king Mara.

    A large granite roundel adorned with lotus petals around the rim is set on the wall about one meter apart behind the Buddha, creating the illusion of an aureole around his head. This nimbus is uniquely separated from the Buddha. When worshippers at the foot of the Buddha look up, they can see a perfect circle formed by lotus petals with those petals on the upper part of the roundel appearing larger than the petals near the bottom.

    The main rotunda has a dome ceiling of intricately assembled square stone blocks, a wonder to modern architecture. As in all other parts of the grotto, no mortar was used. The stones are held together by stone rivets, which protrude to make the ceiling surface uneven, creating the illusion of depth in an attempt to emulate the vastness of cosmic space.

    A round granite plate decorated with lotus petals caps the domed ceiling, but cracks divide the capstone into three pieces. According to Samguk Yusa (Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms), a 13th-century source written by the monk historian Iryeon, the stone suddenly broke into three when the cave was about to be completed. Kim Dae-seong wept bitterly and fell asleep with his clothes on. During the night, gods descended from heaven and restored the stone to its original condition. Legend aside, Seokguram has been known as an incredible work of art finished with the assistance of unworldly powers transcending the realm of humans.

    The circular main hall is connected by a corridor to a rectangular ante-chamber, which has bas-relief images of the Eight Guardian Deities, four on each of the two side walls. Two fierce Vajrapanis stand vigil on either side of the entrance to the passageway leading into the main hall. The Four Heavenly Kings are carved on the two walls of the corridor, two on each side.

    The main Buddha is surrounded by three bodhisattvas, ten arhats and two Hindu gods carved in high relief on the wall of the rotunda. A graceful image of the Eleven-faced Avalokitesvara stands immediately behind the Buddha, with five arhats, or the disciples of the Buddha, lined up on each side. Next to the arhats stands Manjusri, the representation of divine wisdom, and his companion Samantabhadra. Next to these popular bodhisattvas are the two famous Indian devas, Brahma and Indra. There are ten niches above these images, each holding miniature statues of bodhisattvas, saints and faithfuls, all gathered to hear the Buddha’s words.

    When it was built, an impressive pantheon of 40 divinities, including the Historic Buddha, occupied Seokguram, but only 38 images remain today. Two bodhisattva statuettes in the niches on the wall of the main chamber disappeared during the colonial period in the early 20th century. So did an exquisite five-story marble pagoda which stood in front of the Eleven-faced Avalokitesvara at the back of the Buddha.

    Silla was the last of the ancient Korean Three Kingdoms to receive Buddhism but its people were intent on turning their entire territory into the blissful land of the Buddha. They believed they would be able to attain Buddhahood through the worship of the divine Buddha images. Seokguram owes its sublime beauty not only to the devout religious faith of the people of Silla but also to their artistic and scientific prowess, and engineering expertise.

    In its original state, the ancient grotto chapel was an architectural masterpiece equipped with perfect self-conservation capabilities, such as natural ventilation, lighting, and temperature and humidity control. Paradoxically, modern science has fallen short of maintaining Seokguram’s self-preservation capacity not to mention its original structure and appearance.

    After long, dark years under the Confucian-oriented Joseon Dynasty, which suppressed Buddhism, the mountain grotto underwent a few rounds of repair work in the 20th century. During the colonial period (1910-1945), the Japanese completely dismantled and reassembled the grotto, which resulted in severe mistakes. Drainage pipes were buried under the cave to allow groundwater to flow out. The chilly groundwater flowing underneath, however, had helped to control the temperature and humidity inside the cave to prevent dew formation. Even worse, the entire cave was encased with cement, leading to water leaks and the erosion of the sculptures because the cave could no longer “breathe.” Later in the 1960s, the Korean government covered the concrete mass with waterproof asphalt, but water continued to leak and dew formed. Eventually, the problem of temperature and humidity control was resolved with mechanical devices.

    The wooden superstructure built over the antechamber in the 1960s remains another mystery. The glass negatives of 1912-1913 which were recently disclosed do not have such a structure at the entrance. Instead, they show one of the Eight Guardian Deities in the antechamber, which stands nearest to the entrance on either side, faces Vajrapani, the holder of the thunderbolt scepter.

    These recent changes aside, the grotto shrine is a proud testimony to Korea’s brilliant tradition of classical Buddhist sculpture. The main Buddha, in particular, is widely adored as an enigmatic combination of masculine strength and feminine beauty, a personification of divine and human natures. The Eleven-faced Avalokitesvara draws no less admiration for its charming beauty depicted by a masterly hand. Each of the other bodhisattvas, arhats, the Four Heavenly Kings and the Vajrapanis also exhibit unique characteristics and high standards of artistic excellence.

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