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Korea's Buddhist architectural gems

The Bangkok Post, July 19, 2011

Famous temple offers a peaceful sanctuary

Gyeongju, South Korea -- With its unique architectural style dating back more than a thousand years, Bulguksa temple in Gyeongju, South Korea, is an important example of Silla architecture well worth visiting.

<< In front of the main hall of Bulguksa temple are two pagodas, Seokgatap and Dabotap.

On fine days, Korean families love to enjoy the day out. And one of the famous destinations is Bulguksa temple and its impressive architecture. The serene verdant surroundings make the temple a very peaceful sanctuary.

Legend has it that the temple was designed by Prime Minister Kim Dae Seong, who dedicated it to the memory of his ancestors. The temple was completed in 774 by the Silla royal court and given the name Bulguksa - "Literary Temple of the Buddha Land".

When the temple was completed, it comprised 80 buildings situated on an elevated rock terrace. It was burned to the ground during the 1592 Hideyoshi Toyotomi invasion. It was partially reconstructed during the Japanese occupation from 1910-1945 and fully restored under President Park Chung-hee during the 1970s. Although the whole temple was rebuilt, its architecture remains elegant and impressive.

Bulguksa is not as large as other famous temples in the country. It is, however, one of the more outstanding examples of Silla architecture around today.

The most important building is the main hall - Daeungjeon, the Hall of Great Enlightenment, which houses the Sakyamuni Buddha. In front of the main hall are the two pagodas, Seokgatap and Dabotap, designed by the legendary master craftsman Asadal in the 8th century.

The three-story, 8-metre tall Seokgatap is a traditional Korean-style stone pagoda with simple lines and minimal decoration. It is ringed by eight lotus-shaped stones, which symbolise the eight lotus flowers that fell from heaven as prophesied in the Lotus Sutra.

During reconstruction work treasures were discovered inside such as a sutra, a sari box, silver sutra plates and a woodblock copy of the Dharani Sutra printed in the early 8th century.

<< All the lanterns are tied with wish lists. Korean Buddhists like to make a wish in this colourful way.

Dabotap pagoda is 10.4 metres tall and dedicated to the Many Treasures Buddha, who made a prophecy about a miraculous funerary tower in the Lotus Sutra. Symbolising the complexity of the universe, this pagoda is highly ornate.

Visitors to Bulguksa should not miss visiting Seokguram temple nearby. While visitors have to trek for a kilometre, most of them enjoy it as the trail cuts through a lush and refreshing forest.

At the end of the trail is Seokguram temple, which houses Seokguram Grotto Hermitage, an artificial cave fashioned in the hills above Bulguksa. Assembled sometime during the 8th century, the grotto was designed by statesman Kim Dae Seong.

The grotto comprises 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 antechamber and corridor represent the earth while the rotunda represents heaven.

The main rotunda houses the principal Buddha statue, which is considered one of the country's masterpieces of Buddhist art. The 3.5-metre high statue was carved from a single block of granite and sits on a 1.34-metre tall lotus pedestal.

Bulguksa temple and Seokguram Grotto Hermitage are on Unesco's World Heritage list.


Gyeongju is 370km southeast of Seoul. The Bulguksa temple and Seokguram grotto are located 16 kilometres from downtown Gyeongju. For more information about attractions in South Korea, visit www.visitkorea.or.kr.

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