Icons of Gyeongju: Bulguksa and Seokguram

Bulguksa Temple 불국사 is Gyeongju’s most iconic temple as well as a lasting symbol of Buddhism in Korea.  Located on the slopes of 토함산 Mount Toham, a sacred place during the Silla Dynasty, it currently serves as a head temple of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism.

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Entrance to Bulguksa Temple

Seven National treasures are contained in the temple grounds, such as the Cheongun-gyo (청운교, Blue Cloud Bridge) and the Dabotap (다보탑) and Seokgatap (석가탑) pagodas. The Blue Cloud Bridge and White Cloud Bridge form the entrance to the Jahamun (Golden Purple Gate, 자하문), with the Blue making up the lower half. The staircase has thirty-three steps in total, symbloizing the thrity-three heavens of Buddhism.

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Entrance to Bulguksa Temple

The Dabotap pagoda, known as the “pagoda of many treasures”, is such a valuable piece of Korean heritage, it is featured on the 10 won coin.

Dabotap Pagoda
Dabotap Pagoda

Bulguksa Temple was originally constructed in 528 CE, in the time of the Silla Dynasty, and was known as Hwaeom Bulguksa or Beopryusa. The temple as it is today was constructed by Kim Dae-Seong, a chief minister under King Seongdeok, in 751 CE. According to legend, Kim had been reincarnated due to his exemplary filial piety. Samgukyusa, a history book from the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392 CE), states that Kim built Seokguram Grotto in honor of his parents from his former life, and reconstructed Bulguksa Temple to honor his parents in his current life.

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Seokguram Grotto (석굴암 석굴) is another beautiful site with significant historic and religious value. Its construction began in the mid-700s CE, during the cultural peak of the Silla period. At the time of construction, it was called 석불사 (Seokbulsa, Stone Buddha Temple).

Constructed into the mountain, the grotto features statues of marble, the largest of which is a Buddha seated on a pedestal in the shape of a lotus flower.

Seokguram Grotto and Bulguksa Temple, Reublic Of Korea
Seokguram Grotto (Photo Courtesy of UNESCO World Heritage)

The ceiling is rounded, featuring another lotus flower. The Buddha most likely represents the Seokgamoni Buddha, the Buddha at the moment of enlightenment, as his hand placement indicates witnessing the enlightenment. The statue also features an usnisa, a symbol of the wisdom of the Buddha. Korean interpretations of this originally Indian symbol can be seen in the drapery on the Buddha, including the fan-shaped folds at the its legs.

Seokguram Grotto and Bulguksa Temple, Reublic Of Korea (South)
Seokguram Grotto (Photo Courtesy of UNESCO World Heritage)

The other prominent sculpture is the Eleven-faced Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. The two Hindu gods included in Seokguram are Brahma and Indra.

The grotto can now only be viewed through a glass wall, and visitors are not permitted to take photos because the site is sacred for Korean Buddhists.

These beautiful places are important symbols for the region of Gyeongju and for Korean Buddhism, and allow you to experience not only the beauty of Korean heritage, but also the exquisite landscape and mountains of Gyeongju.

XOXO, Seoulmate ♥

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