Seokguram Grotto features the most beautiful Buddhist art in all of Korea. The architectural skill of the manmade grotto, the detailed Buddha carvings that fill the grotto walls, and the merciful yet solemn expression of the Bonjonbul, who looks as if he is lost in meditation, make the grotto a remarkable structure that is unmatched worldwide. The minute you set foot inside Seokguram, you will be overwhelmed by its advanced architecture combined with its adept artistry.
In Korea, there are entire cities that have been named UNESCO World
Cultural Heritage Sites. One of these cities is Gyeongju, one of the world's four major ancient cities. Gyeongju was the royal capital of the ancient nation of Silla from 57 BC to
AD 935. Even today, many historical artifacts remain intact from this ancient Buddhist kingdom. Seokguram is one of the numerous relics
left behind in the city of Gyeongju. Interestingly, Seokguram Grotto was registered
together with Bulguksa Temple as a UNESCO World Heritage site separate
of Gyeongju. The entire city of Gyeongju itself is a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage
site, one might ask why these two artifacts were singled out and registered separately. The reason is
that the historical and artistic value of both Seokguram and Bulguksa
is immense enough to warrant separate UNESCO recognition.
Seokguram Grotto is located halfway up Gyeongju's Tohamsan Mountain overlooking the East Sea. Seokguram is a rock cave temple that features a grotto made from hewn granite, where a delicately sculpted Buddha statue is enshrined. Rock cave temples can also be found in places such as India, Afghanistan, the Middle East, and China. India's Ajanta and Ellora grottoes, and China's Dunhuang and Yungang grottoes are particularly famous globally. However, there is a major difference between these rock cave temples and Seokguram: the construction method of the inner stone sanctuary. Rrock cave temples in other countries were made by boring out rock from a cliffside. Seokguram, on the other hand, was built with rocks, one by one, to create a different kind of manmade cave. In fact, it would be more accurate to say that this is not a cave, but simply an underground structure of rocks resembling a cave. The reason the people of Silla chose such a difficult method for making the stone sanctuary is because of Korea's unique topography. Since much of the land is made of hard granite, drilling into the rock was not an option. The resulting method of construction was to use fitted granite to make the cave, placing local rocks on top of the manmade structure and sealing it with mud.
Seokguram was made in the middle of the 8th century. According to the Samguk
Yusa, a historical text on Korean ancient history, Seokguram was established by Silla Prime Minister Kim Dae-seong (700-774) in honor of his parents in a past life.
The interior of Seokguram is made up of three sections: the jeonsil (antechamber), the tongno (corridor), and the jusil (main rotunda). The antechamber is square in shape while the main rotunda is circular. People in the old days believed that the land was square and the heavens were round. This is why the space in Seokguram, where people partook in Buddhist services, was made in a square shape, and the space where the Bonjonbul Buddha resided in the celestial heavens was made in a circular shape. These design elements serve as expressions of an Eastern worldview.
As you enter the grotto, the first space you will see is jeonsil (the antechamber). This is where Buddhist services were held, and where one can admire Seokguram’s greatest feature – its intricate stonework. Since granite is such a hard rock, it is difficult to sculpt detailed carvings. As such, the fact that the stonemasons of Silla used chisels and hammers to craft the rock into such detailed sculptures is a true testament to their outstanding skill.
If you look at the surface of the wall, you will see the Palbusinjung (Eight Congregated Gods, referring
to a set of guardian deities), one set of four on each wall. The Palbusinjung were originally gods of Indian Hinduism. However, the Palbusinjung received enlightenment from Seokgamoni (the historic Buddha) and converted to Buddhism, becoming the patron saint of Buddhism. In Korea, the Palbusinjung are not given the names and forms of a god, but rather take the form of military spirits. On the wall to the left are Asura, Kinnara, Yaksa, and Nāga; carved on the wall to the right are Garuda, Mahoraga, Deva, and Gandharva.
To the rear of the Palbusinjung is the entrance of the tongno (corridor), to the right and left of which are two geumgangyeoksa (Vajrapani, or guardian deities) who resemble tough-looking warriors. These two figures play the role of the main gatekeepers. The upper body of both figures shows defined muscles conveying bravery, while the circular mandorlas (the Buddhist equivalent of a halo) behind their heads are symbols of strength and wisdom. Of note is the shapes of the gatekeepers' mouths, which are different from one another. The mouth of the gatekeeper on the left is open in a battle cry, while the one on the right is said to be inhaling through closed lips, preparing for battle. The positions of both the gatekeepers are the same as some of the basic forms of taekkyeon, serving as further evidence of this martial art's deep-seated history.
On the walls of the tongno connecting the jeonsil and the jusil are the Sacheonwang (the Four Devas), represented in two pairs. The Sacheonwang are one level higher than the world of men, and are said to examine the good and evil deeds of humankind. They were originally spirits of revered kings of ancient India before turning to Buddhism and becoming guardian deities of the Buddhist faith.
After passing through the tongno, you will find yourself in the rounded dome of the jusil. In the middle of the room sits a large Buddha, encircled by carvings on all walls. The first carving on the left is Beomcheon; the first carving on the right is Jaeseokcheon. Jaeseokcheon and Beomcheon are the highest of the deities that protect Buddha. They can be compared to the god Zeus of Greek mythology. The next figures on the left and right are Munsubosal (Manjushri Bodhisattva) and Bohyeonbosal (Samantabhadra Bodhisattva). In Korean Buddhism, Munsubosal is a symbol of wisdom, while Bohyeonbosal represents mercy. To the left and right of Munsubosal and Bohyeonbosal stand ten of Buddha's disciples. The ten disciples were people who received teaching directly from Seokgamoni himself. Since they actually existed in real life, their faces and postures are some of the most detailed of all the carvings and sculptures of Seokguram.
Even though it cannot be seen from outside the glass wall, behind the main statue is the most beautiful bodhisattva carving in Seokguram: the Sipilmyeon Gwaneumbosal, characterized by its eleven faces. On the headpiece of the Gwaneumbosal are nine small faces, on top of which is another carving of Gwaneumbosal. This bodhisattva is the embodiment of mercy. Its carved faces symbolize the belief that the bodhisattva is able to thoroughly examine the pain of all mankind. It also conveys the idea that the bodhisattva will stretch out its hand and save all who call upon its name in times of trouble.
All around the top of the jusil, face-level with Bonjonbul (the large Buddha statue), are ten small niches (shrine rooms). Inside these niches are seven statues of bodhisattva and one Yumageosa (Vimalakirti, one of the most famous disciples of Buddha). Two of the shrine rooms are empty. Vimalakirti was not a bodhisattva, but was rather a prince of Vaisali India and a secular follower of Buddha. Given his relatively low status, you may wonder why he is placed among the bodhisattvas. This is to show that anyone can enter the land of Buddha if he or she truly lives out his teachings.
It is recorded in the Samguk Yusa, an ancient Korean historical text, that Kim Dae-seong began construction of Seokguram Grotto in 751, the same year he established Bulguksa Temple. There are very few historical records that mention Kim Dae-seong, but plenty of fables. It is said that when Kim Dae-seong was young, he was so poor that he hired himself out as a lowly laborer and barely earned enough to support himself. One day, a monk told him that if he did good deeds, good fortune would soon follow. Hearing this, Kim Dae-seong gave everything he had to Buddha.
Sometime later, Kim Dae-seong died, but was reborn as the son of then Prime Minister Kim Mun-ryang. A man of deep filial piety, the newly reborn Kim Dae-seong brought his mother from his past life to live with him. Kim Dae-seong, who had grown up in lavish surroundings in his second life, succeeded Kim Mun-ryang and rose to the position of prime minister. After he resigned from public office, he built Bulguksa Temple to honor his present life parents and Seokguram Grotto to honor his past life parents. Kim Dae-seong worked on the grotto for 24 long years, but died before its completion. After his death, construction of the grotto was entrusted to the Korean government.
The true star of Seokguram is the Bonjonbul (Buddha) sitting in the jusil. The Buddha, with his narrow eyes and strong sense of dignity, has exquisitely carved facial features. Yet, despite his overall solemn appearance, a faint smile plays on his lips, giving the statue a merciful air. The imposing shoulders, the wide chest, and narrow waist, along with the Buddha's cross-legged position, makes it seem as if it were a living, breathing thing. The proportions of the statue are perfect as well. The pedestal on which the Buddha sits measures 168.4
cm in height, while
the statue itself measures 346 cm, a 2:1 ratio. Using this ratio to elevate the statue above eye level makes for a natural feeling of dignity. Even though the statue was carved from granite, it is the ultimate expression of art, unmarred by any flaw that might refute its manmade nature.
The hand positioning of the Bonjonbul is known as hangmachokjiin. This Buddhist position was used by Seokgamoni upon being tempted by the devil as he sat on the brink of enlightenment. At that time, he used the gesture to point towards the gods of the earth and defeat the army of the devil. This hand position is only adopted by Seokgamoni. In terms of size and shape, Bonjonbul looks much like the Buddha statue in India’s Bodh Gaya. On the spot where Seokgamoni had achieved enlightenment in Bodh Gaya, the Mahabodhi Temple (Great Awakening Temple) was erected. The statue of Buddha at this temple is said to be incredibly similar to the one at Seokguram. In 1939, Japanese civil engineer Yoneda Miyoshi converted the measurements of the Bonjonbul to dangcheok (a reference scale of the Tang Dynasty) and said that the Bonjonbul measured 1 jang, 1 cheok, and 6 chon (approx. 351 cm) in height. He went on to say that the width of its knees were 8 cheok and 8 chon (approx. 266 cm), and the width of its shoulders were 6 cheok and 2 chon (approx. 188 cm). Chinese monk Xuanzang (Samjang Beopsa in Korean) wrote the following in his book "Great Tang Records on the Western Regions" (based on a 17-year pilgrimage across India and the Middle East):
"The magnificent statue of Buddha (in Bodh Gaya) sits facing east in the middle of the structure with its right foot supported by the left and its left hand in its lap, with its right hand hanging down in the "hangman" position (a Buddhist hand position said to force the devil into submission). It seems as if Buddha himself is living in this place. The plinth (base) measures 4 cheok 2 chon (approx. 127 cm) and is 1 jang 2 cheok and 5 chon (approx. 378 cm) wide. The statue is 1 jang 1 cheok and 5 chon (approx. 348 cm) tall, and the width of the knees measures 8 cheok 8 chon (approx. 266 cm), while the width of the shoulders is 6 cheok 2 chon (approx. 188 cm)."
The people of Silla did not have much contact with India, which makes the similarities between the two Buddhas even more surprising. The Buddhas at Seokguram and the Mahabodhi Temple are not only similar in size, but also in shape. It is thought that the Bonjonbul is not just another Buddha, but is a version of the Seokgamoni reconstructed on Silla land. The Silla people's belief in Buddha was so profound that they made many Buddhist statues and pagodas in Gyeongju, a place they believed was the holy land of Buddha.
If you look at Bonjonbul, it looks as if it is in the center of the jusil, when in fact it is located more towards the back. Putting the statue towards the back not only gives the visitor an added sense of moving forward into the space, but also makes Seokguram look more aesthetically pleasing from the outside. If you look at Bonjonbul from the front of Seokguram, you will see a circular orb behind the head of the Buddha in the shape of a lotus flower. This is a mandorla (or halo),
and is an expression of the mystery and greatness of Buddha.
Carved on the wall behind the head of the statue, the mandorla is placed at an angle that allows it to be seen properly only by those who come to worship Buddha. One of the most interesting things about this mandorla is that it is a little wider than it is long, giving it an elliptical shape. In fact, the mandorla looks different even when viewed from the front, depending on the height of the viewer. To taller viewers, the mandorla looks like it is drooping down towards the floor. To shorter viewers, it looks like it is stretching up towards the ceiling.
So, at what height would the ellipse look perfectly round? According to analysis by architectural scholars, a viewer with an eye level of 160 cm would be able to get a perfectly circular view of the mandorla when looking at the statue head-on. It is believed that this was the standard height of the men of Silla and that the mandorla was designed accordingly for the most dramatic visual effect.
Making the ceiling of the jusil into its characteristic dome shape was no easy task. It would have taken considerable knowledge in the fields of mathematics and geometry to use flat, square rocks to construct something round. After completion, the ceiling was then covered with stones and mud. This was to allow air to flow naturally in and out of Seokguram, thus eliminating humidity. However, the rocks and mud placed on top of the ceiling were too heavy for the ceiling to support them. In order to solve this problem, rocks were wedged in between the flat rocks of the dome ceiling. These rocks are known as jumeokdol, and were used to give support to the flat rocks of a circular structure and take much of the strain. Altogether, the jumeokdol weigh 20 tons and distribute the weight of the cover stone evenly.
The most problematic issue regarding the interior space of Seokguram is the humidity. If humidity forms, moss can grow on the surface of the rocks and moisture will permeate the area, making it difficult to maintain the integrity of the grotto. In order to avoid this, builders found a method for drawing moisture to the outside: a spring flowing beneath the structure. The Seokguram spring maintains a temperature of 12 degrees Celsius all year round. Since the humidity settles down towards the floor (kept at a lower temperature thanks to the spring), moisture does not collect on the Bonjonbul or other carvings near the top. The spring and its climate control functions are a prime example of the scientific prowess that went into the construction of Seokguram.
The Silla History & Science Museum gives visitors a good look at the interior of the grotto, which cannot be seen at Seokguram Grotto itself. By using a model Seokguram Grotto and a variety of other materials, visitors are able to understand the hidden mysteries of Seokguram Grotto. The model was constructed, in part, to help in topics of debate among scholars, such as whether or not there was a skylight or ventilation portion of the gamsil (alcove) of Seokguram. In addition to this, the museum also has on display models of representative Korean cultural heritage, such as the golden crown of Silla, the golden crown of Baekje, the Haeinsa Temple Janggyeongpanjeon, Cheomseongdae, and more.
Seokguram maintained its original form without any major changes up until the beginning of the18th century. During the Japanese colonial rule, Seokguram was discovered by a Japanese postman
and was put through three rounds of full-scale restorations. The first round of restorations was conducted from 1913 to 1915. Under the leadership of Japanese architectural scholar Tei Sekino, Seokguram was completely disassembled and reassembled. At this time, the mistake was made of putting concrete measuring 1
m thick around the outside of the dome portion of Seokguram. This was done for preservation purposes with the thought that the concrete would make the structure stronger. When the grotto was being rebuilt, more than 200 stones were added to the existing stones, further damaging the grotto.
The errors committed during these two years of renovation soon took their toll, and Seokguram started to collect moisture. In 1917, during the second round of renovations, the concrete surface of the grotto was covered with lime mortar and clay, and the ceiling was installed with a drainage pipe to try to get the water out. The results of the second round of construction were also far from desirable. From 1920 to 1923, the third round of renovations was executed, during which the mud covering Seokguram was scraped off, and waterproof asphalt was added on top of the concrete. Drainage work began to take the spring water outside of the grotto. However, even the third round of construction efforts could not solve Seokguram's humidity problem.
After the nation was liberated from under Japanese colonial rule, the Korean government headed up construction efforts (from 1962 to 1964) to solve the moisture problems in Seokguram, leaving the concrete covering Seokguram at intervals of 120 cm and making a new dome. During the colonial period, Japan moved two of the eight Palbushinjung statues in Seokguram, Asura, and Garura, to face the Deva king. The two misplaced statues were brought back to their original positions, where the four statues from Palbushinjung symmetrically align next to the Deva king. Construction efforts also included the installment of moisture proofing facilities and an underground drainage system. Despite all this, builders were unable to stop the moisture and water from leaking into the grotto. In 1966, an air handling unit was installed, allowing air to artificially be drawn in and out of the dome. In 1971, a glass partition was installed as a means of preventing tourists from entering the inner sanctuary of the grotto.
From Euljiro 1(il)-ga Station, take Subway Line 2 in the direction of Seongsu → At Euljiro 3(sam)- ga, transfer to Subway Line 3 in the direction of Ogeum → Get off at the Express Bus Terminal (Subway Line 3), Exit 2 (30
min / 1,250 won) → At the Seoul Express Bus Terminal, take the express bus for Gyeongju (Gyeongbuseon Line) → Get off at the Gyeongju Express Bus Terminal (4
hrs / 30,300 won) → Take Bus 10 or 11 from the bus stop across from the terminal → Get off at the Bulguksa bus stop* (40
min / 1,200 won) → Take Bus 12 from the bus stop across from the Bulguksa bus stop → Get off at the Seokguram Grotto parking lot (20
min / 1,500 won) → Go 550 m to the ticket office of Seokguram Grotto
* Seokguram Grotto can also be reached by following the Tohamsan Mountain hiking trail up from the parking lot at the main entrance of Bulguksa Temple (1 hr)
From Jonggak Station, take Subway Line 1 in the direction of Incheon & Sinchang → Get off at Seoul Station (Subway Line 1), Exit 1 (5 min / 1,150 won) → Take the KTX for Gyeongju (Gyeongbuseon Line) → Get off at Singyeongju Station (2 hrs 15 min / 47,100 won) → Take Bus 700 from the bus stop in front of Singyeongju Station → Get off at the Bulguksa Temple bus stop (1 hr / 1,500 won) → From the bus stop across from the Bulguksa bus stop, take Bus 12 in the direction of the Seokguram Grotto parking lot (20 min / 1,500 won) → Walk 550 m to the ticket office of Seokguram GrottoMore Info
1330 Korea Travel Hotline: +82-2-1330 (Korean, English, Japanese, Chinese)
* Information above was updated as of December 2012.