The Smile of the Shilla people, Seokguram grotto
The Seokguram Grotto is a small monk cell. The grotto is located 565m above sea level on the eastern branch of Toham Mountain and faces out towards the the East Sea. One of the grotto’s main features is a statue of Buddha that also sits looking out towards the East Sea. The grotto itself is man-made, but is shaped to look like a natural stone cave. The grotto’s floors, walls and ceiling were constructed using a total of 360 granite stones and measures 14.8 m in length and 9.3m in height.
The fact that the Buddha statue in Seokguram Grotto is facing the East Sea is very important. The Seokguram Grotto displays its true beauty when the statue is hit by the morning sunlight as the sun peeks above the horizon. The Buddha statue in Seokguram Grotto expresses the moment of nirvana achieved by overcoming all obstacles and resisting every temptation. The moment of nirvana is realized at last when the sunlight touches the mild smile on the Buddha’s lip. Koreans call the smile of Buddha lit up in the morning sunlight the “smile of the Shilla people.”
Secret of Scientific Architecture
Seokguram Grotto was built about 1200 years ago. Construction began in 751 and was completed in 774. The technology used in building the grotto displays a level of complexity that is comparable to that of modern architectural technology, showcasing the artistic, scientific, and technological abilities of the Shilla people.
The ceiling of the main hall of Seokguram grotto in which the Buddha statue is located is a large elliptical dome made from the assembly of only square blocks. The walls were reinforced by inserting wedges of hairpin-shaped stone at the blocks’ contact points, without the use of pillar buttresses. The unevenness created from the wedged stone has the effect of making the ceiling of the main hall look like as if it stretches far into the heavens.
Seokguram Grotto is naturally ventilated and lighted and was also at one point naturally climate controlled. The secret of the steady temperature and humidity was an underground spring flowing under the grotto. The interior climate could be controlled by lowering the temperature of the Seokguram grotto floor and walls by utilizing the underground spring. This feature, however, disappeared after the underground spring was diverted at the beginning of the 20th century when the Japanese disassembled the grotto in order to move it to Japan. The Japanese were unable to move the grotto to Japan and reassembled it using concrete to make the exterior wall. The grotto’s interior climate is now controlled artificially.
The Art of Detail and Precision
The architectural aesthetics of Seokguram Grotto come to light when viewed through the lens of geometry. The Buddha statue is located in a more secluded area, as opposed to being in the center of the main hall. This is to keep people inside the main hall from feeling crowded. The lotus flower pattern engraved on the ceiling increases in size as it rises so that is takes on a circular shape when viewed from below by people praying in front of the statue. The grotto’s entranceway was also of special consideration in the original design, but even more enthralling is the grotto’s detailed, precise stone artwork. The shapes of Sibilmyeongwaneum, Sibnahan, and Jecheonsabosal come alive in scenes on the interior wall of the grotto and the folded sleeves of the Buddha statue are expressed accurately in intricate detail. The Seokguram grotto is made of granite, which is known as a very difficult medium to work with, but the carved details on the stone are flawless in their precision.
The ancient Shilla people believed that God aided in the construction of the Seokguram grotto. They believed that such an unlimited realm could not be expressed without divine assistance. This belief does not belong to the Shilla people alone. The sentiment still holds true for many Koreans, even now, 1200 years later.