|Gongju, the Glory of Baekje Lives On|
Gongju, renowned for its cultural sophistication and devout Buddhist culture, was the capital of the proud Baekje Kingdom from AD 475 to AD 528.
Today the city remains as a small provincial town in rural Chungcheongnam-do, but the splendor of the once past Baekje Kingom still lives on through the history rich Baekje-era relics.
If museums and tombs are not your thing, the city is also home to two of Korea’s most enchanting Buddhist monasteries, Gapsa and Magoksa temples.
History of Gongju
In Korea, the first centuries of the Common Era were defined by the epic struggles between the rival kingdoms of Goguryeo, Baekje and Silla for dominance over the Korean Peninsula.
The kingdom of Baekje, which dominated southwestern Korea, developed a sophisticated culture thanks to its ties with China and adoption of Buddhism as the state religion.
Baekje’s profound regional influence played the leading role in transmitting Buddhism and Chinese culture to Japan.
In AD 475, the Baekje capital located near Seoul fell to Goguryeo. The kingdom established its new capital on the banks of the Geumgang River, naming it Ungjin, or “Bear Port” (see box). For 63 years, Ungjin (current day Gongju) was the center of the thriving kingdom, complete with grand palaces and spectacular temples. It was at this time that Buddhism was declared Baekje’s state religion.
For internal political reasons, the kingdom moved its capital to nearby Buyeo in 538. Nevertheless, the city thrived until the destruction of Baekje by a Chinese-Silla invasion in 660.
On the Way to Gapsa Temple
In the western reaches of Gongju, on the western slopes of the Gyeryongsan Mountains, resides Gapsa Temple. Founded in the first year of the reign of Baekju king Guisin (420 AD) by the Goguryeo monk Ado, Gapsa is one of Korea’s most historic temple and a magical place to spend time in. Amidst the lush forests and cool running streams, this is the perfect place to immerse oneself in a perfect blend of spiritual energy and nature’s majesty.
During the Unified Silla era, Gapsa was one of the 10 greatest temples of the Avatamsaka school of Buddhism, which emphasized the teachings of the Avatamsaka Sutra. Today, the temple is home to many handsome old structures and stone monuments. One of the more impressive sites is a stone stupa located a short walk from the main compound. Fashioned in the Goryeo era, the stupa’s intricate carvings are still vivid with details from past eras; Korean Buddhist art at its most sublime.
Hikers will want to use Gapsa Temple as their starting point for a hike on the Gyeryongsan Mountains. A well-worn path will take you from Gapsa to the Buddhist nunnery of Donghaksa Temple on the eastern slopes of the mountain. On the way you will pass the “Brother and Sister Pagodas,” or Nammaetap, which are associated with a very beautiful legend (see box).
To get to Gapsa, take the local bus #2 from downtown Gongju. The trip takes about 30 minutes.
Even from only an architectural perspective, Magoksa Temple is one of the most beautiful Buddhist monasteries in the country. The complex is a cornucopia of protected cultural properties, including five designated treasures. As if this weren’t enough, the temple is surrounded by verdant green hillsides as far as the eye can see. Isolated deep in Gongju’s northern mountains, the temple gets far fewer visitors than you’d expect at a temple of its size. Depending on which founding legend you believe, the temple was built in either AD 642 or 847. Located in the middle of nowhere, the monastery has served as a place of refuge throughout Korea’s turbulent past. The temple survived the Japanese invasion of 1592 (when most of Korea was burnt to the ground), and has sheltered even the legendary Korean independence fighter Kim Gu who hid at the temple after escaping from prison in 1898.
Much of the temple was rebuilt in 1651, and it is during this reconstruction that the magnificent Yeongsanjeon, Daeungbojeon and Daegwangbojeon halls were built. The most impressive hall is the Daeungbojeon, a massive two-story hall sitting on a terrace overlooking the rest of the monastery. The simple Yeongsanjeon Hall, located at the front of the complex, contains 1,000 Buddha statues, all of which are slightly different.
A wide stream passes in front of the temple complex, crossed by a large stone bridge. To get to Magoksa, take the local bus #7 from New Gongju City Bus Terminal. The trip takes about 40 minutes.
Gongsanseong, with a commanding view of the Geumgang River, was originally built during the Baekje era, although the current walls and pavilions are of much later vintage. The fortress makes for a pleasant walk, and it‘s not too far from the royal burial tombs of Songsan-ri (see below).
Royal Tombs of Songsan-ri
On a hillside near the Geumgang River is one of Gongju’s most visited attractions — seven royal tombs from when Gongju was the capital of the Baekje kingdom. Some of the tombs were discovered in the early 20th century, although the most famous of the tombs, the Tomb of King Muryeong, was accidentally discovered while performing maintenance on the other tombs in 1971. The discovery proved to be one of the biggest finds in the history of Korean archeology. The tomb contained some 2,906 artifacts, 12 of which were designated National Treasures.
It used to be that you could enter the tombs to take in their unusual wall murals, but the tombs have recently been closed to protect these invaluable sites. On a positive note, there is an exhibit at the foot of the hill with re-creations of the tombs that visitors are encouraged to enter and play in. Many of the artifacts discovered inside the tombs are now kept at the Gongju National Museum.
Gongju National Museum
The Gongju National Museum found its final home when an impressive cutting-edge facility was opened in 2004. Thanks to its fine collection of Baekje-era artifacts, many of them from the Tomb of King Muryeong, the museum is one of Korea’s finest and well worth a visit.
The museum has three exhibition halls — a special exhibit hall, a hall dedicated to the artifacts removed from the Tomb of King Muryeong, and another for artifacts from Gongju’s stint as the royal capital. Among the most impressive artifacts are gold ornaments from the crowns of King Muryeong and his queen (National Treasure No. 154), a stone statue of a legendary animal that guarded the tomb (National Treasure No. 162), and a Buddhist stele with breathtaking carvings and inscriptions (National Treasure No. 108).
The only problem with the museum is that it is somewhat out of the way, making the trip there and back a bit problematic. In theory, bus #8 from Gongju Intercity Bus Terminal will take you to the museum, but depending on the time of day you may have to take a taxi to get back to town. On the bright side, since May 1 admission is free. The museum is closed Mondays. For more information, call (041) 850- 6300.
Written and photographed by Robert Koehler
The article courtesy of Seoul magazine