Monday, November 16, 2009

Bulguksa and Seokguram in Gyeongju

A month ago Lisa and I went on a short road trip to Gyeongju with our friends Bruce and Susie (aka Suji). Gyeongju is well-known throughout Korea as a "museum without walls" - it remained relatively untouched by 16th century Japanese invasions and the destruction of the North Korean army during the Korean war, and many relics from its heyday as the capital of the Silla dynasty remain. It's a haven for UNESCO world cultural heritage. And though it is only a hop skip and a short 30 minute drive (or 1 hour bus ride) from Pohang, Lisa and I haven't really spent much time there. We had attended a templestay at Golgulsa, just outside of Gyeongju, during Buddha's birthday this year, but only spent an hour or so walking through the burial mounds and taking pictures of "asia's oldest observatory."
asia's oldest observatory

This time we went to visit Gyeongju's oldest temple, Bulguksa. It is both a UNESCO world heritage site and the Korean government's "Historic and Scenic site No 1". It doesn't get much more significant than that, huh? It was originally built in the 700's, and though its wooden buildings were burnt down by the Japanese during the late 1500's and rebuilt over the next 200 years, most of the stone structures are original. The stone foundation on which the temple buildings sit look ancient, their edges worn down slowly by a millenia or more of wind, rain, monks, and grubby fingered child tourists.

Bruce and I peered through crevices in the wall like said tourists, scanning for the torn brown edges of a scroll or other treasure slipped in the cracks by a monk a thousand years ago. All I found was a Japanese coin from 1970. I put it back, just in case the owner had left it as a prayer or blessing. I didn't want some Japanese family blaming me for their misfortunes.

It really is an impressive temple, very simple in its construction and layout. The main entrance to the temple is no longer used in order to preserve the ancient granite staircase that leads to the temple doors. Its 33 steps represent Buddhism's 33 heavens, each one carrying you further on your path towards enlightenment. Most of the stones in the steps and the bridge below are from the original temple construction in 750.

Two things impress me greatly about Korean artifacts such as Bogyeong temple. One is their dizzyingly old age. Nothing in the US comes close. Korean heritage sites are easily 1,000 years older than the oldest piece of history in America. The second is the freedom allowed to tourists. Though the main stairway was off-limits, it was protected by a metal fence that didn't even reach my knees. As I stood in front of it, gaping like a schoolboy, a child hopped over the little fence and sat on it for a picture. My immediate reaction was one of reproach - "That's off-limits!" I wanted to scold - but when I looked around I realized I was the only one who cared. I suppose when something is that old there's no real point in worrying about it. The stone has lasted through 1400 years filled with much worse.

The same artifacts in the US would be closely guarded, and shielded from the curiosity of the public - perhaps because our history is so shallow. We don't have thousands of historical gems that we can trust to survive beyond us. And maybe I've bought into the stereotype of the ugly American, but I imagine that, if given the chance, most of us would probably try to carve our names into a 1500 year old piece of granite rock.

Right, the temple. The weather was beautiful, and it was consequently quite crowded. The famous stupa Dabotap, which is featured on the 10 won coin (not that anyone even glances at that worthless piece of metal anymore), was under renovation and I didn't bother to climb to scaffolding to get a look around the canvas. There were other equally stunning moments, like the rusted dragon-head handles on faded red doors, or the sun-streaked field crowded with stone cairns. Life's pleasures are in the details, I say.

Nestled up in the hills above Bulguksa is Seokguram Grotto (Korea's 24th national treasure and another UNESCO heritage site), which houses a giant Buddha statue erected in the mid-700's. It was a 20 minute drive and 15 minute hike up to the site. There is also a hiking trail directly from Bulguksa that is supposed to take about an hour (it's a more direct path than the road).
Though I respected the request not to take pictures inside, clearly someone didn't, and you can see the picture here.

1 comment :

  1. Yea but lack of security also contributed to the burning of the Namdaemun Gate in Seoul a few years ago.


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