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Gyeongju - S. Korea's Ancient City
By Stephen Little
Travel Writer
Bulguksa Temple in Gyeongju, South Korea

Wherever you go in Gyeongju, you come across relics of the past, from beautiful temples and mountain shrines, to centuries-old images of the Buddha and ancient tombs of royalty that once ruled Korea.

The capital of the Silla Kingdom (57 BC-935 AD), it was once one of the world's largest cities in its hey-day, with a population of nearly 1 million people.

Having travelled by coach from Seoul the previous night, I awoke early for a busy day of sightseeing. Walking through the centre of Gyeongju, I passed through the market as I made my way to Tumuli Park, to see the royal tombs there.

Less of a tourist trap than others I have seen, there were stalls selling everything from fruit and vegetables, to ginseng, fish and kitchen utensils. Many of the stallholders were very old, some well into their late 70s, their faces weathered by old age.

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju

Tumuli Park is the largest burial site in Gyeongju with 23 tombs and is the ideal place for a leisurely stroll. The tombs themselves are covered by huge mounds of stone and earth, some of them even spanning 80 metres in diameter.

The biggest is the Hwangnamdaechong Tomb and it is believed to have housed a king and a queen. Excavated between 1973 and 1975, many valuable treasures were found, such as necklaces and other jewellery, which are now on display in the Gyeongju National Museum.

Nearby is Cheomseongdae, which is the oldest existing observatory in the Far East. Made of stone and looking somewhat similar to a bottle, it is 9 metres in height and on the south side there is small window. It is through this a person would have entered to view the heavens.

Shaped like a bottle, Cheomseongdae is the oldest observatory in Asia

The actual use of the observatory has fuelled much debate within Korea regarding its use. Whilst some academics believe it may have been used for astronomy, others argue its use was for astrological purposes. During the Silla period, studying the movements of the stars and planets was very important and would have been used in all aspects of policy making. From matters of state to agriculture, astronomy would have been used for determining whether battles should be fought, to when crops should be planted.

The next stage of my trip took me to South Korea's most famous temple, Bulguksa, which means "Buddha Land Temple". Home to the Jogye Order of Buddhist monks, it was originally built in 528 and then later abandoned. Rebuilt in 751 by the Prime Minister Kim Tae-song, it was completed in 774, when it received its present name.

Throughout its history many parts of it have been destroyed, most notably during the Japanese invasions of 1592 and 1598, when the wooden buildings were burnt to the ground. Rebuilt in 1605, the temple fell into a state of disrepair under the repression of Buddhism during the 19th century and subsequent Japanese occupation. It was most recently renovated between 1967 and 1973.

The Heavenly Kings guard the entrance to the temple

Walking towards the temple, I first passed two lotus ponds on either side of a bridge. Just beyond this was a gate with huge statues of the Four Heavenly Kings inside, guarding the entrance to the temple.

At the front of the temple complex is a huge stairway known as Sokgyemun, its 33 steps signifying the 33 steps to enlightenment. The lower part of the staircase is called Cheongungyo (Blue Cloud Bridge) and the upper part is called Baegungyo (White Cloud Bridge). As they are national treasures it's not possible to go up them, so I took a path leading to one of the two side entrances.

The main courtyard was full of people, many of them busily milling about looking for that all-important photo opportunity. Located here is the main hall and although not the biggest of the buildings in the complex, it is by far the most important. Known as Daeungjeon, inside a bronze image of the Historic Buddha, Sakyamuni, is enshrined and alongside this statue are others including his attendants and disciples.

Dabotap at Bulguksa Temple

In front of the main hall stand two of Korea's most famous pagodas, Dabotap and Seokgatap. At 8.2 metres tall, the traditional Korean pagoda Seokgatap is simplistic in design and is ringed by eight lotus shaped flowers.

The Dabotap pagoda is the most visually interesting of the two and its image can be seen on the Korean 10 won coin. Intricately carved and ornate in its design, the 10.4-metre-tall pagoda symbolises the complexity of the universe.

Near the summit of Mt. Tohamsan, overlooking Bulguksa, is the Seokguram Grotto. Located at the end of a winding mountain road 4km from Bulguksa, it is home to a huge statue of the Buddha that is considered to be one of South Korea's most important national treasures.

The cave housing the Buddha is man made. Constructed from slabs of carved granite, it is remarkably similar in design to cave temples found in both China and India.

Bell pavilion at Bulguksa Temple

Inside the cave, the 3.5-metre-tall Buddha carved out of granite, sits cross legged in the lotus position on a pedestal, right foot over the left knee with its right hand draped over its right leg. Known as the Earth-touching mudra, the position of its hands symbolise the Buddha's enlightenment.

The ceiling is decorated with half moons and surrounding the Buddha are images of Bodhisattvas, Dharma protectors and disciples. Sublime in its design, it is kept behind a glass screen in order to preserve it, the result of previous damage to the cave.

It was built during the 8th century by Kim Tae-song at the same time as the rebuilding of Bulguksa. For many centuries it was left abandoned until being rediscovered in 1909 by a postman, who was seeking shelter from the rain.

Seokguram Grotto, Gyeongju

During the Japanese occupation, restoration work was carried out three times, which resulted in damage to the caves ventilation, causing increased humidity and condensation. After the Second World War, it faced neglect once again until the 1960s, when under the presidency of Park Chung-hee, it was restored.

Often likened to a huge open air museum, Gyeongju is a definite must see. From the tombs of Tumuli Park to the beauty of the Bulguksa Temple, it provides a fascinating insight into how Korea used to be.

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Stephen Little now serves as travel writer for The Seoul Times. The British man has been travelling around Asia for many years, writing about his travel experiences. Born outside of London, he grew up in nearby Brighton. Stephen majored in geography at the University of Leicester.






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