The Seokguram Grotto is a hermitage and part of the Bulguksa temple complex. It lies four kilometers east of the temple on Mt. Tohamsan, in Gyeongju, South Korea. Classified as National Treasure No. 24 by the South Korean government, it is located at 994, Jinhyeon-dong, Gyeongju-si, Gyeongsanbuk-do. The grotto overlooks the Sea of Japan (East Sea) and rests 750 meters above sea level. In 1962, it was designated the 24th national treasure of Korea. In 1995, Seokguram was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List together with the Bulguksa Temple, exemplifying some of the best Buddhist sculptures in the world.
The Seokguram grotto is said to have been built by Kim Daeseong and originally called Seokbulsa (석불사, Stone Buddha Temple). Construction began in 742 when Kim Daeseong resigned his position in the king’s court, or in 751, the 10th year of the reign of King Gyeongdeok of Silla. This time period marked the cultural peak of Unified Silla. The grotto was completed by the Silla court in 774, shortly after Kim’s death. An old legend states that Kim was reincarnated for his filial acts in his previous life. The legend relates that the Bulguksa Temple was dedicated to Kim’s parents in his present life, while the Seokguram Grotto was dedicated to Kim’s parents from a previous life.
The grotto is currently one of the best-known cultural destinations in South Korea. A viewing of the sunrise over the sea, visible from near the seated Buddha’s perch, is especially popular.
The tradition of carving the image of Buddha in stone, holy images, and stupas into cliff walls and natural caves began in India. This practice was transferred to China and then Korea. The geology of the Korean Peninsula, which contains an abundance of hard granite, is not conducive to carving stone images into cliff walls. Seokguram is an artificial grotto made from granite and is unique in design. The small size of the grotto indicates that it was probably used exclusively by the Silla royalty.
The Seokguram grotto is symbolic of a spiritual journey into Nirvana. Pilgrims were to start at Bulguksa or at the foot of Mt. Tohamsan, a holy mountain to the Silla. There was a fountain at the entrance of the shrine where pilgrims could refresh themselves. Inside the grotto, the antechamber and corridor represented the earth, while the rotunda represented heaven.
The basic layout of the grotto includes an arched entrance that leads into a rectangular antechamber and then a narrow corridor, which is lined with bas-reliefs, and finally leads into the main rotunda. The centerpiece of the granite sanctuary is a Buddha statue seated in the main chamber. The identity of the Buddha is still debated. The Buddha is seated on a lotus throne with crossed legs, expressing a serene meditative expression. Surrounding the Buddha are fifteen panels of bodhisattvas, arhats, and ancient Indian gods in the rotunda, accompanied by ten statues in niches along the rotunda wall. The main hall of Seokguram houses a Bojon statue Bodhisattva and his disciples. The grotto contains forty different figures representing Buddhist principles and teachings. The grotto was built around these statues to protect them from weathering. The ceiling of the Seokguram grotto is decorated with half moons, and the top is adorned with a lotus flower. Silla architects used symmetry and apparently employed the concept of the golden rectangle.
The grotto is shaped by hundreds of different granite stones, and no mortar was used in its construction; the structure is held together by stone rivets. The construction of the grotto also utilized natural ventilation. The dome of the rotunda is 6.84 meters by 6.58 meters in diameter.
Sculpture within the grotto
The main Buddha of the grotto is a highly regarded piece of Buddhist art, standing at 3.5 meters in height and seated on a 1.34-meter tall lotus pedestal. The Buddha’s realistic form likely represents the Seokgamoni Buddha, with the position of the hands symbolizing enlightenment. The Buddha features an usnisa, a symbol of wisdom. The drapery, including fan-shaped folds at the crossed legs, exemplifies Korean interpretations of Indian prototypes. Unlike other Buddhas with a halo attached to the back of the head, the Seokguram Buddha creates the illusion of a halo by placing a granite roundel carved with lotus petals on the back wall of the rotunda. The three-part pedestal has the top and bottom carved with lotus petals, while the central shaft consists of eight pillars.
In relief, accompanying the main Buddha are three bodhisattvas, ten disciples, and two Hindu gods along the wall of the rotunda. Ten statues of bodhisattvas, saints, and the faithful are located in niches above the bas-reliefs. The ten disciples, disciples of Seokgamoni, are arranged five on each side of the Avalokitesvara, with features suggesting a Greek influence. The two bodhisattvas are Manjusri and Samantabhadra, and the two Hindu gods are Brahma and Indra.
Guarding the corridor are the Four Heavenly Kings, with images of Vajrapanis, guardian figures, on the walls of the entrance to the corridor in the antechamber. Eight Guardian Deities adorn the antechamber.
Another notable figure is the Eleven-faced Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, standing at 2.18 meters in height on the back wall of the rotunda. This figure is the only one among the bas-reliefs facing forward, with the others facing the side. The Avalokitesvara wears a crown, robes, jewelry, and holds a vase containing a lotus blossom.
Two statues from the niches and a marble pagoda believed to have stood in front of the Avalokitesvara are missing from the grotto, presumed to have been looted by the Japanese.
Due to long periods of abandonment and numerous renovations, many details are disputed among scholars, such as the exact layout of the original grotto, the buildings in Bulguksa, or the shape of the watercourse that no longer exists in front of the temple.
Repair and improvements were undertaken in 1703 and 1758 during the Joseon dynasty. However, Confucian-oriented rulers suppressed Buddhism, and the remote mountain grotto was seriously damaged by the turn of the 20th century. The Government-General of Chosen conducted restoration works three times but faced humidity and other problems.
Japan initiated the first round of repairs from 1913 to 1915. These repairs were conducted without sufficient study of the grotto’s structure. During Japanese cleaning efforts, the structure of the grotto was almost completely dismantled and reassembled. A major mistake made by the Japanese was their attempt to stabilize the structure by encasement in concrete, which was then the most advanced technology. This resulted in humidity buildup and water leaks, causing erosion of the sculptures because the grotto could no longer “breathe.”
In 1917, drainage pipes were buried above the dome to channel rainwater away from the grotto. However, leaks persisted despite the pipes, leading to another round of repairs from 1920 to 1923. Waterproof asphalt was applied to the surface of the concrete, exacerbating the problem. Moss and mold formed, and in 1927, the now unthinkable method of spraying hot steam was used to clean the sculptures.
After World War II, in the 1960s, President Park Chung Hee ordered a major restoration project. The problem of temperature and humidity control was addressed to some extent by using mechanical systems. The wooden superstructure built over the antechamber remains a subject of debate for many historians who believe that Seokguram originally did not have such a structure, which blocked the view of the sunrise over the ocean and cut off the airflow into the grotto.
The interior of the grotto can now only be viewed through a glass wall, installed to protect it from the many tourists it attracts, as well as temperature changes.
Bulguksa Temple is accessible by bus No. 10 or 11 from Gyeongju Express Bus Terminal or by bus No. 700 from Gyeongju Station (allow between 40 and 50 minutes in both cases) + a 10-minute walk. Admission is 4,000 won per adult (3.20 USD), 3,000 won for middle and high school children (2.40 USD), and 2,000 won for elementary school children (1.60 USD).
Seokguram Cave is accessible by bus no. 12 from the “Bulguksa” stop (a 20-minute journey) + a 20-minute walk. Admission is 8000 won (6.40 USD).
- ^ “Seokguram Grotto [UNESCO World Heritage] (경주 석굴암)”.
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