Gyeongju carvings mark Korea’s past

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Gyeongju carvings mark Korea’s past


There are few other mountains in Korea that have more Buddhist relics and myths from the Silla Dynasty than Mount Nam in Gyeongju. The mountain was regarded as a sacred place where the people of Silla went to build temples with stone sculptures and carvings when Buddhism was introduced to the Korean peninsular.
The myths indicate that this was the birthplace of Bakhyeokgeose, the founder of the Silla Dynasty (B.C. 57 to A.D. 935). It is also the site of the first Silla palace as well as several sculptures and carvings rated as national treasures. Though Mount Nam is not as well-known as other tourist attractions in Gyeongju, the mountain was the birthplace of the Silla Dynasty and shared its destiny throughout its rise and fall in Korea’s history.

Mount Nam, known as Namsan, is 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) wide and 10 kilometers long, covers 26.5 square kilometers (6,548 acres) and has two peaks that are more than 450 meters above sea level: Geumo and Gowi peaks. Mount Nam literally means southern mountain, as it was located south of the king’s palace in Gyeongju, the Silla Dynasty’s capital. The mountain has many rocks, one reason it is home to so many stone carvings and sculptures.
Many of the carvings can be attributed to the shamanism that existed in Korea before the spread of Buddhism.
“It may be related to worshiping rocks,” said Kim Gu-seok, head of the Namsan Institute in Gyeongju. “They believed spirits are concealed in rocks, trees and the mountain itself and tried to find Buddha by sculpting the rocks.”

Excavations have revealed the remains of pre-Buddhist natural and animistic cults in the region. With the spread of Buddhism during the dynasty, it became the heartland of the Buddhist kingdom. Its gorges and ridges are embellished with granite pagodas, royal graves and palace sites as well as reliefs of Buddha cut into the rock and stone sculptures.
Shamanism continued even after Buddhism spread in the region. Believing that eating powders from a stone Buddha’s nose led to the conception of a son, some people ground up the noses of a number of Buddha statues. One example is Seokbul Jwasang (treasure No. 666), a seated Buddha carved from white granite that sits upon an elaborate lotus pedestal in the Naeng valley on the western side of the mountain ― its nose ground almost flat.

There are 147 temple sites found in the mountain, 118 Buddhist sculptures and carvings, 96 stone pagodas and 13 tombs. Many of the sculptures and carvings were part of temples built at the end of the Silla Dynasty. According to Mr. Kim, only kings were allowed to build temples during the dynasty, but when the dynasty was falling apart, aristocrats and other powerful people took advantage of the weak centralization of power to build temples for themselves.
With the end of the Silla Dynasty, Mount Nam also underwent a period of external strife. When the Joseon Dynasty replaced the Goryeo Dynasty, a Buddhist state, in 1392, the Joseon oppressed Buddhism and spread Confucianism as the country’s governing philosophy. The government put a limit on the number of temples that could remain in the country. Even Confucian scholars started damaging Buddhist sculptures by breaking the statues’ necks and hands.

Shim Kyung-sook, an assistant researcher at the Namsan Institute, said this could be the reason for some headless Buddha sculptures that had been discovered, including the Seokgayeorae Jwasang, a seated Buddha statue that is 1.6 meters (5.3 feet) tall, also in the Naeng valley.
After the Joseon Dynasty, the Japanese occupiers carried out extensive research on the relics in the 1920s.
The “Three Buddha temple,” or “Sambulsa,” has three standing Buddha statues. According to Ms. Shim, the two statues on the right are of a similar style while the one on the left is completely different. She said Japanese researchers had found the three statues and placed them together. A few years ago, the Korean government added a temple structure around them to prevent further erosion of the statues. The Japanese were very interested in Buddhist arts and even tried to take some of the sculptures. Many Japanese tourists still visit Mount Nam to look at the Buddhist sculptures and carvings.
Mount Nam area is part of the “Gyeongju Historic Areas” group, which was registered as a Unesco World Heritage site in 2000, five years after Bulguksa Temple and Seokguram Grotto, also in Gyeongju, were listed.

One route to explore the mountain suggested by the Namsan Institute begins at the Seonamsan, or west Mount Nam, parking lot. The two-hour walk has a gentle slope and visitors can see more relics than along other routes. This path is recommended to first timers to Mount Nam. It starts with the “Three Tombs,” the resting place of three Silla kings, and then moves on to the temple of Sambulsa, the Seokbul Jwasang, and Maeae Daejwabul, a carving of Buddha in the Yaksu valley.
Another route from the eastern side of the mountain is longer and steeper and features two famous stone carvings listed as “treasures.” The track starts at the east Mount Nam parking lot and leads to a beacon tower and the Maaebosal Bangasang (No. 199), a Buddha triad carved on the Chilbulam rock. The central Buddha figure sits in the lotus posture upon a wide, double layered lotus blossom.
Behind this rock is the Maeae Seokbul (No. 200), a Bodhisattva figure carved in to Sinseonam rock on a cliff that marks the summit. Below the Bodhisattva figure, the cliff falls in a sheer drop. The space in front of this Buddha is so narrow that it is impossible to take a front shot of the figure, but the view from the Sinseonam rock is magnificent.
Though not included in the route, Poseokjeong on the southern side should not be missed. It is the site of an alternative palace where kings stayed when away from their main palaces. Poseokjeong has a small moat carved from solid stone. In ancient times, the canal was filled with water and drinking cups were set afloat on the water.
Visitors are advised to take a guided tour of the mountain so that they do not miss any stone sculptures and carvings along the way. English signs are available for most relics. The Namsan Institute organizes group hiking trips on Sundays and holidays. For bookings, visit or call (054) 771-7142. English guides are not yet available.

by Limb Jae-un

The best way to get to Gyeongju is to take a KTX train to Dongdaegu Station (east Daegu) and transfer to an express bus at the nearby bus terminal.
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