Seokguram Grotto, Gyeongsangbuk-do

The Seokguram Grotto (석굴암, "Stone Cave Hermitage") is an 8th-century Buddhist cave temple carved in the hills above Bulguksa Temple in South Korea. It is the only structure surviving fully intact from the Silla era.

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History of Seokguram Grotto

Construction on the Seokguram Grotto began around 750 and was completed in 774. It was built in the Silla era by Prime Minister Kim Daeseong, who also built the Bulguksa Temple.

Historical records for the grotto are scant, but the Samguk Yusa (Legends of the Three Kingdoms), written by the monk Iryon in the 14th century, relates the following legend: the architect of Seokguram was carving the central ceiling stone when it cracked before his eyes. He wept bitterly at his blunder and fell into a trance. In a dream, he saw celestial beings descend from heaven and repair the critical ceiling stone. When he awoke, he found the stone healed but for the faint traces of cracks on the surface. Small cracks in the ceiling stone can still be seen today.

Seokguram was abandoned for many centuries until it was rediscovered by accident in 1909. The story goes that a local postman was caught in a rainstorm and sought shelter in the nearest cave he could find. Once inside, he lit a candle in the dark and found a gigantic stone Buddha looking back at him!

Korea was under Japanese occupation at the time of the discovery and the authorities in Seoul ordered that the cave be dismantled and sent to the capital city. Fortunately, the local authorities dragged their feet and the plan was eventually dropped.

What to See at Seokguram Grotto

The Seokguram Grotto lies four kilometers east of Bulguksa Temple on Mt. Tohamsan, overlooking the Sea of Japan (East Sea) from a vantage point of 750 meters above sea level.

The grotto is so important and so fragile that visitors are allowed only a brief glimpse of the interior and photography is prohibited. The architecture of the temple is similar to other rock-carved cave temples in China and India, with special resemblence to the Longmen Grottoes in China.

One important difference is that the granite stone of these Korean hills is not conducive to carving. The grotto is thus artificially made of hundreds of granite stones, held together by stone rivets and no mortar.

The grotto symbolizes a spiritual journey into Nirvana. Pilgrims were to start at Bulguksa or at the foot Mt. Tohamsan, a holy mountain to the Silla kingdom. There was a fountain at the entrance of the shrine where pilgrims could refresh themselves. Inside the grotto, the antechamber and corridor represent the earth while the rotunda represents heaven.

An arched entrance leads into a rectangular antechamber, which houses a Bojon statue of a Bodhisattva and his disciples and forty different figures representing Buddhist principles and teachings. The ceiling of the grotto is decorated with half moons. The Four Heavenly Kings guard the corridor and Eight Guardian Deities adorn the antechamber.

From here, a narrow corridor lined with bas-reliefs leads into the main rotunda, with a dome measuring 6.84 meters to 6.58 meters in diameter. The centerpiece of this granite sanctuary is a Buddha statue, whose specific identity is still debated. Sakyamuni and Amida are among the most common guesses.

The Buddha is 3.5 meters in height and sits on a 1.34 meter tall lotus pedestal, wearing a serene expression of meditation. The drapery on the Buddha, such as the fan-shaped folds at the crossed-legs of the Buddha, exemplifies Korean interpretations of Indian prototypes. Unlike other Buddhas that have a halo attached to the back of the head, the Buddha at Seokguram creates the illusion of a halo by placing a granite roundel carved with lotus petals at the back wall of the rotunda.

Accompanying the main Buddha are reliefs of two bodhisattvas (Manjusri and Samantabhadra), ten disciples (with features showing a Greek influence), and two Hindu gods (Brahma and Indra) along the wall of the rotunda. Ten statues of bodhisattvas, saints, and the faithful are located in niches above the bas-reliefs.

Another notable figure is the Eleven-faced Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, on the back wall of the rotunda. Standing 2.18 meters in height, this figure is the only one of the bas-reliefs facing forward instead of to the side. The Avalokitesvara wears a crown, is dressed in robes and jewelry and holds a vase containing a lotus blossom.

Quick Facts on Seokguram Grotto

Site Information
Names:석굴암 · Seokguram Grotto · Seokguram Seokgul · Stone Cave Hermitage · Sukgulam
Categories:temples; caves; World Heritage Sites
Styles:Silla
Dates:c. 750
Status: museum
Visitor and Contact Information
Coordinates:35.791600° N, 129.349000° E
Address:Tohamsan, Jinhyeon-dong 999
Gyeongsangbuk-do, South Korea
Phone:054/746-9933
Website:www.sukgulam.org
Hours:Nov-Feb 7am-5pm
Mar-Oct 7am-6pm
Lodging:View hotels near Seokguram Grotto
Note: This information was accurate when first published and we do our best to keep it updated, but details such as opening hours and prices can change without notice. To avoid disappointment, please check with the site directly before making a special trip.

References

  1. Seokguram Grotto - Asian Historical Architecture
  2. Seokguram Grotto and Bulguksa Temple - UNESCO World Heritage List
  3. 360° Virtual Tour of Bulguksa Temple - WHTour.org
  4. Seokguram Seokgul (Seokguram Grotto) - Frommer's South Korea

More Information

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