Bulguksa Temple (불국사) & Seokguram Grotto (석굴암 석굴) – home to Korea’s finest Buddhist art

Established in the 8th century under the Silla Kingdom, then-Prime Minister Kim Dae-seong initiated & supervised the construction of the Bulguksa temple (불국사) & the Seokguram grotto (석굴암 석굴). The temple was built in memory of his parents in his present life, while the grotto was constructed in memory of his parents from his previous life. Located on the slopes of Mount Toham, Bulguksa is a head temple of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism (traditional Korean Buddhism that dates back to the Silla Dynasty) & classified as Historic and Scenic Site No. 1 by the South Korean government. Together with Seokguram grotto that lies 4 km to its east, the temple was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1995.

Housed within the same temple complex, both architectures are reowned as one of the best cultural destinations in South Korea as it is home to the country’s finest Buddhist art pieces. We visited both attractions early in the morning & spent about 1.5 hours to tour the 2 sites. The admission ticket costs KRW4,000 per adult (S$4.80) each site.

Bulguksa 1Originally known as ‘Hwaeom Bulguksa Temple’ or ‘Beopryusa Temple’, the temple’s name was changed to Bulguksa after its reconstruction was completed in 774 during the Silla Kingdom. It underwent numerous renovations from the Goryeo Dynasty to the Joseon Dynasty till 1805, & was often the target of robbers. In 1973, the Bulguksa Temple Restoration Committee rebuilt the Mulseoljeon, Gwaneumjeon, Birojeon, Gyeongru, & Hoerang (all of which had previously been demolished), as well as repaired other old or broken sites, such as Daeungjeon, Geungnakjeon, Beomyeongnu & Jahamun. Today, Bulguksa is home to many important cultural relics such as the Dabotap Pagoda (다보탑, National Treasure No. 20), Seokguram Grotto (석굴암 석굴, National Treasure No. 24) & the Golden Seated Vairocana Buddhist Figure (비로자나불, National Treasure No. 26).

Bulguksa 2

Built in the mid-8th century, this 10.3m-tall Dabotap Pagoda (다보탑) has a different design from the other 3 pagodas constructed during the Unified Silla period. If you examine the pagoda from the 4 corners, you will realise that there is only 1 stone lion now, as the other 3 stone lions on the other sides of the platform have disappeared since it was dismantled for restoration during the Japanese occupation period.

Bulguksa 4

Originally constructed in 751 A.D., the Vairocana Buddha Hall enshrines the Vairocana Buddha – a celestial Buddha who is often interpreted as the Dharma body of the historical Buddha. The Buddha statue embodies Truth, Wisdom & Cosmic Power, with the architectural style resembling that of the late Joseon Dynasty.

Besides admiring the fine Buddhist architectures in this temple, we also spotted many beautiful cherry blossom areas, so here’s sharing some of the scenic views captured. 🙂

Bulguksa 3Bulguksa 5

Before heading east to check out the renowned Seokguram grotto, we also made sure we touched the golden fortune pig statue placed in front of Geungnakjeon Hall (극락전), because it is believed that you’ll be blessed with good fortune if you manage to touch it! Apparently the 50-cm tall pig made of wood had gone unnoticed by visitors, hidden behind the hall’s signage written in Chinese (极乐殿), till 2007 when it was accidentally discovered by a visitor. Take a close look at the picture I took of the Chinese signage to see if you can find where the golden pig is hiding.

Can you spot the pig hidden behind the signage? ;)

Can you spot the pig hidden behind the signage? 😉

The famous golden pig in front of Ge Hall

The famous golden pig in front of Geungnakjeon Hall

Following, we proceeded to Seokguram grotto, a short drive away, which is an artificial stone temple made of granite. Inside the round-shaped main hall are the Bonjon Statue, Bodhi-sattva & his disciples. The Bonjon figure wearing a generous smile is seated on the stage engraved with a lotus flower design. The round-shaped ceiling looks like a half-moon with a lotus flower drawn on it. At dawn, many people climb up the mountain to catch a view of the beautiful sunrise over the sea, visible from around the seated Buddha’s perch.

Entrance to one of the finest masterpiece of Korean Buddhist art

Entrance to one of the finest masterpiece of Korean Buddhist art

Seokguram 2

Saw this signage after about 15-min walk up the slopes

Saw this signage after about 15-min walk up the slopes

As the Buddha sculpture at Seokguram grotto is placed behind a glass wall to protect it, & no photography was allowed here, I could only extract a photo from Wikipedia for you to at least know how it looks like. The grand piece of Buddhist art stands at 3.5m tall, & sits on a 1.34m tall lotus pedestal. But be warned that the grotto is actually quite small & it can get quite packed with visitors…

The main Buddha sculpture image extracted from Wikipedia

The main Buddha sculpture image extracted from Wikipedia

Try to arrive at Bulguksa temple complex early in the morning before it gets crowded. The complex is open all year round from 7am to 6pm. From Gyeongju Intercity/Express Bus Terminal or Gyeongju Station in the city centre, take Bus No. 10 or 11 and get off at Bulguksa Temple (불국사). It takes about 1 hour to travel there as it is located in the east of Gyeongju-si.  From the temple, you can get to Seokguram grotto by taking take Bus No. 12 (30 min interval). Or if you are game for some hiking, you can also climb up to Seokguram along a side trail off the main entrance of Bulguksa, which will take 30 to 60 min depending on your speed.

My personal opinion is Bulguksa is more interesting than Seokguram because there are more things to see in the ancient temple while Seokguram is just a small & isolated granite temple. Nonetheless, enjoy the sightseeing of these fine Buddhist art & natural scenery on the mountain!

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