During the last few hours of my first visit to Gyeongju, I explored the ruins of what had once been amongst Silla’s greatest temples – now reduced to a grassy field littered with weathered stones and the ghostly outlines of long-lost buildings. Empty, silent, desolate … and for all that, a fitting canvas upon which to let my imagination run riot, filling the void with mental images of the magnificent structures that stood here all those centuries ago.
First, a reminder of our present whereabouts.
Saturday, 17 February 2018.
After spending a good chunk of the morning at the fantastic Gyeongju National Museum – more about that in my previous post – I set off due north, following a road lined with flowering cherry trees.
Well, not flowering as of that particular moment, of course. But it’s the dead of winter, after all. Let’s give these chaps another month or two to hibernate before they bud forth in springtime glory.
After walking for about a kilometre from the museum’s front gate, I entered a broad expanse of grass-covered ground, speckled here and there with broken stones and low earthen platforms.
This was once the site of Hwangnyongsa (황룡사), a massive Silla-era temple founded in the 6th century AD. Supposedly begun as a royal palace on the orders of King Jinheung (reigned AD 540-576), the 24th ruler of Silla, the complex was eventually redesigned and completed for religious use.
A detailed scale model exhibited at the Gyeongju National Museum shows how the temple might once have looked around the 7th century AD, after the addition of its iconic pagoda (more on that later).
Hwangnyongsa managed to survive the fall of Silla in AD 935, enduring well into the Goryeo period, but all the remaining structures were burned to the ground during the Mongol invasions of the mid-13th century. Today, Hwangnyongsa is a temple only in name, reduced to ghostly outlines of building foundations and scattered fragments of carved stonework that hint at the magnificence that once existed here.
One of the larger foundations, a square platform with a grid of flat stones upon which wooden supporting columns were erected, formerly served as the base for Hwangnyongsa’s legendary Nine-Storey Wooden Pagoda. Completed in the 640s AD to a design by Abiji – an architect from Silla’s neighbouring state (and rival) Baekje – the soaring tower is said to have been some 80 metres tall, making it one of the tallest wooden structures in the world during its day. (The large number of foundation stones hints at the structural support needed to keep such a massive building upright.)
We’ll have more to say (and see) about the pagoda later. For now, let’s cross over to another large foundation close by, where Hwangnyongsa’s main structure (the so-called “Golden Hall”) once stood.
Some of the larger stones in the middle of the platform originally supported the golden statues enshrined in this hall.
In our own day, a tourist “entering” the hall from where the front doors once stood would see this layout of evenly spaced rocks set into the ground…
…whereas a visitor standing a little further back from the same spot during the Silla era might have seen something like this (cropped from a CGI reconstruction image posted on a sign at the site).
There’s an even better CGI rendition of the entire Hwangnyongsa compound in this video (from about 5:45 in).
I wasn’t quite finished with Hwangnyongsa at that point, but there was something else in the area that I really wanted to see. Leaving the vast temple compound for the moment, I continued north along a path that led me to another treasure from the glory days of Silla.
Constructed in AD 634 under the patronage of Queen Seondeok (reigned AD 632-647), Bunhwangsa (분황사) once ranked amongst the most important government-supported temples of the Kingdom of Silla. Like Hwangnyongsa nearby, what remained of the temple after the fall of Silla was obliterated by invading armies in the centuries that followed. One key element of the compound did manage to survive, albeit much reduced from its original state – in fact, you can see it peeking out from behind the perimeter wall (off to the right of the main gate) in the next shot.
After paying the entrance fee, I stepped into the compound for a closer look at this landmark, the 30th National Treasure of the Republic of Korea.
Dating from the time of Bunhwangsa’s completion in AD 634, the famed Stone Pagoda was inspired by similar structures built in China. One key difference is in the choice of building material: whilst contemporaneous Chinese towers made extensive use of brick, the Bunhwangsa pagoda was fashioned out of stone (specifically andesite) blocks, although cut to resemble bricks. Only 3 levels survive today, but the pagoda is believed to have been much taller when originally constructed, with 7 to 9 storeys in all (as shown in this CGI reconstruction, for example).
In 1915, Korea’s then-ruling Japanese colonial administration conducted restoration work on the Stone Pagoda – which before that time was in a precarious, semi-collapsed state – leaving it with more or less the same appearance we see today.
A short distance away from the pagoda is this stone well, known variously as Hoguknyongbyeoneojeong or Samnyongbyeoneojeong (either ways, that’s quite a mouthful right there!). Legend has it that three guardian dragons (quite conveniently transformed into small fish), protectors of the Silla kingdom, were given refuge in this well during the late 8th century AD.
Off to one side is the weathered stone pedestal for a destroyed monumental stele, erected in 1101 (during the Goryeo period, after the fall of Silla) and dedicated to the memory of the famous monk Wonhyo, who was once based in Bunhwangsa.
There’s also a lovely wooden building in the back – not a Silla original (it was added centuries later), but a nice part of the compound nonetheless.
From Bunhwangsa, I set off westwards and back south, returning to the Hwangnyongsa grounds. Along the way, I passed the stone base of a flagpole erected during the Later Silla period (AD 668–935). A tall metal pole (now long gone) would have been erected on top of the carved stone turtle and held up by supports secured to the two pillars on either side (as shown in this CGI reconstruction).
Although located close to the Hwangnyongsa perimeter, the flagpole was probably built for, and used by, Bunhwangsa.
Soon, I was back in the vicinity of Hwangnyongsa and ready to visit the latest addition to the site…
…the Hwangnyongsa Temple History and Culture Centre (황룡사역사문화관, Hwangnyongsa Yeoksamunhwagwan). Opened in November 2016, this new facility on the western edge of the temple ruins features a blend of modern design and elements inspired by Silla architectural relics (such as excavated roof tiles).
The building houses exhibits related to the ongoing excavation work and archaeological studies of the Hwangnyongsa site. Its centrepiece – in a physical sense, anyway – is an incredibly detailed 1:10 scale model of the famous Nine-Storey Wooden Pagoda, fashioned out of real miniature wooden beams and copper roof tiles by the Korea National University of Cultural Heritage. Rising eight metres above the centre’s ground floor, this painstakingly crafted replica took eight years to design and build.
If that’s the facility’s physical, material centrepiece, then its non-physical centrepiece would be the 3D computer-animated film shown at regular intervals in the ground floor theatre. The video charts the long history of Hwangnyongsa, from the legends surrounding the temple’s construction to its final, chillingly rendered demise at the hands of Mongol invaders. Interestingly, the narrative also brings up the possibility (also highlighted in the centre’s other exhibits) of a future reconstruction of the temple complex itself: a massive undertaking that would require years of work and staggering amounts of money to realise. Truth be told, I’m a little sceptical about the project, mainly because of the limited evidence currently available about Hwangnyongsa’s precise appearance. Indeed, the Korea Tourism Organisation’s own official website has this to say:
Though foundation stones and other structures from the bottom of the temple were identified through excavation, there are no historical clues about the temple’s upper design, making the restoration of the temple in its entirety practically impossible.
I suppose “wait and see” is the most prudent response one might give to this endeavour. In any case, the highly informative and engaging exhibits of the centre were well worth seeing, and I was glad to have come by for a peek. (In fact, since this visit was a bit rushed because of my train schedules, I’d like to drop by the centre again during a future Gyeongju holiday in order to learn from the exhibits at a more measured pace.)
Here’s a news clip from last year that features the centre and its contents.
Before leaving, I spent a few moments on the centre’s observation deck, which offered great views of the nearby ruins.
Look closely at the middle area of the next shot – that’s Bunhwangsa’s main gate right there, with the Stone Pagoda just to the left of it. Despite the fair bit of walking involved (given the huge size of the Hwangnyongsa compound), this view from the centre shows how the two landmarks are within relatively close proximity of each other, and why it’s easy enough for a visitor to combine the two in the space of the same few hours.
And that’s a wrap for my two-day, first-time visit to Gyeongju. I’ll have one more related post describing my train journey back to Seoul, but the sightseeing part ends here.
Of course, needless to say, I’d love to return as soon as I possibly can.