Now and Then: Bunhwangsa Temple

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Bunhwangsa Temple, in Gyeongju, during Japanese colonial rule.

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Bunhwangsa Temple, which means “Fragrant Emperor Temple,” in English, was first constructed in 634 A.D. under the auspices of the famed Queen Seondeok (r. 632-647 A.D). Bunhwangsa Temple is located in the heart of Gyeongju with the neighbouring Hwangnyongsa-ji Temple Site in the next field. During the height of the Silla Kingdom, it covered a large amount of land, and it was one of the four main temples during this time. Unlike today, where any and all visitors are welcomed to the temple, Bunhwangsa Temple was formerly not a place for commoners. In fact, Bunhwangsa Temple was used by the state to ask the Buddha to bless and keep the kingdom safe. Famed monks like Jajang-yulsa and Wonhyo-daesa have called Bunhwangsa Temple home. Sadly, Bunhwangsa Temple was completely destroyed in the 1200s by the invading Mongols. Nearly 500 years later, it was rebuilt in the late 1700s.

Bunhwangsa Temple is best known for its three-story stone pagoda, the Stone Brick Pagoda at Bunhwangsa Temple, also just so happens to be National Treasure #30. There are many reasons why this pagoda qualifies as a national treasure, but one of them is its age. It dates back to 634 A.D., the same year that the temple was established, and it’s also the oldest datable Silla stone pagoda that’s still in existence. Amazingly, the pagoda’s bricks were all hand-made from black andesite stone. This was done to replicate the Tang China pagodas, popular at that time, that missionaries were describing to Queen Seondeok as they traveled through the Silla Kingdom. While the pagoda is currently three-stories in height, it was formerly thought to be nine stories in height and hallow inside. Currently, it has a solid centre with the bricks and debris from its former collapse. The interior used to be so large that it was once used to house Buddhist scriptures. Around the four corners of the pagoda’s base are four dog-like lions. As the pagoda was being refurbished in the 1970’s, only one of the original four remained. In the process, three were replicated and now stand on the pagoda alongside the one original lion.

In 1915, during Japanese colonial rule, the Japanese authorities decided to repair the Bunhwangsa Temple pagoda. During this time, they found numerous relics housed inside the pagoda like a sari-box that contained the calcified remains of a cremated monk. In addition to this item, other relics like gold, scissors, coins, and a needle case were also found inside the pagoda. It’s unclear who these items might have belonged to, but because they were a woman’s items, it’s believed to have belonged to a royal woman.

While considerably smaller nowadays, both in size and importance, remnants of its former grandeur still remain. Up until recently, the temple grounds were under excavation. In total, the temple houses the aforementioned National Treasure #30, as well as three additional provincial Tangible Cultural Properties.

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Bunhwangsa Temple from 1914!

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Bunhwangsa Temple in disrepair. In the centre, near the bottom, you can see the one original dog-like lion.

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A closer look at one of the Diamond Guardians (Eumgang-yeoksa), near one of the pagoda’s entrances.

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What the temple grounds formerly looked like during the early 20th century.

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Bunhwangsa Temple in 1962.

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Bunhwangsa Temple in the 1970s after being repaired.

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And the Bunhwangsa Temple pagoda today.

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And another angle of National Treasure #30.

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