Colonial Korea: Seokguram Hermitage – 석굴암 (Gyeongju)

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The Seokgamoni-bul statue inside the Seokguram Grotto in 1917.

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Seokguram Hermitage first began construction in 742 A.D. alongside neighbouring Bulguksa Temple. The construction of both religious sites started under the guidance of Prime Minister Kim Daeseong. Seokguram Hermitage would be completed in 774 A.D. just shortly after the death of Kim Daeseong. Initially, Seokguram Hermitage was called Seokbulsa Temple (Stone Buddha Temple, in English). The hermitage was constructed, according to legend, to appease Kim’s parents from his previous life.

Seokguram Hermitage is best known for the artificial grotto housed at the hermitage. Inside the grotto is a 3.5 metre tall stone statue of Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha). The statue, which is the most beautiful Buddhist statue in all of Korea, sits underneath the seven metre tall grotto dome. The statue, with a serene smile, looks out towards the East Sea. The large Buddha statue is backed by an equally beautiful statue of Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion). The statue is fronted at the entrance of the cave by stone reliefs of Vajra warriors and the Four Heavenly Kings. And the central statue of Seokgamoni-bul is also surrounded on all sides by the Nahan (The Historical Disciples of the Buddha), Buddhas, and Bodhisattvas.

For the first thousand years of its existence, Seokguram Hermitage largely remained unchanged. It wasn’t until the 18th century, and under Korean Confucian religious rule from 1703 to 1758, that this started to change. This was then followed up by the serious damage that the Japanese inflicted on Seokguram Grotto from 1910-45. First discovered by the Japanese by a Japanese postman, the hermitage underwent three large scale restorations. From 1913 to 1915, the grotto was completely disassembled and reassembled. In addition, a one metre thick outer wall was added to surround the artificial grotto for protection.

Then, in 1917, another renovation took place. Because of the damage originally incurred after the earlier renovations, moss started to form in the grotto from moisture that couldn’t escape the artificial cave. So the Japanese decided to install a drainage pipe system inside the Seokguram Grotto. Additionally, the concrete shell that was added from 1913-15 was covered in lime mortar and clay.

Finally from 1920-23, a third round of renovations took place. This time, in order to correct their former mistakes, waterproof asphalt was added to the top of the concrete dome. But this seemed to only compound the problem of moisture inside the grotto.

After their liberation from Japan, Korea and Korean engineers attempted to fix the moisture problem inside the grotto that had been created over three decades. It was in 1966 that an air handling unit was installed inside the Seokguram Grotto, which seemed to stem the problem. And in 1971 a glass partition was installed inside the grotto to protect the sculptures and statues from any potential future damage.

Seokguram Hermitage is registered as National Treasure #24; and with Bulguksa Temple, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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The path that leads up to the grotto in 1917.

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A pagoda at Seokguram Hermitage in 1916.

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The entrance of the grotto in 1917.

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The blueprints of the grotto from 1917.

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Another angle for the inner chamber of the grotto.

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One of the outer guardians at the entrance of the Seokguram Grotto from 1917.

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One of the Vajra warriors at the entry of the inner chamber from 1917.

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Two of the Four Heavenly Kings at Seokguram Hermitage.

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The walls of the inner chamber with the Nahan and Buddhas on the wall.

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A look at the serenely smiling Seokgamoni-bul from 1917.

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A look above the central statue at the cracked dome.

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The relief of Gwanseeum-bosal that backs Seokgamoni-bul inside the inner chamber from 1917.

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A renovated Seokguram Hermitage from Colonial Rule.

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How the grotto looked in 2012.

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A closer look at the outer shrine hall to the grotto from 2006.

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A closer look at the image of Seokgamoni-bul from inside the grotto from 2012.

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And a black and white image of the Historical Buddha from 2012, as well.

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