The Korean Pagoda (Part 1)


The very famous Dabotap pagoda from Bulguksa Temple in Gyeongju.

Hello Again Everyone!!

One of the most noticeable, elegant, and beautiful things you will see at a Korean Buddhist temple is the pagoda. The history of the pagoda in Korea is as old as Buddhism is in Korea. And while the pagoda designs are both beautiful and elegant, the meaning of them may not be all that clear to the casual observer. So why are pagodas situated at Korean Buddhist temples, what do they look like, and why are they designed the way they are in Korea?

First, the Korean word for a pagoda is a “tap.” This word is an abbreviation of the word “tapa,” which is just one of the numerous ways that the Chinese translate the Sanskrit “stupa.” The original meaning of the Sanskrit stupa is “burial mound” or “tomb.” So it stands to reason that the very first pagodas were nothing more than mounds of raised earth with the base of the earth having a face of brick or stone surrounding it. As time progressed, and as the Buddhist tradition evolved, the stupa eventually would be topped with a pedestal with a stone peak. Historically, the pagoda was created to house the remains of the Buddha. Presently, and historically throughout Korean history, in the absence of the Buddha’s remains, they would house important artifacts and treasures related to Buddhism.


A black bricked pagoda from Songnimsa Temple.

Like all things in Asian Buddhism, traditions and teachings passed through China, from India, to the rest of the eastern side of the continent. As it did, the earth mounds disappeared, and the Chinese wooden pagoda structure emerged. Sometime in the Three Kingdoms Period in Korea, and with the emigration of all things Buddhist, the wooden structured pagoda found a home in Korea; however, in time, these wooden pagodas became uniquely stone. And while the design of a Korean pagoda has varied through the years, the structural components of the pagoda have remained the same with the base, the body, and the finial.

A: The Pagoda Base:

The base of the Korean pagoda is the lowest part of it. Usually, this is a four sided base that is decorated with a variety of Buddhist imagery. Some of the more common images that are sculpted into the base are the Twelve Spirit Generals, the Eight Dharma Protectors, or the Four Heavenly Kings.

The Four Heavenly Kings are the same Kings that appear in the Cheonwangmun entrance gate. These Four Heavenly Kings are easily recognizable. Damun Cheonwang (Vaisravana in Sanskrit) guards the North. And he’s the one that holds a pagoda in his hand. The second Heavenly King is Jonjang Cheonwang (or Virudhaka in Sanskrit). He holds a sword in his hand and guards the South. Jigook Cheonwang (Dhritarashtra in Sanskrit) holds a lute in his hands and protects the East. The last of the four Heavenly Kings is Gwangmok Cheonwang (Virupaksha in Sanskrit) is the guardian of the West, and he holds a dragon in one hand and a jewel in the other.


A zodiac base from the pagoda at Suwolseonwon Temple in Busan.

The Twelve Spirit Generals, on the other hand, are the exact same as the Chinese zodiac signs: the rat, the ox, the tiger, the rabbit, the dragon, the snake, the horse, the sheep, the monkey, the rooster, the dog, and the pig. They are most often carved on the four sides of the base. Each side has three images of the zodiac signs like the tiger, dragon, and monkey. The twelve are mostly depicted with a human body dressed in armour or sacerdotal robes, and one of the twelve Chinese zodiac heads. These Twelve Spirit Generals adorn the stone pagoda because they carry out the Twelve Great Vows of Yaksa-bul (The Medicine Buddha), and as such, they protect the dharma as represented through the pagoda.

Finally, the Eight Dharma Protectors can also appear on the base of a Korean pagoda. These Eight Dharma Protectors were once seen as being evil, but they were later converted by the Historical Buddha, Seokgamoni-bul. These eight are: 1. devas   2. nagas  3. yaksas   4. gandarvas  5. asuras  6. garudas  7. kinnaras  8. mahoragas. The first, Devas, are thought to be celestial beings that can control parts of nature such as fire, wind, or air. The second, Nagas, generally take the form of a great cobra like snake, and they have the power to transform into a human. The third, the Yaksas, are beings with lions on their heads and a rope around their waists. They are ugly, cruel and ghost-like creatures that were believed to fly around at night and bother humans. The fourth, Gandarvas, are figures with a sword in their right hand and a small bottle of perfume in their left. They live off the fragrance of this perfume.


An Asura, on the right, on the base of the pagoda at Gwaneunam Hermitage in Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do.

 The fifth of the eight are Asuras. The Asuras have bird-like heads with three faces as well as six arms. Sometimes, they will appear with a monster mask on the centre of their stomachs. This monster mask symbolizes evil being suppressed.


 A Garuda, on the right, from the base of the pagoda from Gwaneumam Hermitage, as well.

The sixth, the Garudas, are figures with bird-like wings on the outer edges of their ears. In Indian myth, they are the king of the birds. The seventh, the Kinnaras, are long haired beings holding a trident in their left hands. This creature is depicted with a human head and a bird’s body. They are known as heavenly musicians. In some renderings, they are sometimes depicted as playing the drums with both hands, while also playing the flute. The eighth, and final, of the Eight Dharma Protectors are the Mahoragas. They hold a sword in their right hand, while their left palm is slightly crooked in its posture. The Mahoragas are supposed to symbolize the snake spirit as it has a human body and a snake’s head that slithers on the ground.

Anyone of these three groups of beings can appear on the base of a Korean pagoda and it’s always interesting to figure out which of the three are being depicted.

To be continued next week….

2 thoughts on “The Korean Pagoda (Part 1)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *