Colonial Korea: Bulguksa Temple – 불국사 (Gyeongju)

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The front facade to Bulguksa Temple in 1916.

Hello Again Everyone!!

Before there ever was a Bulguksa Temple on the Bulguksa Temple grounds, there was a much smaller temple occupying the grounds. However, in 751 A.D., and under the guidance of Prime Minister Kim Daeseong, Bulguksa Temple was built to replace the earlier, and smaller, temple. Bulguksa Temple was first built to help pacify the spirits of Kim Daeseong’s parents. Twenty-three years later, Bulguksa Temple was completed in 774 A.D. after the death of Kim. It was completed by the Silla royal court. It was at this point, in 774, that the temple was renamed Bulguksa Temple, which means “The Buddhist Country Temple,” in English.

Throughout its long history, Bulguksa Temple has undergone numerous renovations and rebuilds. One of the earliest renovations took place during the late Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392) and the early Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). Tragically, all the wooden buildings were completely destroyed during the Imjin War (1592-98). In a decade, in 1604, Bulguksa Temple was reconstructed and further expanded. And over the next two hundred years, Bulguksa Temple would undergo a further forty renovations.

In the late Joseon Dynasty, and after 1805, Bulguksa Temple fell into disrepair. In fact, the temple was often the target of looting. It was during Japanese colonial rule from 1910 to 1945 that the Japanese started the restoration of Bulguksa Temple. It was only after the defeat of the Japanese in World War Two that the restoration process was completed by Korea. Under the orders and watchful eye of President Park Chung Hee, from 1969-73, extensive investigation, restoration, and repair were completed at Bulguksa Temple.

Bulguksa Temple is nearly unmatched as a temple on the Korean peninsula. In total, because of its architectural and artistic beauty, Bulguksa Temple houses some six national treasures and three additional treasures.

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Another look at the famed front facade of Bulguksa Temple in 1916.

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And yet another of Bulguksa Temple in 1916.

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The left side of the front facade has Yeonhwa-gyo (Lotus Bridge) and Chilbo-gyo (Seven Treasures Bridge) from 1916.

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To the right of the front facade is Baekun-gyo (White Cloude Bridge) and Cheongun-gyo (Blue Cloud Bridge) in 1916.

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A closer look at Baekun-gyo and  Cheogun-gyo in 1916.

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A look at Cheongun-gyo with Seokga-tap pagoda in the background from 1916.

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A closer look at Cheongun-gyo in 1916.

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The near collapse of the Hamyeong-ru Pavilion on the front facade in 1916.

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The elevated Seokga-tap pagoda in the main courtyard in 1916.

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The blueprints to the front facade from 1916.

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The Daeung-jeon main hall at Bulguksa Temple in 1932.

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A look around the inside of the Daeung-jeon from 1932.

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The intricate Dabo-tap in 1916.

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A closer look at the finial of Dabo-tap in 1916.

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And a look at the body of Dabo-tap in 1916.

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A neglected Seokga-tap in 1916 with the main hall in the background.

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The stone lantern in front of the main hall in 1916.

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One of the stupas at Bulguksa Temple in 1916.

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And another stupa near the rear of the temple grounds in 1916.

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Birojana-bul from 1917. It’s National Treasure #26.

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Amita-bul from 1917. It’s also National Treasure #27.

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Baekun-gyo (White Cloude Bridge) and Cheongun-gyo (Blue Cloud Bridge) in 2006

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And Baekun-gyo (White Cloude Bridge) and Cheongun-gyo (Blue Cloud Bridge) in 2011.

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A look across the famed front facade at Bulguksa Temple in 2011. In the foreground stands Yeonhwa-gyo (Lotus Bridge) and Chilbo-gyo (Seven Treasures Bridge).

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Dabo-tap Pagoda from 2012.

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Seokga-tap Pagoda circa 2011.

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One of the ornate stupdas next to the Gwaneum-jeon Hall from 2011.

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Birojana-bul from 2012. It’s National Treasure #26.

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One more picture of the front facade but from 2014.

Now and Then: Bulguksa Temple

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Bulguksa Temple from the early part of the last century.

Hello Again Everyone!!

I thought I would start up an all new series. It’s been a while since I have, and I thought there was no better way than to explore the history of Korean temples through historical pictures. Throughout the years, I’ve collected my fair share of historical Korean temple pictures, and I thought I would reveal a few of them through a now and then perspective. So I hope you enjoy this all new series.

The first temple I thought I would reveal through pictures is the famous Bulguksa Temple in Gyeongju. Before Bulguksa Temple was first constructed, a smaller sized temple first occupied the exact same grounds. Later, in 751 A.D., Prime Minister Kim Daeseong decided to build Bulguksa Temple to replace the former. It was built to soothe the spirits of his parents. Finally, in 774 A.D., after Kim’s death, the temple was completed by the Silla royal court. It was at this point that the temple was renamed Bulguksa Temple, or “The Buddhist Country Temple,” in English. Throughout the years, the temple has undergone numerous renovations and rebuilds. One of the earliest renovations was during the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392) and the early Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). But during the Imjin War (1592-98), all the wooden buildings at Bulguksa Temple were completely destroyed. Only a few years later, in 1604, Bulguksa Temple was reconstructed and expanded. This was followed by forty more renovations over the course of the next 200 years.

After 1805, the temple fell into disrepair, and Bulguksa Temple was often the target of looting. It was during colonial rule by the Japanese, from 1910-1945, that the Japanese started the restoration process. After the Japanese defeat at the end of World War II and the Korean War, did the Korean government start to restore the temple to its past glory. Under the orders of President Park Chung Hee, from 1969 to 1973, extensive archaeological investigation, restoration, and repair were conducted on the temple. Finally, after almost two hundred years of neglect, Bulguksa Temple was rebuilt to its past glory. And with all of the stonework and pagodas of the temple dating back to the original construction date, as well as the beautiful wooden artistry and paintings, Bulguksa Temple is nearly unrivaled for its beauty among Korean Temples. In addition to all this artistry, the temple also houses six national treasures and three additional treasures!

Now, Bulguksa Temple is one of the most popular temples to visit in Korea. Also, with its front façade that sports two national treasures, which include the first set of stairs that are known as Cheongun-gyo (“Blue Cloud Bridge”) and Baegun-gyo (“White Cloud Bridge”); while the stairs to the left are known as Yeonhwas-gyo (“Lotus Bridge”) and Chilbo-gyo (“Seven Treasures Bridge”), it’s perhaps the most recognizable temple in all of Korea for international visitors. Two additional national treasures that people can enjoy are Dabo-tap and Seokga-tap pagodas that stand stoically in the main temple courtyard. In addition to all this stone masonry, there are over a dozen temple buildings visitors can explore and enjoy. And in 1995, in combination with the neighbouring Seokguram Hermitage, it was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Without a doubt, Bulguksa Temple in Gyeongju is one of the most beautiful Korean temples on the peninsula.

Now, enjoy a look into Bulguksa Temple’s past through pictures!

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The neglected front facade of Bulguksa Temple from the early 20th century.

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Another vantage point of the two national treasures.

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One more look at what 200 years of neglect looks like.

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National Treasure #22 : Yeonhwas-gyo (“Lotus Bridge”) and Chilbo-gyo (“Seven Treasures Bridge”).

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The front facade of the temple from 1919.

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A look at two more national treasures from the turn of the last century: Dabo-tap and Seokga-tap pagodas.

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A closer look at National Treasure #20: Dabo-tap pagoda.

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What Bulguksa Temple’s main hall used to look like.

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A better look at more of the temple grounds from 1914.

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Park Chung Hee inspecting the newly renovated temple grounds in 1973.

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And a look at Bulguksa Temple today.

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A closer look at Dabo-tap pagoda today.

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And now, a better look at the entire renovated temple grounds.

The Story Of…Bulguksa Temple

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Korea’s most famed temple: Bulguksa Temple.

Hello Again Everyone!!

The very first temple I ever visited in Korea way back in the fall of 2003 was Bulguksa Temple in Gyeongju. Korea today is very different than Korea from even a year ago, so you can imagine just how much change has gone on over the course of ten years. Not much was known about Korea. This was before Facebook, Twitter, and the regular supply of most western foods. Back then there were only a couple English channels on TV, and Costco only existed in North America. So suffice is to say, I didn’t know all that much about Korean temples, or even about the famed Bulguksa Temple at that point in time. So when my roommate asked me if I wanted to go to Gyeongju on Saturday and see the beautiful Bulguksa Temple, I first said what’s that? Then when I found out it was perhaps Korea’s most famous temple, I jumped at the opportunity.

Before I had a car, I would take buses to better known temples throughout the Korean peninsula. Now that I have a car, I can go to lesser known temples; but back then, I had to rely on the Korean transportation system, which is one of the best in the world, to get me to these beautiful Buddhist temples throughout Korea.

So making our way to the Nopo-dong Bus Terminal in northern Busan from our centrally located apartment, the three of us headed out. Somehow, our strange co-worker had invited himself to go to Gyeongju with us. It wasn’t much of a problem, because we would have Bulguksa Temple to distract us. The hour-long bus ride from Busan to Gyeongju went rather smoothly for three newly landed teachers. In a bit of confusion, we were able to find the bus that ran its way up to the temple from the bus terminal. It was the first time I really got a good look at Korea outside of Busan.

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Dabotap Pagoda: Just one of the sites we were looking forward to at Bulguksa Temple.

When we finally arrived at the large temple parking lot, we made our way up to the temple with a lot of anticipation, or so I thought. I knew I was really excited, as the ticket booth finally came into view; so I thought my companions were, as well. And I was right, at least in part. My friend, who I am still friends with to this day, was the first to pay the entrance fee. He was followed a close second by me. Then the two of us just stared at the third member of our party.

We asked, “Aren’t you coming with us to see the temple?”

“No, the admission fee is too much.”

The two of us just looked at each other and then at him. This guy had spent over two hours traveling. He had paid who knows how much in bus fare; and suddenly, the 3,000 won entrance fee (at least in 2003) was too much?

“But you came all this way. Don’t you want to see it?” I asked.

“Nah…I’ll just wait for you guys out here.” And he just wandered off towards the parking lot without looking back.

Even looking back on it ten years later, I still can’t believe someone would travel that distance and pay all that money in bus fare just to wander around the Bulguksa Temple parking lot. What didn’t come as a surprise is that the same guy was fired six months later from our hagwon for being a bit strange.

For more information on Bulguksa Temple.

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What was missed at Bulguksa Temple.

Updated: Bulguksa Temple – 불국사 (Gyeongju)

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A look at Dabo-tap Pagoda at Bulguksa Temple.

Hello Again Everyone!!

Bulguksa Temple means “The Buddhist Country Temple,” in English. Alongside the neighbouring Seokguram Hermitage, Bulguksa Temple was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995.

Bulguksa Temple was first constructed in 528 A.D. during the Silla Kingdom. Originally, the temple was known as Hwaeom Bulguksa Temple and/or Beopryusa Temple. It was later rebuilt in 751 by Kim Daeseong. It was finally completed in 774, during King Hyegong’s reign, and it was simply renamed Bulguksa Temple. Throughout the years, the temple has undergone numerous repairs, renovations, and damage. During the Imjin War of 1592-98, the temple was completely destroyed by the invading Japanese. It was quickly reconstructed in 1604. From that time, it was renovated and repaired about 40 times until 1805. After this period in time, the temple fell into a bit of disrepair and was often the target of robbers. Finally, in 1972, the temple was restored to its past splendour with 24 buildings being reconstructed over a three year period.

After paying your 4,000 won entrance fee at the southern ticket booth, you’ll make your way towards the main temple grounds. The first structure to greet you, besides the Iljumun Gate you pass through at the entry, is the Cheonwangmun Gate. The gate houses some of the more refined incarnations of the Four Heavenly Kings. Along the way, you’ll pass by a beautiful pond.

Finally arriving just outside the temple, you’ll be greeted by one of the most beautiful (and recognizable) front façades to any temple in Korea. To the right stands a set of stairs that leads up to the main temple courtyard. These stairs symbolize the ascension from the worldly to the spiritual. The first set of stairs are known as Cheongun-gyo (“Blue Cloud Bridge”) and Baegun-gyo (“White Cloud Bridge”); whereas the stairs to the left are known as Yeonhwas-gyo (“Lotus Bridge”) and Chilbo-gyo (“Seven Treasures Bridge”). These bridges are considered National Treasure #22 and #23. Unfortunately, you can no longer climb these stairs, as they’re protected; however, there is a trail to the right that leads up towards the temple courtyard and the main hall.

Once you enter the temple courtyard, you’ll instantly notice the two pagodas towering over the grounds. The first is known as Dabo-tap, or “The Pagoda of Many Treasures.” The other, to the  left, is known as Seokga-tap, or ““Pagoda of Seokgamoni” (which is named after the Historical Buddha: Seokgamoni-bul). Dabo-tap stands 10.4 metres in octagonal height. With its intricate design, it’s meant to represent the feminine. Seokga-tap, on the other hand, stands 8.2 metres in height. It is three-tiers of symmetric simplicity, and it’s meant to represent the masculine. These 8th century pagodas are designated National Treasure #20 and 21, respectively.

Behind these two imposing pagodas is the Daeung-jeon, or the temple’s main hall. The hall was reconstructed in 1765 after it was destroyed in 1593 by the Japanese. In front of the main hall, and past the two pagodas, is the Jahamun Gate. From this vantage point, you can look down on the stairs and across at the amazing front façade.

Behind the main hall lies the Museol-jeon Hall. The word “museol” literally means “non-lecturing hall,” in English; however, the hall is used as a lecture hall and it has a beautiful bronze statue of a regally crowned Jijang-bosal, with staff in hand, on the right side of the hall.

Up a set of steep stairs, and behind the Museol-jeon Hall, is the Gwaneum-jeon hall that houses a slender statue of the Bodhisattva of Compassion. Gwanseeum-bosal is then backed by a highly elaborate mural of herself with a thousand hands reaching out for those in need. It’s also from this vantage point that you get a great view over the rest of the temple grounds.

Through a door, and down a flight of stairs, you’ll come face-to-face with the Biro-jeon Hall. Housed inside this hall is a statue of Birojana-bul (The Buddha of Cosmic Energy). This statue is striking the Diamond Fist mudra, and it’s designated National Treasure #26. This statue is believed to date back to the 9th century. Next to this hall, and slightly to the left, is the Bulguksa Sari-tap. While damaged by the Japanese, it was eventually retrieved in the 1930s. Dating back to the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392), the Sari-tap is beautiful in its lotus design and Buddha and Bodhisattva reliefs around its body.

The final building in the upper courtyard is the Nahan-jeon. Housed inside this hall are 16 wooden statues dedicated to the Nahan (The Historical Disciples of the Buddha). Surrounding the hall are hundreds of stone cairns left behind by visitors to the temple.

Finally back in the lower courtyard, you’ll be greeted by the Geukrak-jeon Hall. Out in front of the hall is a golden boar that you can rub for good luck. And housed inside this hall is a statue of Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise). This statue is designated National Treasure #27, and it dates back to the 9th century. Surrounding this statue, and if you look close enough around the interior, you can see an older style Dragon Ship of Wisdom painting, as well as a wooden carving of a golden pig, as well.

For more on Bulguksa Temple.

HOW TO GET THERE:  From the Gyeongju Intercity Bus Terminal, make your way to the main road and the bus stop that’s just out in front of it. From there, take either bus #10 or #11. Either one of these buses will take you directly to the Bulguksa Temple stop. The bus ride will last about one hour in length.

OVERALL RATING: 10/10.  With a half-dozen National Treasures, as well as being designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, its reputation kind of speaks for itself. But if you need any more convincing, the stately pagodas, the amazing architecture, and the stunning halls and views are more than enough to keep you busy for the better part of a day. This temple is a must!!

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Two of the Four Heavenly Kings at Bulguksa Temple.
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 The  Cheongun-gyo (“Blue Cloud Bridge”) and Baegun-gyo (“White Cloud Bridge.”
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As you approach the temple courtyard.
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An up-close of Dabo-tap Pagoda.
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And a look over at Seokga-tap Pagoda at Bulguksa Temple.
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The long corridors at the temple.
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Some of the intricate artwork at Bulguksa Temple.
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The main hall at Bulguksa Temple.
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A look inside the main hall at Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha).
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Just a seat.
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The stairway leading to the upper courtyard.
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The Gwaneum-jeon Hall.
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The highly elaborate mural of Gwanseeum-bosal.
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The view from the upper courtyard.
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A look towards the cloaked Nahan-jeon.
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A look inside the Nahan-jeon.
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The view as you make your way towards the Geukrak-jeon Hall.
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The golden pig that brings good luck.
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A look inside the Geukrak-jeon at Amita-bul, which also just so happens to be National Treasure #27.
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 The Yeonhwas-gyo (“Lotus Bridge”) and Chilbo-gyo (“Seven Treasures Bridge”).