Colonial Korea: Bunhwangsa Temple – 분황사 (Gyeongju)

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The Three Tier Stone Pagoda at Bunhwangsa Temple, in Gyeongju, in 1916.

Hello Again Everyone!!

Just east of the Gyeongju city centre, which was the capital of the ancient Silla Dynasty (57 B.C. to 935 A.D.) lays the beautiful Bunhwangsa Temple. Bunhwangsa Temple means “Fragrant Emperor Temple,” in English, and it was first constructed in 634 A.D. under the patronage of the famed Queen Seondeok (r. 632-647 A.D.).

During the height of the Silla Dynasty, and alongside the expansive Hwangnyongsa-ji Temple Site, Bunhwangsa Temple covered a large swath of land. In fact, Bunhwangsa Temple was one of the four major temples of the Silla Dynasty. During this time, Bunhwangsa Temple was only used by the state to ask the Buddha’s blessing on the nation. So unlike today, the average citizen wasn’t welcomed at the temple.

Such famed monks as Wonhyo-daesa (617-686) and Jajang-yulsa (590-658) called Bunhwangsa Temple home at one time or another. Then, during the 1200s, the invading Mongols completely destroyed Bunhwangsa Temple. It nearly took until the 1700s, a full five hundred years after its destruction, to be rebuilt.

In 1915, during Japanese Colonial rule, the Japanese decided to repair and rebuild the famed pagoda at Bunhwangsa Temple. At this time, numerous relics were found housed inside the pagoda like a box that contained sari (crystallized remains). The remains appeared to once belong to a monk. In addition to the sari box, relics like gold, scissors, coins and a needle case was found inside the pagoda. Who these relics specifically belong to are unknown; however, because they are a woman’s items, some people speculate that they once belonged to a royal woman.

By far, the main highlight at Bunhwangsa Temple is the three-story brick pagoda. The Stone Brick Pagoda at Bunhwangsa Temple, as it’s known in English, also just so happens to be National Treasure #30. Like the temple, the pagoda dates back to 634 A.D. The age of the pagoda makes it the oldest datable Silla stone pagoda still in existence. The black bricks are made from andesite stone. Missionaries returning from Tang China described the beauty of their pagodas, so the queen decided to replicate the popular pagodas of that time. In its current form, the Bunhwangsa Temple pagoda stands three stories in height. However, it’s believed that the pagoda once stood nine stories in height and was hallow inside. Just like its height, the centre of the pagoda is now solid. Before, the interior of the pagoda was so large that Buddhist scriptures were housed inside. At each of the four corners of the pagoda there were four lion statues. Of the four, only one still remained in the 1970s. So at that time, the three were replaced with all new ones.

While considerably smaller in size, Bunhwangsa Temple reveals small glimpses back into its past. In total, Bunhwangsa Temple houses one National Treasure and three additional provincial Tangible Cultural Properties, as well.

Bunhwangsa - 1916

The flag supports at Bunhwangsa Temple in 1916. In the background, you can see the three tier brick pagoda.

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Some of the stone work around the temple in 1917.

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What the Three Tier Stone pagoda looked like before being renovated by the Japanese in 1916

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The blueprints behind the architectural rebuild in 1916.

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A closer look at how dilapidated and in disrepair the pagoda had fallen into.

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A closer look at the pagoda after being repaired.

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The only original tiger that remained to adorn the ancient pagoda.

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How the pagoda looked after being repaired by the Japanese in 1916.

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And how National Treasure #30 looked in 2011.

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A closer look from 2011, as well.

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One of the remade lions that adorns one of the pagoda’s four corners in 2011.

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A closer look at one of the four openings around the base of the brick pagoda in 2006.

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And another look at the ancient pagoda in 2006.

Now and Then: Bunhwangsa Temple


Bunhwangsa Temple, in Gyeongju, during Japanese colonial rule.

Hello Again Everyone!!

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.

Bunhwangsa 1914

Bunhwangsa Temple from 1914!


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


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


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


Bunhwangsa Temple in 1962.

Bunhwangsa 1970s

Bunhwangsa Temple in the 1970s after being repaired.


And the Bunhwangsa Temple pagoda today.


And another angle of National Treasure #30.

Bunhwangsa Temple – 분황사 (Gyeongju)


The oldest pagoda in all of Korea, which just so happens to be at Bunhwangsa Temple

Hello Everyone!

Continuing with our tour of Gyeongju, I’ve included a posting on Bunhwangsa Temple (분황사).  Bunhwangsa Temple has the oldest pagoda in all of Korea, so enjoy!

In total, I’ve visited Gyeongju probably about six times, and of those six, I’ve visited Bunhwangsa Temple three times.  Depending on how much time you have, how much energy you still have after walking all day, and how late you’re running in the day if you still want to visit Bulguksa Temple and Seokguram Hermitage, you should visit Bunhwangsa Temple.

Bunhwangsa Temple (“Famous Emperor Temple”) is probably best known for its brick pagoda. Once one of the four most famous temples in the early Silla Dynasty, Bunhwangsa Temple is a lot smaller and in important in scope in present day Korea.   The aforementioned brick pagoda at Bunhwangsa Temple is the oldest pagoda in all of Korea dating from 634.  Originally, the pagoda was nine stories high; however, the pagoda only has three in the present day.  At the base of the pagoda chamber openings, with doors that are slightly ajar, are the fiercely protective stone figures. Also, there are lions adorning the base of the pagoda.  There is only one worship hall at this temple with an out of place, supersized, Buddha.  There are future plans to expand the Bunhwangsa Temple grounds and return the temple to its past glory during the Silla Dynasty.

HOW TO GET THERE:  To get to Buhwangsa Temple, you should walk down a country road that starts at the Gyeongju National Museum. The country road runs along a field.  This field is the former temple grounds for Hwangnyong-saji.  Cross over the railway tracks along this road and proceed for about a kilometer.

Also, if you don’t want to see Tumulus Park, Anapji, and the Gyeongju National Museum, and you simply want to go directly from the intercity bus terminal, you can catch a bus from the opposite side of Gyeongju Bus Terminal: take Bus #10 (15 minute interval), #11 (11 minute interval), #15 (3 times a day), #17 (6:20 am, only once a day), #18 (9 times a day), #277 (9 times a day) to get off at Bunhwangsa Temple (15 min ride).  Also, you can take a 10 minute taxi ride from the bus station.

Admission for adults is 1,300 Won.  And it’s open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m (except in winter when it’s open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.).


OVERALL RATING:  7/10.  This temple, simply for possessing the oldest pagoda in all of Korea rates a 7 out of 10.  Honestly, this pagoda is amazing, not only because it’s so old, but because it’s so beautiful, as well.  However, there is very little else to this temple besides this pagoda.  Let’s hope that the future temple additions will be as breath-taking as the historical pagoda!

A look at the kilometre long field that you’ll have to pass to get to Bunhwangsa Temple.
The first look at the 1377 year old pagoda (the oldest pagoda in Korea)
One of the four corners of the beautiful pagoda.
Another ancient angle.
One more time.
A look inside the slightly ajar doors with the fierce guards protecting its entry from any evil spirits.
A little less open, but no less protected.
A look at one of the ancient lions.
This one has seen better days, and yet, it’s still as fierce as ever.
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The solitary worship hall at Bunhwangsa Temple with a view of the newly tidied courtyard.
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The rather large Buddha statue inside the worship hall.
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A painting of three Buddhas on the exterior of the worship hall.
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Another unique painting on the exterior of the worship hall.
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A faded painting depicting a court on the exterior of the worship hall at the temple.
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The temple’s university for monks at Bunhwangsa Temple.
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A faceless sculpture of a Buddha beside the temple’s university and behind the worship hall at the temple.
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And a newer looking sculpture of Buddhas in the main courtyard at the temple.
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Some beautiful irises were in bloom when we visited.
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 The restored bell pavilion with father and son paying 1,000 Won to bring the temple’s bell.
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An extremely unique wooden drum at Bunhwangsa Temple.
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A better look at the drum’s grotesque features.