Colonial Korea: Seokguram Hermitage – 석굴암 (Gyeongju)


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

Hello Again Everyone!!

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.


The path that leads up to the grotto in 1917.

Seokguram - pagoda 1916

A pagoda at Seokguram Hermitage in 1916.


The entrance of the grotto in 1917.


The blueprints of the grotto from 1917.


Another angle for the inner chamber of the grotto.


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


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


Two of the Four Heavenly Kings at Seokguram Hermitage.


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


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


A look above the central statue at the cracked dome.


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


A renovated Seokguram Hermitage from Colonial Rule.


How the grotto looked in 2012.


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


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


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

Now and Then: Seokguram Hermitage


Seokguram Hermitage in 1930.

Hello Again Everyone!!

Alongside Bulguksa Temple, Seokguram Hermitage first began construction in 742 A.D. by then Prime Minister, Kim Daeseong. The hermitage was completed in 774 A.D. not long after Kim Daeseong’s death. Originally, the temple was called Seokbulsa Temple, which means “Stone Buddha Temple,” in English. The reason that the hermitage was first constructed, at least according to legend, was to pacify Kim’s parents in his previous life.

The grotto at Seokguram Hermitage houses the most beautiful Buddhist sculpture in all of Korea. Underneath the nearly seven metre tall man-made dome, and measuring nearly 3.5 metres in height, is the serenely smiling Buddha, Seokgamoni-bul. Seokgamoni-bul looks out towards the East Sea and he is surrounded on all sides by equally beautiful sculptures of the Four Heavenly Kings, the Nahan, and Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion).

Throughout its history, the hermitage largely remained untouched for the first one thousand years of its design. It wasn’t until the 18th century that this changed under Confucian religious rule in 1703 and 1758. It was left seriously damaged before colonial Japan’s occupation of the Korean peninsula from 1910 to 1945. The hermitage was first discovered by a visiting Japanese postman. From its discovery, Seokguram Hermitage underwent three rounds of full-scale restoration. The first of these restorations started in 1913 and lasted until 1915. Under the efforts of leading Japanese architect and scholar, Tei Sekino, Seokguram Hermitage was completely disassembled and reassembled. It was at this time that a one metre thick outer concrete dome was formed around the artificial grotto. With the addition of 200 stones, the original grotto was irrevocably damaged.

Compounding these mistakes was the renovation that took place in 1917. Because of the moisture forming in the grotto from the concrete shell formerly installed by the Japanese, moss was collecting inside the grotto. So to alleviate this problem, the Japanese installed a drainage pipe. Additionally, the concrete was covered in lime mortar and clay.

And finally, from 1920 to 1923, a third round of renovations was conducted. This time, once more, the renovations were conducted to lessen the mistakes from the first time around. This time, waterproof asphalt was added on top of the formerly applied concrete. However, this still didn’t help the moisture problem inside the grotto.

Through their efforts, and after being liberated from the Japanese, Korean engineers attempted to fix the moisture problem inside the grotto. It wasn’t until 1966, with the installation of an air handling unit, that the problem was finally fixed. And in 1971, the glass partition was installed to protect the sculptures and statues from any damage that visitors might do to the historical grounds, as well as control the moisture level inside the grotto.

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


The path that formerly led up to the grotto in 1912.


A look at the grotto before Japanese repairs.


A better look at the extensive damage and neglect.

Seokguram 10

Japanese restoration.


The dismantling of the grotto.

Seokguram 11

Seokguram Hermitage stripped down.


The landscaping at Seokguram Hermitage after Japanese restoration efforts.


Some Japanese posing in front of the grotto during its occupation of Korea.


How the grotto looks today.


A look inside the grotto at the amazing statue of the Buddha in 2014.

The Story of…Seokguram Hermitage – 석굴암 (Gyeongju)


The hall that houses the grotto at Seokguram Hermitage in Gyeongju.

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I’ve been to Seokguram Hermitage more times than I can count. I’ve been with friends, my students, my wife, and my mom. The first time I visited was way back in 2003, and all I can remember about that first visit is how spellbound I was by the statue of Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha) inside the grotto. Then in 2004, when my mom visited me for the first time, I remember seeing the wonder in her eyes as she saw this breathtaking statue for the first time, as well. And I was even lucky enough to see the wonderment in my students eyes as some of them saw what lay inside the grotto for the first time back in 2012.

More recently, I’ve been back to sneakingly take pictures inside the Geukrak-jeon Hall just below the grotto, as it was a shift change for the women that watch over the hall. But the funniest/strangest story of late comes from within the grotto itself.

Customarily, I’m very respectful when it comes to temples where there’s a sign that reads “No photos,” or any other variation that Konglish might cook up. So each and every time I visit Seokguram Hermitage, I just look with my eyes, and I leave my camera off…that is, until recently.


The statue of Seokgamoni-bul inside the grotto before I was told to stop taking pictures alongside the Chinese and Korean photo-happy tourists.

I was standing just staring at the statue of Seokgamoni-bul when a bus full of Chinese tourist entered the grotto. Immediately, they started snapping an endless amount of pictures as the woman inside the grotto that ensures that no pictures are taken said nothing. It wasn’t until I started taking pictures that she said, with a wave of the finger, “No, you can’t take pictures in here.” I looked around at the Chinese tourist as they kept taking pictures, as I was told that I couldn’t. This hypocrisy didn’t make me all that happy. So when the Chinese tourist left, and a new bus load of Korean tourists entered with their cameras clicking away, I looked at the woman with a look that said, “So it’s also okay for them to take pictures?” And all the woman did was shrug her shoulders with a smile on her face. Sometimes, I just don’t get it…

For more on Seokguram Hermitage, please follow the link.


The view from the grotto as I leave more confused than anything else.

Updated: Seokguram Hermitage – 석굴암 (Gyeongju)

Inside Seokguram Grotto.

Hello Again Everyone!!

Seokguram Hermitage, which is located on top of Mt. Tohamsan, is known as “Stone Cave Hermitage,” in English. And alongside Bulguksa Temple, it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995. The hermitage was first called Seokbulsa Temple (Stone Buddha Temple). And it was originally constructed under the guidance of then Prime Minister, Kim Daeseong. The temple was completed in 774 A.D. just after Kim’s death. It’s believed that Bulguksa Temple was constructed by Kim for his parents in his present life, while Seokguram Hermitage was built for his parents from his previous life. The grotto at Seokguram Hermitage is designated National Treasure #24.

Through the Iljumun Gate, and winding around the side of Mt. Tohamsan, you’ll make your way towards Seokguram Hermitage. As you first approach the hermitage grounds, you’ll notice the monks’ dorms, facilities, and visitors’ centre to your right. It’s up on the hillside, where two shrine halls reside, that you’ll find the world famous Seokguram Grotto.

So up a long set of uneven stairs, passing by the remnants of a failed Japanese reconstruction of the grotto from 1913-15, you’ll make your way towards the breath-taking grotto. And when you finally do get to the top of the stairs be prepared to see the very best that Korean Buddhism has to offer the world in artistic achievement!

You first enter the outer wooden chamber that allows you to look in on the Seokguram Grotto that is now shielded by protective glass However, you still get an amazing feel for the sophisticated artistry that resides inside the grotto.

The first thing to catch your eye is the centerpiece: a 3.5 metre tall statue of Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha). He looks out over the East Sea, while striking the Touching the Earth mudra. The elegant statue sits on a 1.34 metre tall lotus pedestal. With a serene look in his eyes, the Buddha welcomes all visitors to the Seokguram Hermitage.

After having your fill of what artistic serenity looks like, look around the rectangular antechamber. At the very front, there are a pair of Vajra warriors that guard the ancient entry. These two figures are very visible because they are muscular with clenched fists and grimaces adorning their faces. The next stone images that appear inside the narrow entry chamber are the Sacheonwang, or the Four Heavenly Kings. These four images are meant to ward off any evil from entering the inner chamber.

Looking a little deeper inside the octagonal chamber, and around the imposing image of Seokgamoni-bul, you’ll notice that he’s surrounded in back by two rows of stone figures. The bottom row are the Nahan (The Historical Disciples of the Buddha). The upper figures are images of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.

The most interesting image inside this vaulted chamber, other than the serenely seated Seokgamoni-bul, is the partially hidden stone statue of Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion). Hidden behind Seokgamoni-bul stands the eleven-headed statue of Gwanseeum-bosal. This statue stands 2.18 metres in height and holds a vase containing a lotus blossom.

Just below the grotto is another shrine hall: the Geukrak-jeon Hall. Housed inside this hall, and sitting on the main altar, is a statue of Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise). It’s joined by a guardian mural and metal reliefs of Sanshin (The Mountain Spirit), Dokseong (The Lonely Saint), and Chilseong (The Seven Stars).

Admission to the hermitage is 4,000 won

For more on Seokguram Hermitage, please follow the link.

HOW TO GET THERE: Much like Bulguksa Temple, you’ll need to catch a bus out in front of the Gyeongju Intercity Terminal. From this bus stop, you should board either Bus #10 or #11. You should get off at the Bulguksa Temple Bus stop. This part of the trip should take about an hour. From the Bulguksa Temple parking lot, you’ll need to catch Bus #12, which will bring you the rest of the way up to Seokguram Hermitage. The final leg of the trip up to the hermitage takes about 10 minutes, and the bus leaves every 30 minutes.

OVERALL RATING:  10/10.  With it being the most beautiful and crowning achievement of religious artistry in Korea, Seokguram Hermitage rates a perfect ten out of ten. In all of my travels throughout various temples in Korea, I have yet to be spell-bound as much as I am when I visit Seokguram Hermitage. Other temples and hermitages may be bigger in size and scope or have greater historical/cultural significance, but all pale in comparison to the simple beauty the hillside grotto radiates.


A look towards the East Sea as you make your way towards Seokguram Hermitage.


And a look towards Gyeongju.


The Iljumun Gate at the hermitage.


A look up towards the grotto.


A closer look.


Just before entering the grotto.


Finally, a look inside the grotto.


A closer looking at the amazing 8th century statue of Seokgamoni-bul.


The view from the grotto towards the East Sea.


The Geukrak-jeon Hall just below the grotto.


Amita-bul sitting all alone on the main altar inside the Geukrak-jeon Hall.


A mural dedicated to Jijang-bosal.


Two reliefs. To the left is Sanshin, while to the right is Dokseong.


And the final relief inside the hall is dedicated to Chilseong.