Established in the 8th century on the slopes of Mount Toham, the Seokguram Grotto contains a monumental statue of the Buddha looking at the sea in the bhumisparsha mudra position. With the surrounding portrayals of gods, Bodhisattvas and disciples, all realistically and delicately sculpted in high and low relief, it is considered a masterpiece of Buddhist art in the Far East. The Temple of Bulguksa (built in 774) and the Seokguram Grotto form a religious architectural complex of exceptional significance.
© OUR PLACE The World Heritage Collection
Outstanding Universal Value
Established in the 8th century under the Silla Dynasty, on the slopes of Mount Tohamsan, Seokguram Grotto and Bulguksa Temple form a religious architectural complex of exceptional significance. Prime Minister Kim Dae-seong initiated and supervised the construction of the temple and the grotto, the former built in memory of his parents in his present life and the latter in memory of his parents from a previous life.
Seokguram is an artificial grotto constructed of granite that comprises an antechamber, a corridor and a main rotunda. It enshrines a monumental statue of the Sakyamuni Buddha looking out to sea with his left hand in dhyana mudra, the mudra of concentration, and his right hand in bhumisparsa mudra, the earth-touching mudra position. Together with the portrayals of devas, bodhisattvas and disciples, sculpted in high and low relief on the surrounding walls, the statues are considered to be a masterpiece of East Asian Buddhist art. The domed ceiling of the rotunda and the entrance corridor employed an innovative construction technique that involved the use of more than 360 stone slabs.
Bulguksa is a Buddhist temple complex that comprises a series of wooden buildings on raised stone terraces. The grounds of Bulguksa are divided into three areas – Birojeon (the Vairocana Buddha Hall), Daeungjeon (the Hall of Great Enlightenment) and Geungnakjeon (the Hall of Supreme Bliss). These areas and the stone terraces were designed to represent the land of Buddha. The stone terraces, bridges and the two pagodas – Seokgatap (Pagoda of Sakyamuni) and Dabotap (Pagoda of Bountiful Treasures) – facing the Daeungjeon attest to the fine masonry work of the Silla.
Criterion (i): The Seokguram Grotto, with its statue of Buddha surrounded by Bodhisattvas, the Ten Disciples, Eight Divine Guardians, two Devas, and two Vajrapanis all carved from white granite, is a masterpiece of East Asian Buddhist Art.
Criterion (iv): The Seokguram Grotto, with its artificial cave and stone sculptures, and the associated Bulguksa temple with its wooden architecture and stone terraces, is an outstanding example of Buddhist religious architecture that flourished in Gyeongju, capital of the Silla Kingdom in the 8th century, as a material expression of Buddhist belief.
Seokguram Grotto portrays the enlightenment of Buddha and Bulguksa Temple represents the Buddhist utopia taking its form in the terrestrial world. The two sites are closely linked physically, historically and culturally and all of their key components are included within the boundaries of the property.
The most significant threats facing Seokguram Grotto are moisture and condensation, which cause the growth of mould, mildew and moss. Weather damage to the stone sculptures is another threat. The construction of a concrete dome between 1913 and 1915 resulted in humidity build-up and moisture infiltration. A second concrete dome was placed over the existing dome in the 1960s, to create a 1.2 m air space between them, control and adjust airflow, reduce the formation of mildew and prevent further climatic damage. A wooden antechamber was also added and the interior of the grotto was sealed off by a wall of glass to protect it from visitors and changes in temperature.
The 1913-15 alterations to the grotto’s original structure and subsequent modifications to address the problems caused by it require further study. Temperature and humidity control, and water ingress are carefully monitored and managed, and mitigation measures implemented as required.
The main threats to the masonry components of Bulguksa Temple are acid rain, pollution, salty fogs originating from the East Sea and moss on the surface of masonry. These threats are continuously monitored and studied.
Fire is the greatest threat to the integrity of the wooden buildings of the Bulguksa Temple, calling for systems for prevention and monitoring at the site.
The main statue of the Buddha and most of the stone sculptures has preserved their original form. As a result of the partial collapse of the rotunda ceiling, the entire grotto was dismantled and rebuilt, and covered with a concrete dome between 1913 and 1915. A second concrete dome was added in the 1960s. These dramatic measures have diminished the authenticity of the form of grotto, and to a lesser extent its materials, although they were acceptable in their time and in the face of serious deterioration. There have been no changes to the function and size of the grotto.
The masonry structures within Bulguksa have maintained their original form, having undergone only partial repair. The wooden buildings have been repaired and restored several times since the 16th century. All restoration work and repairs have been based on historical research and have employed traditional materials and techniques.
Protection and management requirements
Seokguram Grotto has been designated as National Treasure and- Bulguksa Temple has been designated as a Historic Site under the Cultural Heritage Protection Act. Any alterations to the existing form of the site require authorization. They are included within the boundaries of Gyeongju National Park, in which there are restrictions on new construction. A Historic Cultural Environment Protection Area that extends 500 meters from the boundary of the site has also been established, in which all construction work must be pre-approved.
At the national level, the Cultural Heritage Administration (CHA) is responsible for establishing and enforcing policies for the protection of the property and buffer zone, allocating financial resources for conservation. Gyeongju City is directly responsible for overseeing the conservation and management of the property, in collaboration with the Korea National Park Service, whilst Bulguksa Temple is responsible for the day-to-day management. Regular day-to-day monitoring is conducted and in-depth professional monitoring is conducted on a 3 to 4 year basis.
Conservation work is conducted by Cultural Heritage Conservation Specialists who have passed the National Certification Exams in their individual fields of expertise. A ventilation fan in Seokguram Grotto, whose vibration posing a risk, has been removed, and the number of visitors is properly controlled. Within Bulguksa Temple, acidic rain, pollution, salty fogs originating from the East Sea and moss on the surface of the stone are carefully monitored and methods to relieve the problems are being continuously studied. To protect the wooden structures of the temple from fire, an overall Fire Risk Prevention System has been implemented for Bulguksa and CCTVs installed in various points in the temple.
Construction of Seokguram Grotto, located on the south-eastern slope of Mount Toham, facing the East Sea, began in AD 751, the 10th year of the reign of Silla King Gyeongdeok, by the Prime Minister KIM Daeseong, and completed in 774, the 10th year of the reign of King Hyegong. It is recorded that it was originally known as Seokbulsa Temple. It is built from granite and features 39 Buddhist engravings on the main wall and the principal sculpture of the Buddha in the centre.
The grotto consists of an antechamber, a corridor, and a main rotunda. The Eight Guardian Deities are carved in relief on the walls of the rectangular antechamber, four on either side. Two figures of Vajradhara stand on either side of the entrance to the corridor leading from the antechamber to the main rotunda. The Four Guardian Kings are carved in pairs on either side of the narrowed part of the corridor. There are two octagonal stone pillars, one on either side of the entrance to the main rotunda, where the main Buddha stands slightly off-centre. The walls to the left and right of the entrance are covered with relief images of two Devas, two Bodhisattvas and the Ten Disciples. In the middle of the wall behind the main Buddha there is an exquisite wall carving of an eleven-faced Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva, the Bodhisattva of Compassion.
The stones beneath each carved figure on the walls of the antechamber and the main rotunda are also carved. At the time of construction there was a marble stupa in front of the Avalokitesvara, but it was removed during the Japanese colonial period. A large circular lotus flower is set in the wall above the Avalokitesvara behind the main Buddha, creating the illusion of a halo for the Buddha when seen from the front. There are 10 niches lining the upper wall on either side of this lotus flower: originally each contained images of Bodhisattvas or Buddhist devotees, but two are now missing. The vaulted ceiling is made from dressed stones that meet in another carved lotus flower at the top of the main hall.
The main Sakyamuni Buddha figure is 3.45 m high, and set on a lotus flower-shaped pedestal. The hair is tightly curled and there is a distinct usnisa, the protuberance on the top of the head symbolizing Supreme Wisdom. Beneath the broad forehead the eyebrows are shaped like crescent moons and the half-closed eyes gaze towards the East Sea. The Buddha's robe is slung over the right shoulder; the details of the robe covering the left arm and chest are realistically depicted. The Buddha is portrayed cross-legged with the hands in the bhumisparsha mudra position, the gesture with which the historical Buddha summoned the Earth as witness to his realization of Enlightenment. All the other figures - Vajradharas, Guardian Kings, Devas, Bodhisattvas, Disciples and Guardian Deities - are elaborately carved with great attention to naturalistic detailing.
The main Buddha of Seokguram is a masterpiece that perfectly depicts the moment Sakyamuni attained enlightenment, and Bulguksa Temple is an ambitious architectural work through which Silla revealed the world of Buddhism to the terrestrial world. Built at the same time Seokguram was constructed, the construction of Bulguksa Temple was also initiated and supervised by Prime Minister Kim Dae-seong. With deep filial piety, Kim Dae-seong built Bulguksa Temple in memory of his parents in the present life and the cave temple of Seokguram for his parents of the previous life.
The realization of Buddha Land in the mundance world was a long-cherished dream in Silla, and the people of Silla believed that their kingdom was this very land. Even the name, Bulguksa, indicates the great meaning it had to the people of Silla. It literally means Temple of Buddha Land. In other words, Bulguksa is a terrestrial paradise of the land of Buddha.
The grounds of Bulguksa were seen as a utopia of Buddhism itself in the mundance world, and are divided into three areas with wooden buildings on raised stone terraces. They are Birojeon (Vairocana Buddha Hall), Daeungjeon (Hall of Great Enlightenment) and Geungnakjeon (Hall of Supreme Bliss).
They represent the terrestrial and the two celestial abodes: The Pure Land of Buddhism, that is, the terrestrial of Vairocana Buddha; the paradise of Amitabha Buddha; and the World of Endurance of Sakyamuni.
Birojeon, Geungnakjeon and Daeungjeon and areas on stone terraces are posed as the land of Buddha; the lower areas below these terraces are the mundance world. These two worlds are connected by two beautiful bridges known as Cheongun/ Baegun (Bridge of Blue Clouds/ Bridge of White Clouds), and Yeonhwa/ Chilbo (Bridge of Lotus Flowers/ Bridge of Seven Treasures). The stone terraces and bridges, Seokgatap (Pagoda of Sakyamuni), and Dabotap (Pagoda of Bountiful Treasures) in front of the Daeungjeon attest the fine masonry of Silla. Like Seokguram, Bulguksa is built of granite, which is very hard and difficult to fashion. It is said that there originally was a lotus pond called Gupumyeonji, which was fed by waters from Mt. Toham. Although the pond no longer exists, traces of the water channel from Mt. Toham remain on the stone terrace.
During the Japanese invasion of Korea in 1592, Bulguksa suffered extensive damage. The wooden buildings were all destroyed by fire, but the stone terraces and stairs, stone pagodas, lanterns, and gilt bronze statues of Buddha survived. The buildings were later partially restored and Bulguksa as we see today is a modern restoration done from 1969 to 1973. At this time, the site of Bulguksa Temple was excavated and studied, before construction began. However the complex is not nearly of such great scale as during the Silla period.
In the main courtyard in front of Daeungjeon, the center of Bulguksa, are two pagodas, Dabotap and Seokgatap, standing on an east-west axis. Since the Unified Silla period, it was standard practice to erect a pair of pagodas of the same appearance in front of the main building of a temple, but in this case each of these pagodas are different.
The two pagodas reflect a story in the Lotus sutra. When Sakyamuni was giving sermons on Vulture Peak, the Pagoda of Bountiful Treasures rose from the ground, and Dabo, a Buddha who had already achieved enlightenment, appeared riding the Pagoda to attest to the validity of Sakyamuni's sermons. Dabo and Sakyamuni then sat side-by-side within the tower. Dabotap represents the Dabo Buddha, and the other represents Sakyamuni.
Also noteworthy is Mugu jeonggwang dae darani-gyeong (Great Dharani Sutra of Immaculate and Pure Light) in a paper scroll 6.7 centimeters wide and 6.2 meters long. It was discovered in the second level of Seokgatap in 1966. Dated to the 8th century, this is the oldest known sutra printed from carved wooden blocks in the world. Source: UNESCO/CLT/WHC
Construction of Sokkuram Grotto began in AD 751, the tenth year of the reign of Shilla King Kyongdyok, by Kim the Prime Minister, Tae-song and completed in 774, the tenth year of the reign of King Hyegong. lt is recorded that it was originally known as Sokbulsa Temple. There are no subsequent documentary references until the mid Choson period, when it is recorded that it was restored in 1703 and again in 1758. Source: Advisory Body Evaluation