Stone Buddhas and Pagodas at Hwasun Unjusa Temple

Date of Submission: 24/01/2017
Criteria: (i)(iii)(iv)
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
Permanent Delegation of of the Republic of Korea to UNESCO
State, Province or Region:
20 Daecho-ri, Doam-Myeon, Hwasun-gun, Jeollanam-do
Coordinates: N3617 38 E126 54 30
Ref.: 6171

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Unjusa temple is located on the upper area of Daecho stream, one of the tributaries of the Yeongsan-gang river. It is enshrined in a mountainous valley stretching in the north-south direction. The hills on both sides are about 100 meters above the sea level.

Unjusa sits at the intersection of the Hwasun, Naju, and Jangheung regions which includes Korea's vast and fertile Naju plain. It was traditionally the center of traffic and commerce. There are abundant geographical and historical evidences that Unjusa was one of the central temples in the region.

There are 141 stone pagoda relics, 115 stone Buddha statues (with the exception of three bronze and clay sculptures) including those that only partially retain the complete form of a pagoda and Buddha. 22 stone pagodas and 101 Buddhist statues stand around the valley and the hills. The site of Unjusa temple is protected as a state-designated Historic Site, and there are three state-designated Treasures within the property. In addition, twelve cultural property materials are designated by the local provincial government. 

Unjusa temple was established at the beginning of Goryeo Dynasty, in the late 10th century or early 11th century and prospered in the 12th century. The temple is believed to have flourished until the 16th century when it was burnt down during the Japanese invasion. It remained in ruins until the 20th century, when the temple underwent a series of reconstructions.

Although there have been many arguments on the year of foundation of the temple, archaeological excavations (1984~1989) conducted by the Chonnam National University Museum and bibliographical research on historical documents confirms the foundation date to the early Goryeo Dynasty. However there are legends that it was founded in 9th century by Monk Doseon, who was the national preceptor of Goryeo dynasty.

The circumstantial evidence implies that the temple was built by Monk Hyemyeong at the beginning of the 10th century.

The oldest historical record on Unjusa can be found in the book Sinjeung Donggukyeojiseungnam (Revised Book of geography and scenic sites in Korea) in 1530. In the chapter of <Bul-u>, a record describes Unjusa as “雲柱寺在千佛山寺之左右山脊 石佛石塔各一千又有石室二石佛相脊以坐”(Unjusa is in the Cheonbul mountain where there are a thousand Buddha statues and pagodas in the right and left hillsides, and a stone chamber with two back-to-back sculptures of Buddha). The origin of the nickname "Temple of the thousand pagodas and sculptures, Cheonbulcheontap" derives from this record.

Within the temple area, there many stone Buddhist statues and pagodas. In addition, several non-Buddhist astronomical monuments such as 'chilseong-am' (Seven Rocks of the Great Bear) are scattered around the ridge and the valley. It is a rare example of spatial construction, and morphology in East Asia. It is likely that the monuments were built one at a time during the early and mid Goryeo dynasty by powerful local families. In contrast to other temples, there are significant influences of Esoteric Buddhism and Taoism. Furthermore, there are vestiges of quarries within the precincts of the temple, which are also exceptional.

Stone Buddha Statues

Many Buddha images and pagodas are scattered on the way to the peak. Stone Buddha statues of Unjusa have various forms such as sleeping, standing, seated and back-to-back Buddha images. There are 62 stone Buddha statues remaining intact, and also countless heads and torsos of broken Buddhas. They are placed in groups or at times alone. Seven individual statues stand in the center of the temple, on the mountain top, and on the surface of the huge rocks. 44 statues stand in groups being enshrined together in the tabernacles which are made of natural rock. Grouped Buddhas are usually composed of a main seated Buddha being flanked by two standing Buddhas. 

1) The Stone Buddhist Niche

The Stone Buddhist Niche in Unjusa is a distinctive example of a stone niche resembling a wooden structure. Two rectangular walls at the north and the south of the niche, are filled with a long stone slab that allows a breeze to go from east to west. Two Buddha statues are seated against each other's backs inside the niche. This is one of the very rare enshrined images of back-to-back Buddhas in the world. 

2) Seated and standing Buddha images (Sleeping Buddha statues)

At the top of the valley, seated and standing Buddha images are carved into the rocks. The rocks rest on the ground, so the Buddhas look like they are sleeping. There is a legend that when the Buddhas wake up, a new era will begin.  

3) Seated Buddha with Aureole

The image is carved onto a trapezoid shaped stone panel encircled with patterns of flames. A pagoda standing in front completes a worship space comprising of one pagoda and one worship hall.

4) Groups of stone Buddha statue

Groups of stone Buddha statues stand in front of natural boulders on both sides of the hill. 44 statues are placed in groups, and most of them consist of one main seated Buddha with two standing Buddhas flanking both sides of the main statue.

Stone Pagodas

Even though there are only 22 pagodas left intact, an estimated 30 pagodas were found to have stood in the fields of Unjusa. Every pagoda in Unjusashows characteristics of the Goryeo Dynasty. Under the Goryeo Dynasty, the construction of pagodas represented the different styles of local culture. There are various pagoda styles in Unjusa such as typical square, square pillar, cylindrical, and stone brick pagodas of 3, 5, 7, or 9 stories. Nowhere else in Korea are so many diverse pagodas.

It is believed that the construction of the stone pagodas of Unjusa started at the end of 10th century. The pagodas were built in the order from square shaped to cylindrical shaped and onto the pillar style. Such evolution of style is closely connected to the three or four expansions of the temple which happened before the closure.

The geometrical patterns carved on the surface of the pagodas are not found anywhere else in the world. Diamond (◇◈),  (×,××), vertical lines (∥∥), brackets (〈〉) are carved. The most common form, diamond, is related to the Buddhist text, Diamond Sutra. Some scholars believe that these patterns show a Mongolian influence.

Chilseong-am (Seven rocks of the Great Bear)

On the western slope of the mountain, there are stone discs that are 2~4meters in diameter placed in the shape of the Big Dipper. The thickness of the stone discs were designed differently according to the differences of the brightness of stars constituting the Big Dipper. This is the oldest astronomical data of the class of the stars in the world and is a world class astronomical cultural heritage site.

Chilseong-am has a kind of folk worship that is influenced by Taoism. The evidence in the temple reflects the combination of Taoism and Buddhism.

Quarry site

On the way to hills of Unjusa temple, there are about ten quarry sites stones were cut and collected to make the stone relics around the temple. In addition, there are marks of abrasion caused by moving the rocks. 

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

Criterion (i):  Unjusa is an exceptional example of abstract modelling and unique placement of stone Buddha statues and pagodas, with the openness for a place of worship. The monuments of Unjusa are simple, based on an abstract unconventional style and at the same time, demonstrate a refined restraint. In addition, the group of Buddhist monuments shows a multidimensional use of the natural mountains and the valley, which comes from Buddhist contemplation. This exceptional grouping is not found in any other Buddhist temple in the world.

Criterion (iii): Unjusa was a place of worship from the end of 10th century (Goryeo Dynasty) to the start of the 16th century (Joseon Dynasty). In addition, it reflects the combination of Buddhism, Esoteric Buddhism, Taoism, astronomy, and architecture of the Asian civilization.

Criterion (iv): Unjusa temple broke from the convention of place of arrangement; it has several worship places within the temple compound which is uncommon in the period when 'one pagoda-one building' format was the conventional structure of the temple. Even though there are many varieties, the pagodas compose one big temple, placed in spots that are fortuitous according to pungsu philosophy. This temple is divided into numerous small worship spaces. The temple is located within the yin-yang symbol. By locating pagodas and statues in this way, the people of the Goryeo Dynasty highlighted the symbolism of humans in the chain of heaven-earth-human.

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity


Unjusahas been known as "the temple of thousand pagodas and statues' which lasted until the devastation by the Japanese invasion of the 16th century. The reconstructions of the 19th and 20th centuries brought Unjusa to its present form.

Unjusa temple was described in numerous ancient documents such as 『SinjeungDonggukyeojiseungnam』 and an old geography book 『Dongkukyeojiji』. In addition, a negative glass sheet of 『Joseongojeokdobo』also confirm the existence of the Unjusa. Furthermore, there have been four archaeological investigations into the early days of Unjusa.

Unjusa has been a site of Buddhist worship since the 10th century. All of the historic components are genuine and their origins are confirmed. The quality of material and techniques contain original value.


The outstanding universal value as a cultural heritage site are embodied in the statues of Buddha and the group of statues, pagodas, and flagstones of chilseong-am. We know that Unjusa is the crossroads of pungsu, Buddhism, Esoteric Buddhism, Taoism, and astronomy. The traces of these exchanges are exceptional and rare.

In addition, Unjusa is an enormous repository of stone monuments. Various forms of stone statues of Buddha and stone pagodas and the quarry are priceless treasures of Buddhist art. The quarry where the stone was collected to manufacture the stone artifacts provide important information.

Finally, the thickness and the diagnosis of the stone discs were made differently according to the differences of the brightness of actual stars in the constellation of the Big Dipper. This is a rare resource in the study of 10th ~12th century astronomy, and is indicative of the fusion of Taoism and Buddhism.

Comparison with other similar properties

Similar properties within Korea

Unjusa was established under the Goryeo dynasty. It partly succeeded the  Buddhism tradition of the Silla Kingdom. However, it is noteworthy that the people of Goryeo dynasty created a completely different style of Buddhist art. As a result, this encouraged various regional styles of Buddhist monuments.

The stone monuments of Unjusa resemble the monuments of Namsan Mountain and its surroundings which is a part of the Gyeongju Historic Areas inscribed in 2000 on the World Heritage list.

The Namsan Mountain Area,lies to the north of Gyeongju. There are many prehistoric and historic remains in the area. The Buddhist monuments that have been excavated include the ruins of 140 temples, and a total of 107 Buddhist stone statues. These monuments are the essence ofSilla Buddhist art and represent the essence of Silla culture.

However, there is a big difference in style between statues of Unjusa and Namsan Mountain. The statues of Unjusa loosely interpreted the standard iconography of Buddhist images, and embraced unconventional standards of beauty such as simplicity and folk humor. These monuments constitute independent outdoor Buddhist sanctuaries.

The styles of pagodas in Unjusa are based on square and cylindrical styles. Since the square style was the mainstream of Korean stone pagodas, cylindrical pagodas in Unjusa are difficult to find in any other temples in Korea. Furthermore, the geometric patterns on these stone pagodas cannot be found on any other pagodas in Korea. Unjusa thus has the outstanding position to show the evolution of Korean Buddhism.

Similar properties outside Korea

As of 2014 there are 44 Buddhist cultural heritage sites listed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.Among them, 18 of them are listed independently in the form of architecture, historic sites, historic landscapes, and the rest are included in cities, national parks, historic districts. Most of the heritage sites on the List are constructed of wood and brick. Archetypal stone monuments are carved temples such as the Seokkuram Grotto, NamsanMountainin area of Gyeongju in Korea and Mogao Caves and Yungang in China.

There are no other examples of stone pagodas which have structures of wooden pagodas in the world. Buddhist stupas in South Asia such as India, Sri Lanka, Nepal are in the form of upside-down bowls. Most Japanese pagodas are wooden and most Chinese pagodas are brick. Moreover, it is impossible to find other examples with countless pagodas with different styles as most temples only have one or two pagodas.

In addition to the differences in materials and construction styles, various forms of stone Buddha statues and stone pagodas in Unjusa are very good examplses of the mixture of Buddhism and indigenous folk culture. Especially the style of the back-to-back Buddha statue do not show structural influence of China, but Tibetan Esoteric Buddhism. In addition, the symbolic images on the pagodas represent Mandala. By these monuments, we can see how the different arts such as Chinese Buddhist art, but also those of Tibet and Mongol had an impact with Korean art.

Another important philosophical background is the astronomic worship and its relationship with Taoism which are factors that show Unjusa's exceptional value as a cultural heritage. Mixture of Buddhism, Esoteric Buddhism, Taoism, folk belief for stars is unique which cannot be found in any other countries such as India, China, and Japan. In other words, it is an extremely rare case with an intensive combination of various Buddhism, indigenous beliefs, Taoism with in only one temple.