In the whole of Korea the government has recognised just 317 National Treasures, cultural assets of the highest artistic and historic importance. It’s no surprise that the ancient Silla dynasty capital of Gyeongju is home to a significant number of them; more surprising is that seven National Treasures can be found in one place, the 8th Century Buddhist temple of Bulguksa, itself one of the most important temples in Korea. For good measure, Bulguksa is on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
16km southeast of Gyeongju, Bulguksa Temple sits on the lower slopes of Mount Toham, a 750m high mountain that, during the Silla era, was one of the country’s guardian mountains. Site of important religious ceremonies, it’s no surprise that it’s home to a 1300 year-old temple. Time was short so I took a taxi, which dropped me off in a car park at the entrance. I paid the 4000 won (€3.20) entry fee and quickly found myself walking up a tree-lined avenue towards the Temple complex.
The complex comprises numerous exquisitely carved and painted wooden buildings, built on stone terraces set around interconnected courtyards. Arriving at the traditional entrance is a little like arriving outside the walls of a fort, the temple complex rising up in front of you. The tourist entrance is around the side of the courtyard housing the Daeungjeon (Hall of Great Enlightenment); but the traditional entrance was up one of two flights of stairs, the Blue Cloud Bridge and the White Cloud Bridge. Both have 33 steps representing the 33 stages of enlightenment.
Inside the courtyard is the Hall of Great Enlightenment and two stone pagodas – Seokgatap (Pagoda of Sakyamuni) and Dabotap (Pagoda of Bountiful Treasures) – both listed as National Treasures. Sadly, only Dabotap was visible while Seokgatap undergoes restoration following damage caused by an earthquake. This isn’t the first time Seokgatap has needed repairs. In 1966 some would-be thieves, believing the pagoda to contain treasures, attempted to blow it up using explosives.
They were right, the interior of the pagoda contained anient Buddhist relics and what some claim to be the oldest known documents printed using a wooden block. Chased off by the monks before they could steal anything, the contents of the pagoda were declared a National Treasure in 1967.
There were plenty of other visitors, but wander away from the main sights and you can find little pockets of solitude, although these get regularly interrupted as tour groups make their way through the complex. After I’d finished strolling amongst the temple buildings, I made my way back towards the bus stop. Walking along the paths through the picturesque landscaped grounds, I reflected upon what it must be like here without all the noise from tourism. Beautiful and serene, I’d bet.