Aerial View of Seokguram Grotto

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석굴암 Seokguram Grotto Seokguram Seokgul Stone Cave Hermitage Sukgulam
Tohamsan, Jinhyeon-dong 999 Gyeongsangbuk-do
South Korea  country
Asia  continent
Main date(s)
c. 750
(#736; Jan 01, 1995)
35.791600° N, 129.349000° E
Opening hours
Nov-Feb 7am-5pm
Mar-Oct 7am-6pm
W4,000 ($4.30) adults, W3,000 teens, W2,000 children over 6 yrs

Historical Timeline of Seokguram Grotto

Description of Seokguram Grotto

The Seokguram Grotto lies four kilometers east of Bulguksa Temple on Mt. Tohamsan, overlooking the Sea of Japan (East Sea) from a vantage point of 750 meters above sea level.

The grotto is so important and fragile that visitors are allowed only a brief glimpse of the interior. Photography is prohibited. The architecture of the temple is similar to other rock-carved cave temples in China and India, with special resemblence to the Longmen Grottoes in China.

One important difference is that the granite stone of these Korean hills is not conducive to carving. The grotto is thus artificially made of hundreds of granite stones, held together by stone rivets and no mortar.

The grotto symbolizes a spiritual journey into Nirvana. Pilgrims were to start at Bulguksa or at the foot Mt. Tohamsan, a holy mountain to the Silla kingdom. There was a fountain at the entrance of the shrine where pilgrims could refresh themselves. Inside the grotto, the antechamber and corridor represent the earth while the rotunda represents heaven.

An arched entrance leads into a rectangular antechamber, which houses a Bojon statue of a Bodhisattva and his disciples and forty different figures representing Buddhist principles and teachings. The ceiling of the grotto is decorated with half moons. The Four Heavenly Kings guard the corridor and Eight Guardian Deities adorn the antechamber.

From here, a narrow corridor lined with bas-reliefs leads into the main rotunda, with a dome measuring 6.84 meters to 6.58 meters in diameter. The centerpiece of this granite sanctuary is a Buddha statue, whose specific identity is still debated. Sakyamuni and Amida are among the most common guesses.

The Buddha is 3.5 meters in height and sits on a 1.34 meter tall lotus pedestal, wearing a serene expression of meditation. The drapery on the Buddha, such as the fan-shaped folds at the crossed-legs of the Buddha, exemplifies Korean interpretations of Indian prototypes. Unlike other Buddhas that have a halo attached to the back of the head, the Buddha at Seokguram creates the illusion of a halo by placing a granite roundel carved with lotus petals at the back wall of the rotunda.

Accompanying the main Buddha are reliefs of two bodhisattvas (Manjusri and Samantabhadra), ten disciples (with features showing a Greek influence), and two Hindu gods (Brahma and Indra) along the wall of the rotunda. Ten statues of bodhisattvas, saints, and the faithful are located in niches above the bas-reliefs.

Another notable figure is the Eleven-faced Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, on the back wall of the rotunda. Standing 2.18 meters in height, this figure is the only one of the bas-reliefs facing forward instead of to the side. The Avalokitesvara wears a crown, is dressed in robes and jewelry and holds a vase containing a lotus blossom.

Holly Hayes
October 7, 2011

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