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Build the Seokguram

The Seokguram Grotto is a hermitage and part of the Bulguksa temple complex. It lies four kilometers east of the temple on Mt. Tohamsan, in Gyeongju, South Korea. The grotto overlooks the East Sea and rests 750 meters above sea level. In 1962, it was designated the 24th national treasure of Korea. In 1995, Seokguram was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List together with the Bulguksa Temple. It exemplifies some of the best Buddhist sculptures in the world.

Seokguram’s Architecture

The grotto is symbolic of a spiritual journey into Nirvana. Inside the grotto, the antechamber and corridor represented the earth while the rotunda represented heaven. The basic layout of the grotto includes an arched entrance which leads into a rectangular antechamber and then a narrow corridor, which is lined with bas-reliefs, and then finally leads into the main rotunda. The centerpiece of the granite sanctuary is a Buddha statue seated in the main chamber. The identity of the Buddha is still debated. The Buddha is seated on a lotus throne with legs crossed. The Buddha has a serene expression of meditation. The Buddha is surrounded by fifteen panels of bodhisattvas, arhats and ancient Indian gods in the rotunda and is accompanied by ten statues in niches along the rotunda wall. The main hall of Seokguram houses a Bojon statue Bodhisattva and his disciples. Forty different figures representing Buddhist principles and teachings are in the grotto. The grotto was built around these statues in order to protect them from weathering. The ceiling of the Seokguram grotto is decorated with half moons, the top is decorated with a lotus flower. Shilla architects used symmetry and apparently employed the concept of the golden rectangle. The grotto is shaped by hundreds of different granite stones. There was no mortar used and the structure was held together by stone rivets. The construction of the grotto also utilized natural ventilation. The dome of the rotunda is 6.84 meters to 6.58 meters in diameter.

Sculpture within the grotto

The main Buddha is a highly regarded piece of Buddhist art. It is 3.5 meters in height and sits on a 1.34 meter tall lotus pedestal. The Buddha is realistic in form and probably represents the Seokgamoni Buddha, the historic Buddha at the moment of enlightenment. The position of the Buddha's hands symbolizes witnessing the enlightenment. The Buddha has an usnisa, a symbol of the wisdom of the Buddha. 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. The pedestal is made of three parts; the top and bottom are carved with lotus petals while the central shaft consists of eight pillars. Accompanying the main Buddha, in relief, are three bodhisattvas, ten disciples, and two Hindu gods along the wall of the rotunda. Ten statues of bodhisattvas, saints, and the faithful are located in niches above the bas-reliefs. The ten disciples were disciples of Seokgamoni and are lined five on each side of the Avalokitesvara. Their features suggest a Greek influence. The two bodhisattvas are of Manjusri and Samantabhadra. The two Hindu gods are Brahma and Indra. The Four Devas guard the corridor. There are also images of Vajrapanis, which are guardian figures and they are on the walls of the entrance to the corridor, in the antechamber. Eight Guardian Deities adorn the antechamber. Another notable figure is the Eleven-faced Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. It is on the back wall of the rotunda and stands 2.18 meters in height. This figure is the only one of the bas-reliefs facing forward, the others face the side. The Avalokitesvara wears a crown, is dressed in robes and jewelry and holds a vase containing a lotus blossom. Two statutes from the niches and a marble pagoda that was believed to have stood in front of the Avalokitesvara are missing from the grotto and are believed to have been looted by the Japanese.

Damaged Seokguram

Seokguram has had its share of turmoil in Korea's history over the centuries. It lost much of its religious and artistic splendor during the Joseon period (1392-1910) when its Confucianoriented rulers suppressed Buddhism. The remote mountain grotto was left seriously damaged toward the turn of the century. It underwent repair three times earlier 20th century under the japanese colonial government. The first round of repairs was carried out from 1913 to 1915. Without sufficient study of its structure, the cave was almost completely dismantled and reassembled and a fatal mistake was committed in the process. The entire structure was encase with cement about two meters thick, which resulted in water leaks and erosion of the sculptures because the cave could no longer "breathe." Seokguram went through considerable "torture" in the name of preservation in the following decades. In 1917, drainage pipes were buried above the dome to channel rainwater out of the cave. As the leaks continued in spite of the pipes, however, another round of repair was conducted in 1920 to 1923. Waterproof asphalt was applied to the surface of the concrete mass this time. But water continued to leak and dew formed, and in 1927 the Japanese government-general eventually employed the unthinkable method of spraying hot stem on the granite surface to get rid of moss.

Preservation of Seokguram

As the preservation of Seokguram continued to pose serious problems with high humidity inside the shrine, the government of the late President Park Jeong-hui instructed an in-depth investigation of its structure to be carried out in the early 1960s. Extensive renovation was undertaken based on the study from 1962 to 1964. The problem of temperature and humidity control was resolved to a remarkable extent by using mechanical systems. Nevertheless, the wooden superstructure built over the antechamber remains a mind-boggling question for many who believe Seokguram originally did not have such a structure blocking the magnificent sunrise over the East Sea from the view of Seokgamoni, aside from cutting off the air flow into the cave. A glass wall keeping the visitors from the main chamber is another point of debate regarding the contradiction concepts of the preservation of the shrine and its availability for religious worship and aesthetic appreciation. Two statues in the niches of the wall of the main chamber and a miniature marble pagoda which is believed to have stood in front of the Eleven-faced Avalokitesvara at the back of the Buddha image remain missing. They disappeared in the early years of Japanese occupation. geographically removed from China by Goguryeo to the north and Baekje to the west, Silla was the last of the three ancient Korean Kingdoms to accept Buddhism. But as soon as King Beopheung recognized it as the state religion in 528, it spread quickly through out the country, The 13th century historian monk, lryeon, wrote that, by the mid-sixth century in Gyeongju and its vicinity, "the golden roofs of temples glittered against the sky like the Milky Way and lotus-crowned pagodas stood in unending lines like flights of wild geese." All these temples vanished in the turbulent course of history, but the description vividly conveys how enthusiastically the early Buddhists erected temples and pagodas around the capital of their thriving kingdom. Today, Bulguksa offers a glimpse of the splendor of Silla's state temples, although all of its present wooden shrines are in the much later Joseon style and much of its antique flavor was lost in massive rehabilitation work carried out in the 1970s.