Seokguram Grotto and Bulguksa Temple

Location: Gyeongju, South Korea

Bell in BulguksaVisited: Sept, 2010 / March, 2011 / Oct, 2013

Site Type: Cultural

Inscribed: 1995

Background and Opinion:

This, Korea’s oldest UNESCO site, is actually a dual submission of ‘two temples’ which are adjacent to each other, the large Bulguksa Temple, and the smaller cave temple of Seokguram. Bulguksa was first built in the 8th century during the Silla period and serves as one of the few remaining examples of their architecture.

Seokgatap Pagoda
Dabotap Pagoda

One particularly impressive part of the temple is the set of two stone pagodas known as Seokgatap and Dabotap. While nothing has ever been found (officially) inside of Dabotap, the former had a number of relics dating back from the construction of these structures in 750 CE. One of these relics was a piece of the oldest known remaining woodblock print of the Mugujeonggwang Great Dharani Sutra. The two pagodas, the relics and five other structures account for a total of 8 national treasures in Bulguksa alone, 7 of which still remain on site today.

Dabotap Pagoda, 2011
Seokgatap Pagoda, 2011
Dabotap Pagoda, 2013 under maintenance.
Seokgatap Pagoda, 2013 under maintenance.

Seokguram Grotto is actually technically part of the whole Bulguksa Temple complex and served as a retreat and place of meditation. Located on the top of the hill next to the main complex, it is a man made cave notable for its dome architecture which has been upgraded over the years. The stone Buddha sitting in the middle of the cave is said to be one of the finest examples of Buddhist art in the world. Unfortunately, the stone slabs surrounding the Buddha were looted by the Japanese and are thought to be either destroyed or somewhere in Japan, hidden till this day (figures).

Cave layout, Seokguram
Cave layout, Seokguram
On this particular visit in 2011, the guard was allowing anyone to take pictures. On my most recent visit, it was strictly prohibited.
The stone Buddha of Seokguram. On this particular visit in 2011, the guard was allowing anyone to take pictures. On my most recent visit, it was strictly prohibited. It is incredibly dim and far enough to make a good picture difficult.

Bulguksa is incredibly crowded, but still worth the throng to get a glimpse of this magnificent temple. It is especially famous among Korean families as it is a historical temple, so prepare to see a LOT of kids. Getting to the top to see the stone Buddha is easy as there are three options. You can either take the public bus, hike up the hill, or take a cab (which charges a ridiculous but manageable rate, somewhere around $10). Unfortunately, there is no down time when it is not crowded as the sunrise is particularly popular, and has many visitors until closing time.

Like in all Buddhist temples, the art of pilling rocks to make a tower is very prevalent here. It is a Buddhist prayer and one should never disrupt another persons tower as it would prevent the wish from coming true.

Buddhist Prayer Bulguksa

Towers of Buddhist Prayer Stones

More Buddhist Prayer Towers Bulguksa

Evaluation

1) Completeness and Originality (12.5 out of 15): Most of the wooden buildings were reconstructed during the 1600s following the Imiji War. Nonetheless, they are still over 400 years old and the original stone works remain from the Silla period of the mid 700s.

A distant view of one of the stone pagodas.
A distant view of one of the stone pagodas.

2) Extensiveness of the Site (8 out of 15): To truly appreciate it, the main Bulguksa Temple takes about 2.5 hours and another hour or so for the Seokguram Grotto portion.

Bulguksa 2

3) Cultural Significance (11.5 out of 25): As a very keen enthusiast of the Three Kingdom Period of Korea, I feel it holds a key part of Korean and Buddhist history as a whole.

*Note: The “Three Kingdom Period” actually had four kingdoms. Think of it like the “Big 10” in college football.

Bulguksa 4

4) Personal Impact (12 out of 15): I’ve been here three times, and every re-visit, I expected it to be a watered down version of the first. Surprisingly though, I end up loving it more each time as I end up spending more and more time.

It is hard not to be impressed by the beautiful art on the doors.
It is hard not to be impressed by the beautiful art on the doors.

5) Logistics (10 out of 10): First off, it is free to enter. Gyeongju is very easy to visit and multiple information desks point the way to bus stops and how to get there. It really could not be a better value or easier to arrive. I could complain about the crowds on the bus, but that’s just being picky.

A big indication that you are in the right place.
A big indication that you are in the right place.

6) Uniqueness (12 out of 20): This temple definitely stands out because of its national treasures, beautiful pagodas, and large stone Buddha. While I do rate its uniqueness high, I can’t in good conscience rate it higher than Haeinsa, which contains a far more impressive relic. Nonetheless, Bulguksa is a must see.

Beautiful Bulguksa

Combined Score: 66/100

(I totally didn’t force it, but it is one point below Haeinsa, which sums up how I feel about it.)

Is this a good score? Find out how it compares with other UNESCO World Heritage Sites in our rankings.

Curious how the scores are derived? Check out the scoring criteria.

Stone Bridge Bulguksa

[With this, the evaluation of all South Korean UNESCO Sites is complete. You can find the whole list here.]

Follow Me

Julio Moreno

Julio is a California native who has lived abroad since 2009 as an expat in South Korea and New Zealand. He is especially passionate about experiencing other cultures and visiting as many UNESCO World Heritage Sites as possible.
Follow Me

2 thoughts on “Seokguram Grotto and Bulguksa Temple

  • January 14, 2016 at 2:59 pm
    Permalink

    You actually misidentified the two pagodas. The more ornate pagoda is Dabotap and the simpler one is Seokgatap.

    And you’re right, most of the buildings date back to the 17th century, after the Imjin Waeran – 임진왜란 (as Koreans call it), which lasted from 1592-98.

    Just a few points of clarification.

    Reply
    • January 14, 2016 at 3:46 pm
      Permalink

      Excellent, I’ll try to fix it. I believe I double checked on Wikipedia and on my pictures of the plaques, but will definitely triple check. Thanks.

      Reply

Leave a Reply to Julio Moreno Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

CommentLuv badge