Buddha statue to be saved for posterity

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 03 October, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 October, 1995, 12:00am

HIGH on a mountain above Kyongju, the ancient capital of the Silla Dynasty, an image of the Sakyamuni Buddha sits in a sacred temple, looking down valleys towards the distant East Sea.

Simple, yet perfect, it is regarded by scholars as one of the great works of Buddhist art in Northeast Asia.

But how did the revered statue reach this remote resting place, accessible only along a narrow trail? Constructed in the mid-eighth century out of huge blocks of granite, the image was not carved locally. Historians and geologists have established it could only have been quarried far to the north.

What they have been unable to establish, however, is the labour required to haul this magnificent icon several kilometres uphill beyond Kyongju's famous Pulguk-sa Temple.

For this feat alone, it is perhaps rightful that the statue within a temple known as Sokkuram Grotto is to become Korea's first World Heritage-listed monument.

UNESCO has announced its inclusion as a relic of international importance - joining only 326 others in the world - in this year's listings. The monument will be formally designated when the World Heritage committee meets in Berlin in December.

Sokkuram has a romantic history. It fell into disrepair when Korea's Koryo Dynasty was overthrown and Buddhism was suppressed during the Yi Dynasty.

For centuries it was forgotten, until accidentally rediscovered in 1909 during the Japanese occupation. A regional governor attempted to have the Sokkuram Grotto shipped to a Japanese museum, but local authorities refused to co-operate.

In 1961, UNESCO organised a restoration programme which was completed three years later and, today, the Sakyamuni Buddha, protected behind a wall of glass, is a place of pilgrimage, attracting hundreds every day.

It is one of the most important sites of interest in Kyongju, a restored 'Museum Without Walls' city, which dates back to 57 BC. It was a time when Julius Caesar was laying the foundations to the Roman Empire, where archaeologists were discovering new treasure troves of relics every year.

Two other South Korean treasures are due to be listed by World Heritage this year.

The unique Tripitaka Koreana, a collection of 80,000 woodblocks of the Buddhist canon dating back to the 13th century, are housed at Haein Temple in Hapchon in South Kyongsang.

Also to be listed is the 17th-century royal shrine from the Chosun Dynasty at Chongmyo in central Seoul, located in a forested park near the Kyongbok Palace where the ancestral tablets of 27 kings and queens are preserved.

The ideal time to visit this cemetery is on the first Sunday of May when descendants of the royal family, resplendent in traditional costume, honour the spirits of ancestors in a Confucian ceremony of dance and music.