Uncovering clues to Korea's fallen kingdom

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 19 June, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 19 June, 1993, 12:00am

A MODEST town today, Kyongju abounds with relics of its grand past. Even during a foray from my hotel in the town centre, I come across a cluster of mounds, set in a small park.

The tallest domes upwards over 20 metres, well above the roofs of nearby buildings. Another stands, rather incongruously, beside a roundabout.

The main group of these mounds - which are the tombs of long-dead rulers - is in Tumuli Park, at the southern edge of town.

A path leads round and between the earth mounds, which are believed to date from an era when the Kyongju-based Silla dynasty struggled with two other kingdoms for control of the Korean peninsula.

One mound now houses a museum, with imitation gold jewellery, a crown and a sword half buried in a replica of the soil that dissolved the bones of an unknown king.

The park has been landscaped and manicured in a manner reflecting the Korean passion for cleanliness. To me, it is a little too well-kept, the sense of history somehow gone with the dead leaves and branches.

I find more of the atmosphere I had hoped for at the Tomb of King Muyol, southwest of the town. Its situation, at the foot of a pine-covered hillside, helps, as do the fine views across the Kyongju valley.

The nearby tomb of General Kim is smaller, with 12 carvings of bizarre, almost human-like, zodiac figures. Kim and Muyol were two of the ''Three Unifiers'' of Korea, architects of the alliances and battles which led to Silla dominating the peninsula in 735 AD.

Not feeling unduly morbid, I sample a few of the sites built for the living. The 7th-century Chomsongdae astronomical observatory appears unprepossessing, just a bottle-shaped stone tower with an opening in the centre. But its structure is intriguing.

Do the 365 stones, 12 base stones and 12 layers of stone above and below the hole represent days and months in a year? No one knows for certain.

At Poksokchong, a granite trough is all that remains of a pleasure park where kings and their courtiers used to recite poetry, drink wine and make merry - and where, in the chaotic last years of the Silla dynasty, bandits forced King Kyongaewang to fall on his sword.

A visit to another pleasure park, Anapji, gives an inkling of the grandeur that was Kyongju. Three pavilions have been reconstructed. A scale model, based on archaeological investigations, shows that the three would once have been part of a large complexof walkways and pavilions.

Earlier, in the National Museum in Seoul, I had been similarly impressed by a scale model of Hwangyongsa, the largest temple ever built in Korea.

But Hwangyongsa, like the hundreds of other temples built in and around Kyongju during the Silla period, long ago succumbed to time and the destructive campaigns by the Mongols in the 13th century, and the Japanese three centuries later.

The surviving earth-and-stone structures, models and reconstructions serve as part of an immense, impossible jigsaw puzzle I try in vain to piece together. What was it like, this city, when it was the capital of the 8th-century Silla, the kingdom at its zenith in Korea's ''Golden Age of Culture,'' when envoys were despatched to India and China to learn from Buddhist masters, when Koreans were prominent in the Japanese court, and the Kyongju population numbered perhaps one million? On a hill just outside Kyongju, and above Korea's best-known temple, Pulguksa, is the temple in the magnificent Sokkuram grotto. The grotto's main carving, a figure seated on a Lotus flower, is regarded by many as the most perfect image of the Sakyamuni Buddha in existence.

Even viewed through the pane of glass separating visitors from the interior, the grotto seems to possess an unseeable presence.

More Buddhist relics are to be found on Namsan, or ''South Mountain'' (''South Hill'' would be more fitting). It was a training ground for monks, and is dotted with statues, carvings and pagodas.

The mountain's trails seem as numerous as its relics, and offer ample scope for exploration and some easy hiking.

There are express buses and trains between Seoul and Kyongju; the journey takes around four hours. Alternately, fly from Seoul to Pusan, then take the express bus (90 minutes) to Kyongju. (Be sure to ask for ''Kyongju'' not ''Kwangju'').