“King Munmu started to build this temple to block the invasion of Japanese troops but was unable to complete it and thus became a dragon. His son King Sinmun ascended the throne and completed its construction two years later. He ordered that a hole be made to the east under the stone threshold of the golden hall in order for a dragon to come in and out.”
King Munmu (r. 661-681) of Silla was the oldest son of King Taejong Muyeol (r. 654-661). As a young man, he visited the Tang dynasty of China with his father as an envoy and was given the title Crown Prince after serving as minister of defense. He contributed significantly toward the conquest led by King Muyeol over Baekje but worked hard to end the conflict after succeeding to the throne. As king, he forged an alliance with the Tang dynasty and defeated Goguryeo.
After the fall of Goguryeo, the Tang dynasty left an expeditionary force on the Korean Peninsula to rule the territories of Baekje and Goguryeo and curb the power of Silla. Under these circumstances, King Munmu embraced the people of Baekje and Goguryeo and joined forces with them to oust the Tang dynasty from the Korean Peninsula with their help, thereby leading to the first unified country on the peninsula.
Even in the midst of war, King Munmu attempted to demonstrate his power as king and consolidate political stability by building Donggung Palace, digging a pond, planting flowers, and raising rare animals around the palace. Also, he installed the lesser capital Pungwon in Wonju and another lesser capital, Kumgwan, in Gimhae in an effort to overcome the capital city Gyeongju’s geographical limitation of being far to the southeast. As part of his policy to strengthen royal authority, he also dispatched inspectors to each district and increased the ranks of junior officials.
King Munmu urged in his last will that his remains be buried in the East Sea so that he could become a dragon and protect his country. Historical sites linked to this story, such as the Underwater Tomb of King Munmu and Gameunsa Temple built for King Munmu, still remain in Gyeongju. Let’s trace the footsteps of the king who would become a dragon and take a look at Silla culture.