“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.
Underwater Tomb of King Munmu
The tomb is located in a rocky islet in the waters off Bonggil-ri, Yangbuk-myeon in Gyeongju. The islet is called Daewangam (the Rock of the Great King) because the remains of King Munmu were cremated and his ashes laid to rest here in accordance with his will. It stretches north and south, and it is surrounded by smaller rocks. There is a pool at the center of Daewangam, but because it sits in a cross-shaped waterway, it remains placid even as the waves strike around it. Beneath the water’s surface is a wide flat rock 3.7 meters long and 2.06 meters wide from north to south. It is believed that the remains of King Munmu are buried under the rock.
Tombstone of King Munmu
This tombstone was erected as an historic site in memory of King Munmu. It is engraved with his achievements as king, his will, and the genealogy of the royal families of Silla. The last lines of the epitaph read: “The remains of the king were cremated and his ashes scattered in the sea.” The epitaph was written by an individual surnamed Kim, deputy director of the National Confucian College and they were hand carved by Han Nul-yu, who held the title Daesa, a twelfth-level official. The Joseon-era public official Hong Yang-ho (a.k.a Igye, 1724-1802) tried and failed to find the tombstone when he served as a magistrate in Gyeongju, but pieces of the tombstone were found as much as 36 years later, as detailed in Writings of Igye. The Joseon epigraphist Kim Jeong-hui (1786-1856) said in his Book on Epigraphy that the lower part of the tombstone was found in 1817. A rubbing of an inscription on the stone was transmitted to the Qing dynasty and mentioned in Compilation of Korean Epigraphy written by Liu Xihai (1794-1852). Kim Jeong-hui believed that the tombstone had been erected in 687, noting that it fit the base found in the southern part of Nangsan Mountain. The base fitted to the tombstone by Kim is a turtle-shaped tombstone base believed to have been situated before the site of the temple of the Four Heavenly Kings. But the tombstone of King Munmu was lost once again and only its rubbing had been passed down until the lower and the upper parts were found in 1961 and 2009, respectively.
Gameunsa Temple Site
The Gameunsa Temple Site sits near the coast about 30 km east of central Gyeongju. King Munmu began to build a temple at the site to prevent invasion by Japanese troops, but he died before its completion. It was completed in 682 by his son, King Sinmun (r. 681-692), in accordance with King Munmu’s wishes. The Daejongcheon Stream flows in front of temple and joins the sea to the east, where the Underwater Tomb of King Munmu sits off the coast. This is why Gameunsa Temple is regarded as a prayer hall for King Munmu. During the Silla dynasty, it was one of the seven Administrative Organizations of the Royal Memorial Monasteries, which were in charge of religious rites for the royal families. Both King Hyegong and King Gyeongmun, as well as King Sinmun, visited the temple to see the sea under which their royal progenitor was buried. Gameunsa Temple remained in operation until late Goryeo, but it collapsed during the Joseon period.
The National Museum of Korea found vestiges of a golden hall, an auditorium, and corridors in 1959 while conducting a survey and excavation at the site. Over the next year, it undertook repair work on the West Three-story Stone Pagoda, whose stylobate had been severely damaged. In 1996, the National Research Institute of Cultural Heritage repaired the East Three-story Stone Pagoda.
East and West Three-story Stone Pagodas at the Gameunsa Temple Site
These twin pagodas at the Gameunsa Temple Site are identical in size and style. The pagodas were erected by putting 82 stones together. The third story of the pagoda’s body, which consists of a single stone, contains a hole for enshrining sarira reliquaries. The stones used for the finial, except the stone on top, have disappeared, leaving the finial pole exposed to the outside. It seems that while the way of assembling stones reflected the structure of wooden pagodas, the use of terraced roof stones originated from an architectural style based on brick pagodas. The pagodas’ stable proportions and magnificent appearance show the progressive spirit of Unified Silla. When the West Pagoda and East Pagoda underwent restoration in 1959 and 1996, respectively, sarira reliquaries in the same style were found in the two pagodas.
This stupa from the Goseonsa Temple Site, along with the east and west stupas in Gameunsa Temple, is thought to represent the original form of common stone stupas from the Unified Silla Period.
Sarira Reliquary from the West Three-story Stone Pagoda at Gameunsa Temple
This is a container for relics discovered on the stone plate inside the third story of the pagoda during restoration work. This reliquary consists of both inner and outer containers.
Outer Sarira Container
The four sides of the outer sarira container are decorated with the heads of animals, each holding a loop in its mouth, with the Four Heavenly Kings clad in armor in between them, accompanied by cloud and flower stem designs around the decorations. Evils under feet or beasts (living creatures) were iconographic subjects during the early Unified Silla period. The seemingly-exotic faces of the Four Heavenly Kings which recall imagery from western China, with their tough-looking appearance and powerful posture, and the detailed designs of their armor demonstrate the realistic sculptural style of the early Unified Silla dynasty.
Inner Sarira Reliquary
This artifact consists of a royal hall-shaped platform with several figure sculptures on it and an ornamental superstructure surrounded by railings. At the center of the stone base, there is a jar holding up a flamed bead; in the jar, a lotus pedestal has been placed to enshrine a crystal bottle containing Buddhist remains. Around the jar, celestials perform a dance as offerings to Buddha. The sarira reliquary excavated from the East Pagoda of the Gameunsa Temple Site differs somewhat from the one discovered at the West Pagoda in terms of structural details, but as its upper part remains intact, it is helpful in estimating the original shape of the West Pagoda’s reliquary.
Bronze Wind Bell
When the Gameunsa Temple Site was excavated, this artifact was found lying on a bronze gong inscribed with Goryeo dynasty records dating back to 1351. Its shape resembles that of Buddhist temple bells from Silla, with the surface of the top part bearing the traces of what was once a crown and small holes in the center of the main part. It is as large as the bronze wind bell discovered at the Hwangryongsa Temple Site.
Gilt Ornamental Lion Head Door Handle
This ornament was used as a door handle. A loop connected the two holes at the corners of the tough-looking lion’s mouth. A long tip protruding from the rear of the lion’s head was used to attach this ornamental handle to a door.
Located on the seashore and offering a view of Daewangam, the submerged tomb of King Munmu, this pavilion is where King Sinmun encountered a dragon and received a flute called manpasikjeok the year after Gameunsa Temple’s construction. Manpasikjeok refers to a flute that can calm the breaking waves, and it is said that this magic flute has worked marvels; for example, defeating enemies, curing diseases, releasing rain in times of drought, stopping rain in the monsoon season, and tempering winds and calming waves. It is believed that Igyeondae, the name of this pavilion, was taken from a phrase from The Book of Changes, “As a dragon flies in the sky, following a great man is beneficial.” Since an ancient building lot was discovered at this site, this pavilion was restored at its present location. However, it still remains a matter of controversy as to whether Igyeondae was actually located here during the Silla period.