Gameunsa-ji Temple Site – 감은사지 (Gyeongju)

The East Pagoda at Gameunsa-ji Temple Site in Eastern Gyeongju.

Temple Site History

The history of Gameunsa-ji Temple Site is inextricably linked to King Munmu of Silla (r. 661-681 A.D.). King Munmu of Silla is considered to be the first king of Unified Silla (668-935 A.D.). And it’s this link to history, and the defence of the kingdom that he unified, that the course of Gameunsa-ji Temple Site and King Munmu are forever connected.

King Munmu of Silla (626-681 A.D.) was the oldest son of King Taejong Muyeol of Silla (r. 654-661 A.D.). During his father’s reign, Prince Beopmin (as he was known before he ascended the throne) held a governmental office that oversaw maritime affairs. He was also an envoy to the Tang Dynasty, and Prince Beopmin visited China on the behest of his father. Prince Beopmin became the Crown Prince after serving as the minister of defence during part of his father’s reign. As the minister of defence, Prince Beopmin contributed to the defeat of the Silla peninsula rivals, the Baekje Kingdom (18 B.C. – 660 A.D.).

After ascending the throne and becoming king, King Munmu worked hard to reconcile any and all differences with their former rivals. And as king, King Munmu formed an alliance with the Tang Dynasty of China through the relationships he had formed as an envoy to defeat the Goguryeo Kingdom (37 B.C. – 668 A.D.).

After the Goguryeo Kingdom was defeated, and the peninsula had been unified under Silla rule, the Tang Dynasty moved quickly to occupy the former territory of both the Baekje and Goguryeo Kingdoms. They did this by launching an expeditionary force to the Korean peninsula. As a result, King Munmu worked hard to unify and embrace the people of the Baekje and Goguryeo Kingdoms. So with the support of these former rivals, the Silla Dynasty was able to unify as the Unified Silla Dynasty and expel the Tang Dynasty forces.

King Munmu, after the unification of the peninsula, worked hard to stabilize his newly founded kingdom. He created lesser capitals in Pungwon in Wonju, Gangwon-do and another in Kumgwan in Gimhae, Gyeongsangnam-do. He did this in an attempt to overcome the limitations of having the capital city of Unified Silla, Gyeongju, in the southeast portion of the peninsula. King Munmu also attempted to heighten royal authority by sending inspectors to each region of the Korean peninsula. He also raised the ranks of junior officials.

It’s in the midst of all that this Gameunsa Temple (now Gameunsa-ji Temple Site) was created. Gameunsa Temple was built to defend Unified Silla from the invasion of Japanese pirates. By building Gameunsa Temple, King Munmu was attempting to secure the divine support of the Buddha to resist Japanese aggression. But before the temple could be completed, King Munmu died. As a result, his son, King Sinmun (r. 681-692) completed the construction of Gameunsa Temple in 682 A.D., one year after the passing of his father.

Gameunsa Temple was one of seven Administrative Organizations of the Royal Memorial Monasteries that were in charge of religious rites for the royal families. King Munmu asked to be buried in the East Sea so that he could become a dragon to protect the newly formed nation. King Munmu was cremated and his remains were buried under a rock under an islet called Daewangam, or “The Rock of the Great King” in English. The wide flat rock that houses the remains of King Munmu is 3.7 metres long and 2.06 metres in width. Alongside other Gyeongju temples like Hwangnyongsa Temple and Sacheonwangsa Temple (both of which no longer exist), Gameunsa Temple was built to protect the Unified Silla nation.

Gameunsa Temple remained as an operational and fully functioning temple until the late Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392). But it fell into despair and abandoned during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). In 1959, the first extensive excavation took place on the Gameunsa-ji Temple Site. It was at this time that the Golden Hall (main hall), a lecture hall, a middle gate, and corridors were discovered. It was also at this time that extensive repairs took place to fix the West Three-Story Stone Pagoda. The base of the historic pagoda had severely been damaged. Then in 1996, the National Research Institute of Cultural Heritage repaired the East Three-Story Stone Pagoda. Together, these two pagodas are National Treasure #112.

In total, there’s the aforementioned national treasure on the temple site, as well as two Korean Treasures, and the temple site is recognized as Historic Site #31 by the Korean government.

Temple Site Layout

When you first approach Gameunsa-ji Temple Site, the first thing you’ll notice is that it’s situated on an elevated plateau, as though it acts as a sentry for the valley. Up a long set of wooden stairs, you’ll finally come face-to-face with the historic temple site.

Obviously, the two most noticeable things you’ll first see are the East and West Three-story Stone Pagodas at Gameunsa Temple Site, Gyeongju. These pagodas date back to 682 A.D., and they are National Treasure #112. These twin pagodas are a departure from the traditional solitary pagoda that stood out in front of the main hall like at Hwangnyongsa-ji Temple Site. This transition is best epitomized in the design of Bulguksa Temple, which was built in its current form in 751 A.D. The pagodas are identical in size at thirteen metres in height. Unlike other pagodas at this time that were made of one solid slab of stone, the twin pagodas at Gameunsa-ji Temple Site are put together using eighty-two stones. Of the three expansive body sections to the pagodas, which were made from one single stone, it’s the third story of the pagoda that houses a compartment to house the sari reliquaries. The Reliquaries from the West Three-story Stone Pagoda at Gameunsa Temple Site is Korean Treasure #366; while the Reliquaries from the East Three-story Stone Pagoda at Gameunsa Temple Site is Korean Treasure #1359. The stones used for adorning the finial of both pagodas are now missing. All that now remains is the finial pole which is now exposed to the elements. The finial pole alone is a staggering 3.9 metres in height. Stylistically, while the body of the pagoda reflects a wooden pagoda’s design, the terraced roof is more emblematic of the brick pagoda style. And the overall size of the pagoda is symbolic of the temple’s original intent: that of a national protecting temple.

A little more on the sari reliquaries. First, they can now be found at the Gyeongju National Museum. Of the two, it was first the West Pagoda, alongside the Golden Hall (main hall), a lecture hall, middle gate, and corridors that underwent an extensive excavation in 1959. The Reliquaries from the West Three-story Stone Pagoda at Gameunsa Temple Site was first discovered in 1960. It consists of two parts. There’s a bronze rectangular box with a sari reliquary inside it. The bronze rectangular box is adorned with the Four Heavenly Kings, and it measures thirty-one centimetres tall. The Four Heavenly Kings seem to be protecting four decorative doors to the walls of the bronze box. As for the sari reliquary, it consists of three parts: the square base, the body that holds the sari, and the finial made from crystal. The base and the body of the sari reliquary are relatively well preserved; however, the upper part of the body is severely eroded and nearly unrecognizable. The Reliquaries from the West Three-story Stone Pagoda at Gameunsa Temple Site is Korean Treasure #366.

As for the Reliquaries from the East Three-story Stone Pagoda at Gameunsa Temple Site, it’s Korean Treasure #1359. The reason for this higer number is that the East Pagoda wasn’t dismantled and repaired until 1996. Much like the West Pagoda at Gameunsa-ji Temple Site, the sari reliquary is divided into two parts: the bronze box and the inner sari reliquary. Much better preserved than the West Pagoda’s bronze box, the protective casing is also adorned with the Four Heavenly Kings, as well as cloud patterns. As for the inner sari reliquary, it’s far more ornate than its West Pagoda counterpart. The inner sari reliquary also consists of a base, a body, and a canopy. The image of four lions are placed on each of the four corners of the platform. And each side of the platform is adorned with lotus petals. As for the sari reliquary, it’s shaped as a lotus bud, and it’s placed under a beautifully ornate bronze canopy.

As for the rest of the temple site, you’ll notice the elevated foundation for the Jungmun Gate, or “Middle Gate” in English, out in front of the twin pagodas. Behind the twin pagodas, you’ll see the elevated foundation stones and stone floor that are all that now remains of the Golden Hall (main Hall) at Gameunsa-ji Temple Site. Rather interestingly, the stone slats of the floor are elevated over top of stone pedestals. The reason this was done was so King Munmu, as a dragon, could return to visit the temple underneath the main hall at Gameunsa Temple. In fact, King Sinmun of Silla ordered that a hole be made to the east under the stone entry of the Golden Hall so that a dragon could come and go from the main hall. Also, a connecting tunnel to the East Sea has been discovered connecting the former temple to the underwater Tomb of King Munmu of Silla.

To the rear of the Golden Hall is the temple’s former lecture hall. The dimensions and size of the temple are better understood by the elevated corridors of the former temple site. And the entire temple grounds are backed by beautiful bamboo forest. Finally, there’s a cluster of stone artifacts to the right of the main temple site grounds.

How To Get There

From the Gyeongju Train Station, there’s a bus stop at the neighbouring post office. You’ll need to take either Bus #150 or Bus #150-1 to get to the Gameunsa-ji Temple Site stop. The bus ride from the Gyeongju Train Station to Gameunsa-ji Temple Site will last thirty-eight stops, or one hour and twenty minutes.

Overall Rating: 7/10.

A temple site is always difficult to rate like Hwangnyongsa Temple Site and Gulbulsa-ji Temple Site. Like Gameunsa-ji Temple Site, they can be found in Gyeongju. Gameunsaji- Temple Site is more similar to Gulbulsa-ji Temple Site in that it has something for visitors to see. Not only does Gameunsa-ji Temple Site have parts of the main hall intact in the form of the foundation and stone floors, but it has the massive twin pagodas that are national treasures, as well. And if you visit the Gyeongju National Museum, you’ll find the amazing contents of these pagodas. Both sari reliquaries are Korean Treasures, and are definitely worth a separate trip to the neighbouring national museum in their own right. And the entire temple site is a Historic Site.

The elevated temple site grounds for Gameunsa-ji Temple Site.
A look up towards the elevated grounds.
The amazing twin pagodas at Gameunsa-ji Temple Site. They are National Treasure #112 with the East Pagoda to the right and the West Pagoda to the left.
The view that the pagodas have enjoyed for centuries.
The bronze box that houses the sari reliquary to the East Pagoda. (Picture Courtesy of the Korean Cultural Heritage Administration)
The ornate sari reliquary inside the bronze box. Together, they are Korean Treasure #366. (Picture Courtesy of the Korean Cultural Heritage Administration)
The bronze rectangular box of the “Reliquaries from the West Three-Story Stone Pagoda at Gameunsa Temple Site.”
The sarira reliquary of the “Reliquaries from the West Three-Story Stone Pagoda at Gameunsa Temple Site.”
The stone floor to the Golden Hall that can still be found at Gameunsa-ji Temple Site. Notice the stone floor’s elevated position on top of the pedestal stones.
A better look at the stone floor of the Golden Hall at Gameunsa-ji Temple Site.

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