Hwangboksa-ji Temple Site – 황복사지 (Gyeongju)
Temple Site History
The Hwangboksa-ji Temple Site is located on the northeast side of Mt. Nangsan (99.5 m) in Gyeongju. The exact date and by whom the temple was first constructed is unknown. In fact, there is still some controversy as to whether this is in fact the location of the historic Hwangboksa Temple. However, with that being said, tiles were discovered at the site with the words “Hwangbok” or “Wangbok” written on them. Additionally, the sari reliquary discovered inside Three-Story Stone Pagoda at Hwangboksa Temple Site, which is National Treasure #37, records how the temple was constructed to wish great fortune on the royal Silla family in the early 8th century.
According to the Samguk Yusa, or Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms in English, “Uisang’s father was Han-sin and his family name was Kim. At the age of twenty-nine he [Uisang-daesa] shaved his head and became a monk, residing at Hwangboksa Temple. Soon afterward, he decided to go to China to study Buddhist doctrine, and set out on his journey with Wonhyo.”
And because of this connection to Uisang-daesa (625-702 A.D.), not only is it presumed that the temple existed before Uisang-daesa becoming a monk, but also because of his instrumental efforts in the spread of Buddhism; and more specifically, Hwaeom Buddhism, throughout the Korean Peninsula, that Hwangboksa Temple grew both in importance and through its royal connections. Hwangboksa Temple must have once been an important Buddhist temple in Silla.
After the death of King Sinmun of Silla (r. 681-692 A.D.), his son, King Hyoso of Silla (r. 692-702 A.D.) had the Three-Story Stone Pagoda at Hwangboksa Temple Site built in 692 A.D. to pray for the soul of his dead father. And after the death of King Hyoso of Silla, his successor, King Seongdeok of Silla (r. 702-737 A.D.) placed sari and a sari reliquaries inside the historic pagoda in 706 A.D. And inside these sari reliquaries were a collection of items that included the Gold Seated Buddha from Guhwang-dong, which is National Treasure #79, and the Gold Standing Buddha from Guhwang-dong, which is National Treasure #80. All of which was done for the prosperity and peace of Silla (57 B.C. – 935 A.D.). These two golden items were removed from the Three-Story Stone Pagoda at Hwangboksa Temple Site in 1942.
It’s also believed that Hwangboksa Temple was home to a Unified Silla Seongjeon, which was a government office established by the Silla Dynasty for temple management. These Seongjeon were also placed at Sacheonwangsa Temple, Bongseongsa Temple, Gameunsa Temple, and Yeongheungsa Temple, all of which were in the capital of Gyeongju. Because of this Seongjeon administrative office, it’s believed that Hwangboksa Temple served as a royal Buddhist temple which prayed for the repose of the dead. In fact, and according to Lee Hyun-tae, curator at the Gyeongju National Museum, “At the center of the temple that supported the legitimacy and sanctity of the king is the Sacheongwangsa Temple Site, Gyeongju, and the historic site attributed to Hwangboksa Temple.”
Now, and with all that being said, there has been some recent controversy produced through the excavations conducted more recently in 2016 and 2017. Originally, when the “Wangbok” tile was discovered on the temple grounds in 1966, it was assumed by most scholars that this was in fact Hwangboksa Temple. More recently, and from 2016-2017, only roof tiles with the words “Inbaeksa” and “Seonwonsa” were discovered on the temple site. But there is other proof at the site; namely stone artifacts and an abandoned royal tomb, that give a lot of credence to the fact that this was in fact the historic Hwangboksa Temple.
As was previously mentioned, the assumed Hwangboksa-ji Temple Site is home to three National Treasures. They include the aforementioned Three-Story Stone Pagoda at Hwangboksa Temple Site, the Gold Seated Buddha from Guhwang-dong, and the Gold Standing Buddha from Guhwang-dong. And the temple site is located on the Archaeological Area of Nangsan Mountain, which is Historic Site #163.
Hwangboksa-ji Temple Site Excavations
In total, there were two recent excavations conducted at the Hwangboksa-ji Temple Site. The first was in 2016 and the second was conducted in 2017. The first excavation, which was planned by the Gyeongju City Office with the financial support from the Cultural Heritage Ministry, was conducted in 2016. The first excavation of the site revealed a variety of features that included a cluster of stone materials clustered together and related to a royal tomb. The first excavation also revealed building features, fences, corridors, roads, and about 400 artifacts including eave-end tiles, roof tiles, bricks, and oil lamps.
During the second excavation, which took place starting in April, 2017, revealed various types of archaeological features which lend credence to the idea that Hwangboksa Temple was a royal temple from Unified Silla (668-935 A.D.). These features included a building feature with a stone platform carved in relief with the twelve deities of the Eastern Zodiac, which are known as the Sibiji-shin in Korean. Additionally, a building feature laid on a daeseokdan (a large-scale stone platform built of finely processed stones), corridors, fences, drainage channels, roads, a pond, and some 1,000 artifacts were also discovered. These 1,000 artifacts included eave-end tiles, roof tiles, bricks, gilt-bronze statues of the Buddha, and gilt-bronze ornaments.
As for the stone materials of the royal tomb found at the presumed Hwangbosa-ji Temple Site, it was assumed that the area was in fact a royal tomb. The royal tomb was meant to have a diameter of 22 metres and a circumference of 60 metres, which would have made it a similar size to that of the Tomb of King Gyeongdeok, which was built in 765 A.D. Interestingly, some of the materials found were re-used as building material for other buildings at the site, as well as fences and platforms from Unified Silla. What’s interesting about this is the Silla belief in the afterlife. No royal tomb would have been used if in fact it had once belonged to a Silla royal tomb. So what’s believed by experts is that the construction work done on the royal tomb was interrupted for some unknown reason. With this in mind, it is now believed that this former royal tomb location was in fact the unfinished tomb for King Hyoseong of Silla (r. 737-742 A.D.). King Hyoseong of Silla had an unexpectedly short reign. In the Samguk Yusa, it’s recorded that the cremated ashes of King Hyoseong of Silla were cremated at Bupryunsa Temple and then later scattered in the East Sea according to his will. So the unused royal tomb material was used in the construction of various structures at Hwangboksa Temple including the main hall platform, support stones for the pagoda, and various temple structure platforms.
Another interesting feature that was done during the excavations at the Hwangboksa-ji Temple Site concern the building features laid on a daeseokdan (a large-scale stone platform built of finely processed stones) at the temple site. The daeseokdan was constructed using finely constructed rectangular stones, which measured up to 60 metres in length, and had a stone stairway attached to it extending from the centre of the northern side of the structure. Corridors were then laid on the stone platforms that were discovered. Interestingly, this is the first feature like this found at any temple in Gyeongju to date. With this in mind, it’s believed that this area is the main hall foundation at Hwangboksa Temple. However, and with the pagoda that still exists being elevated higher than the former main hall, the layout to the temple was believed to have a pagoda situated in the west and the main hall situated to the east like other historic temples of Silla like the Nawon-ri and Changrimsa Temple Sites.
As for the building features that appear on the stone platform of the daeseokdan, they include four stone reliefs of the twelve Eastern zodiac animals known as the Sibiji-shin in Korean. It was previously assumed to be the main hall when excavations were conducted on the site in 1968 and 1982. However, these initial excavations failed to reveal the function of this building. With these recent excavations conducted in 2016 and 2017, it’s now assumed that these four stone slabs with the zodiac animals on them were laid vertically on the outer surface of the stone platform of the building feature. These features, then, were possibly an important adornment for a structure that was integral to the performance of rituals. The style of these stone slabs and the twelve zodiac animals that they depict are similar to the ones on the Tomb of King Heondeok (r. 809-826 A.D.), who passed away in 826 A.D. So it’s assumed that the stone features from the incomplete royal tomb on the grounds of the Hwangboksa-ji Temple Site were re-used on the main hall of Hwangboksa Temple.
Temple Site Layout
Unfortunately, very little is left of the Hwangboksa-ji Temple Site besides the Three-Story Stone Pagoda at Hwangboksa Temple Site and the now overgrown excavation site that houses the foundation for the former Hwangboksa Temple. The three-story pagoda stands to the west of the temple site. It is typical of the stone pagodas produced during Unified Silla (668-935 A.D.). However, it is smaller in size than similar ones found at the Gameunsa-ji Temple Site (N.T. #112) and Goseonsa-ji Temple Site (N.T. #38). The main body and roof stones of the Three-Story Stone Pagoda at Hwangboksa Temple Site are made of a single stone rather than several stones. The four corners of the roof stones are slightly raised upward that help create a lighter overall appearance to the structure. And only the base of the finial still remains. The Three-Story Stone Pagoda at Hwangboksa Temple Site was dismantled and reconstructed in 1943. It was at this time that inside the second story roof stone artifacts were discovered. They included gilt-bronze reliquaries and two gilt-bronze Buddhist statues. And on the lid of one of the reliquaries, Chinese characters were carved providing important information about the date and purpose of the pagoda.
Other items found inside the Three-Story Stone Pagoda at Hwangboksa Temple Site, and their reliquaries, were the Gold Seated Buddha from Guhwang-dong, which is National Treasure #79; and the Gold Standing Buddha from Guhwang-dong, Gyeongju, which is National Treasure #80. Both of these artifacts are now housed at National Museum of Korea in Seoul.
According to an inscription engraved on the sari reliquary, a gold Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise) statuette was placed inside the reliquary in 706 A.D. This has led some historians to believe that this is the Amita-bul mentioned. However, some have raised doubts as the inscription specifies that the Amita-bul statuette is only 6 inches tall, while the present statuette is shorter than 4 inches (12.2 cm). But whatever the answer may be, the statuette consists of three parts: the mandorla, the Buddha’s body, and the lotus pedestal, which were designed to detach from each other.
As for the Gold Standing Buddha from Guhwang-dong, the statuette stands 14 cm in height and is made of gold. It was also discovered inside the sari reliquary. This Buddha stands on its own gold pedestal, and it’s surrounded by a golden mandorla, which is placed behind its head. Based on inscriptions found on the sari reliquary, it’s strongly believed that the Gold Standing Buddha from Guhwang-dong was made before 692 A.D., when the reliquary was enshrined inside the pagoda that was built that year.
How To Get There
From the Gyeongju Intercity Bus Terminal, you’ll need to cross the road and find the bus stop that has Bus #607. You’ll then need to take this bus for 12 stops, or 15 minutes. From where the bus drops you off, which should be the “Cheont-baeban – 첫배반” stop, you’ll need to head east and cross the street. Follow the signs as you pass by the Neungji Pagoda. You’ll continue walking for 20 minutes, or 1.3 km, until you arrive at the Hwangboksa-ji Temple Site.
Overall Rating: 3/10
Unfortunately, because so little remains at the temple site, excluding the Three-Story Stone Pagoda at Hwangboksa Temple Site, the Hwangboksa-ji Temple Site rates as low as it does. However, with all that being said, the early Unified Silla pagoda at the Hwangboksa-ji Temple Site is a wonderful example of the pagodas produced at this time. Also, the artifacts discovered inside the historic pagoda are not only precious Korean treasures, but they also give us insight and information into royal temples at this time. If you’re into Silla temple sites, then the Hwangboksa-ji Temple Site should be explored.