Gyeongju

Jeonghyesa-ji Temple Site – 정혜사지 (Gyeongju)

The Thirteen-Story Stone Pagoda at Jeonghyesa-ji Temple Site in Northern Gyeongju.

Temple Site History

The Jeonghyesa-ji Temple Site is located in a long valley in northern Gyeongju east of Mt. Jaoksan (569.9 m) and Mt. Dodeoksan (707.5 m). The Jeonghyesa Temple Site is home to one of the most unique pagodas that you’ll find in Korea. The Thirteen-Story Stone Pagoda at Jeonghyesa Temple Site is also National Treasure #40.

As for the history of the actual temple, there is very little known about it. With that being said, historians assume that Jeonghyesa Temple existed during the Later Silla Dynasty (668-935), but there’s no specific foundation year to this temple. It’s also known that Jeonghyesa Temple existed during the mid-Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). However, it’s unclear when the temple was destroyed.

According to the book “Donggyeongtongji,” in 780 A.D., there was a Silla government worker named Baek Woogyeong that worked around Mt. Jaoksan. He chose that spot because the land was great, so he built Yeongwol-dang and Manseam Hermitage. Even King Seondeok of Silla (r. 780 – 785 A.D.) visited these two places that Baek built. After making these buildings, he then made it a temple. And this temple was called Jeonghyesa Temple.

A fuller look at the solitary Thirteen-Story Stone Pagoda at Jeonghyesa-ji Temple Site in northern Gyeongju.

Temple Site Layout

Today, all that exists at the Jeonghyesa-ji Temple Site is the amazing Thirteen-story Stone Pagoda. This uniquely designed pagoda dates back to Later Silla (668-935 A.D.). And it has remained unchanged since the 9th century. The pagoda stands in an open field next to a farmer’s field with Mt. Jaoksan as a beautiful backdrop.

The The Thirteen-Story Stone Pagoda at Jeonghyesa Temple Site is the only one still in existence from the Silla Dynasty (57 B.C. – 935 A.D.). The pagoda’s thirteen-story body stands on a wide single-story earthen platform. Although the pagoda has a wide base, it quickly tapers off on the second story, and remains slender to the top of the pagoda. You’ll also find ancient graffiti written in hanja in black ink of what looks to be Korean family names on each of the four sides of the sturdy base. The main body of the first story of the pagoda has a square stone pillar at each of the four corners. There are additional pillars built inside the four pillars to create an opening on each of the four sides around the base of the pagoda. The roof stones of each story are made from different stones than their supports. And each story roof stone is raised to create a lighter impression. Unfortunately, only the base of the pagoda’s finial still remains. This pagoda has a strong sense of stability created by the wide base and narrowing body. The entire pagoda is made from granite.

The History of Thirteen-Story Pagodas

As to the uniqueness of the thirteen stories, and why there’s only one historical thirteen-story pagoda found in Korea, it’s because this style originated in China. In fact, and according to the “Donggyeongtongji,” there is an indication that Chinese people were involved in the creation of the temple and perhaps the pagoda.

A computer generated model of what the twin pagodas at Mandeoksa-ji Temple Site looked like. (Picture courtesy of this website).

And according to the Samguk Yusa, the only other thirteen-story pagodas (other than at the Jeonghyesa-ji Temple Site) were the twin wooden pagodas at Mangdeoksa Temple in central Gyeongju. According to the Samguk Yusa, Mangdeoksa Temple was built in April 685 A.D. In the Samguk Yusa, it describes how Sacheonwangsa Temple was constructed to protect Silla from Tang China (618–690, 705–907 A.D.). However, Silla made a false report to the Tang Emperor that Sacheonwangsa Temple had been built for him. The Tang Emperor then sent an envoy to Silla to verify this claim. In order to conceal the truth, Silla built a different and new temple across from Sacheonwangsa Temple. They then showed this new temple with its pair of twin thirteen-story pagodas to the envoy. This was meant to appease the envoy. However, the envoy wasn’t convinced that the temple had been built to honour the Tang Emperor. So the Silla rulers bribed the Tang envoy with one thousand pieces of gold. With this bribe, the envoy reported back to the Tang Emperor with the lie that the temple had in fact been built for him. And this temple was named Mangdeoksa Temple. This story gives credence to the idea that Chinese pagodas were meant to be over ten stories in height. And what better way to impress a Tang envoy that will be reporting back to his emperor than to build two thirteen-story wooden pagodas?

With all that being said, while the number of stories coincides with the number of stories found in structures in China, both the material and design of the The Thirteen-Story Stone Pagoda at Jeonghyesa Temple Site are uniquely Korean.

Uniqueness of Thirteen-Story Pagodas in Korea

As was already mentioned, there is only one historic thirteen-story pagoda still in existence in South Korea. However, before the Korean peninsula was divided by the Korean War (1950-1953), there were in fact two historic thirteen-story pagodas. The other thirteen-story pagoda now takes up residence inside the borders of North Korea. This other thirteen-story pagoda can be found on Mt. Myohyang (1909 m) in Hyangsan, Pyonganbuk-do at Pohyonsa Temple. The thirteen-story pagoda at Pohyonsa Temple dates back to the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392), when it was built in 1042. Like the pagoda at Jeonghyesa-ji Temple Site, the pagoda at Pohyonsa Temple is made from granite. Also, rather coincidentally, Pohyonsa Temple, which is home to the thirteen-story pagoda, is North Korean National Treasure #40 (remember, The Thirteen-Story Stone Pagoda at Jeonghyesa Temple Site is National Treasure #40).

A picture of the thirteen-story stone pagoda at Pohyonsa Temple in North Korea. (Picture courtesy of Wikipedia).

As for the design of the thirteen-story pagoda at Pohyonsa Temple, it’s completely different than the one found at the Jeonghyesa-ji Temple Site. The Pohyonsa Temple pagoda is long and slender the entire length of the pagoda. It stands 10.03 metres. Also, the body of the pagoda, with its thirteen-story roof stones, gradually taper upwards from the bottom upwards. Also, there are one hundred and four bells that hang from each tip of the eaves of the pagoda’s roof stones.

There are, additionally, numerous examples of historic thirteen-story pagodas in China like the Iron Pagoda Yougou Temple that dates back to 1049 A.D.; the Songyue Pagoda of Songyue Monastery that dates back to 523 A.D.; the Liuhe Pagoda that was originally built in 970 A.D. and then rebuilt in 1165 A.D.; and the Feihong Pagoda inside Upper Guangsheng Temple that purportedly dates back to the Eastern Han Dynasty (202 B.C. – 220 A.D.). However, this pagoda has undergone numerous repairs and reconstruction, and the present pagoda dates back to 1527. All of these examples points to a relationship that helped inspire each nation’s religious art. And nowhere is this more plainly seen than in the pagodas of both nations.

The Iron Pagoda at Yougou Temple. (Picture Courtesy of Wikipedia).

How To Get There

From the Gyeongju Intercity Bus Terminal, take Bus #203 for forty-six stops, which will last one hour and twenty minutes. Get off at the Oksan 1-ri stop and walk two hundred and fifty metres towards the Jeonghyesa-ji Temple Site to your left.

Overall Rating: 6/10

While Jeonghyesa-ji Temple is now home to only one structure, the The Thirteen-Story Stone Pagoda at Jeonghyesa Temple Site, it is one of the most unusual structures that you’ll find at a Korean Buddhist temple or temple site. While definitely out of the way, it’s definitely worth a visit to try and find this Silla-era thirteen-story pagoda, which is a one-off.

As you first enter the former temple grounds at Jeonghyesa-ji Temple Site.
A closer look at the amazing thirteen-story pagoda.
A closer look up at the thirteen stories of the Silla-era pagoda.
A different angle.
The eastern opening to the base of the pagoda.
These little flowers were blooming when I visited.
A beautiful look at the historic pagoda with Mt. Jaoksan in the background.
One last look up at this amazing pagoda.

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