The Conquered – The Gaya Confederacy (42 – 562 A.D.)

The Gaya Confederacy (Picture Courtesy of Wikipedia)

The Gaya Confederacy existed from 42 A.D. to 562 A.D. It was situated in the south-eastern corner of the Korean peninsula near the Nakdong River basin around present day Busan and the Gyeongsangnam-do area. The Gaya Confederacy was centred around Geungwan Gaya (present day Gimhae). It was a small confederacy of city-states that grew out of the Byeonhan Confederacy, which consisted of twelve states. In total, there were six loosely organized city-states in the Gaya Confederacy. The Gaya Confederacy gained its independence from the Byeonhan Confederacy sometime during the late 3rd century. And while there are very few written records that can point to a definitive transitional period in Gaya history, it was around the 3rd century that military activities increased and funeral rites changed for the confederacy. During its history, the Gaya Confederacy existed between the stronger Baekje Kingdom (18 B.C. – 660 A.D.) to the north-west and the fast growing Silla Kingdom (57 B.C. – 935 A.D.) to the north-east.

The economy of the Gaya Confederacy was centred around agriculture, fishing, and foreign trade. And with it being situated in the fertile Nakdong plains, as well as its proximity to the sea, it makes sense that these would be the core components to the Gaya Confederacy’s economy. Additionally, the Gaya Confederacy was situated on top of rich iron deposits, which it both used and exported to the Baekje Kingdom and the Wa of Japan. Also, archaeological evidence supports the idea that the Gaya Confederacy exported both culture and technology to the Kyushu area of Japan.

The tomb of King Suro of Geumgwan Gaya in Gimhae, Gyeongsangnam-do

The Gaya Confederacy has an interesting creation legend. As the legend goes, King Suro of Geumgwan Gaya (42? – 199 A.D.) was the first of six princes born from eggs. He had descended down from the sky in a golden bowl wrapped in red cloth. Being the first of the six born, he would go on to help form the Gaya Confederacy.

King Suro’s wife, Heo Hwang-ok (Yellow Jade), on the other hand, was from the Ayuta Kingdom. It’s unclear where Ayuta Kingdom is, as it is not identified in the Garakgukgi (The Record of Garak Kingdom), which is currently lost, or the Samguk Yusa (Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms) that cites the Garakgukgi. All that these sources cite is that the Ayuta Kingdom was a “distant kingdom.” There are a few theories as to where the Ayuta Kingdom might be like Ayodhya in India. However, there are no records of this legend in India. Another theory states that the Ayuta Kingdom is a transliteration of the Ay Kingdom in India. Either way, it’s unclear as to where Heo Hwang-ok was definitively from.

A painting of Queen Heo arriving on the Korean peninsula. Of note is the Pisa Seoktap at the back of the boat. The painting is from Haegwangsa Temple in Gimhae, Gyeongsangnam-do.

Either way, the legend of Heo Hwang-ok’s arrival on the Korean peninsula states that she arrived in 48 A.D. Upon her arrival, she told King Suro she was sixteen years old. She would go on to marry King Suro to become Queen Heo. And some six million people, especially the Gimhae Kim clan, Gimhae Heo clan, and Lee clan, in present day Korea, trace their lineage back to these legendary figures.

During her seaward journey, Heo Hwang-ok traveled with a five-story stone pagoda. The pagoda was used to help calm the potential stormy seas. This is also recorded in the Samguk Yusa. This pagoda is known as the Pisa Seoktap, which literally means “Pisa Stone Pagoda” in English. This pagoda is also called the Chimpungtap, which means “Wind Calming Pagoda” in English, for obvious reasons. The stones that make up the pagoda have exotic engravings on them, while the red patterns have understandably faded over time. Initially, this pagoda had no home. It wasn’t until 452 A.D., and through the creation of the newly built Wanghusa Temple (Queen’s Temple), which was probably an ancestral shrine, that the pagoda found a home. Later, its location was changed to Hogyesa Temple in Gimhae, Gyeongsangnam-do. Finally, it was relocated to its present location in 1993, under a wooden pavilion, on the grounds of Queen Heo’s burial site.

The tomb of Queen Heo in Gimhae, Gyeongsangnam-do.
The Pisa Seoktap (Pisa Stone Pagoda) that Queen Heo purportedly sailed with on her journey towards the Gaya Confederacy.

The Pisa Stone Pagoda is intriguing for a couple of reasons. Queen Heo potentially came from an area in India that was Buddhist. Additionally, she probably brought statues and texts to accompany the highly symbolic and meaningful Buddhist style pagoda. Also, the foreignness of the design, shape, and colour of the pagoda point to its alien origins. And while Buddhism didn’t become popular in the Gaya Confederacy, it would seem that Buddhism entered the Korean peninsula at a much earlier date than through the Goguryeo Kingdom (37 B.C. – 668 A.D.). However, with little documentation, because of the confederacy’s destruction at the hands of the Silla Kingdom, it’s hard to definitively state this in the absence of anything concrete outside the Pisa Seoktap.

After a period of decline, the Gaya Confederacy was revived once more during the 5th century around Daegaya (present day Goryeong, Gyeongsangbuk-do). Before this, the Goguryeo Kingdom put pressure on the Gaya Confederacy, which would result in their independence deteriorating. However, while the Gaya Confederacy’s power was slowly being eroded, they remained an autonomous state until they were completely conquered and annexed by the Silla Kingdom in 562 A.D. This happened as a result, and delivered as punishment, for having assisted the Baekje Kingdom against the Silla Kingdom. And so in 562 A.D., the Gaya Confederacy ceased to exist.


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