Yeongiam Hermitage – 연기암 (Gurye, Jeollanam-do)
Yeongiam Hermitage is located in the far northern part of the Hwaeomsa Temple grounds in Gurye, Jeollanam-do. Yeongiam Hermitage is one of eight hermitages at Hwaeomsa Temple. Yeongiam Hermitage is named after the Indian monk that first founded Hwaeomsa Temple in 544 A.D., Yeongi-josa. The hermitage is believed to have first been built during the Baekje Kingdom (18 B.C. – 660 A.D.). Yeongiam Hermitage was then destroyed during the Imjin War (1592-1598) in 1592. The hermitage was only recently rebuilt in 1989. And it continues to expand to the present day.
Making your way up to Yeongiam Hermitage and past the hermitage parking lot, you’ll be standing in the lower courtyard. In the far left corner of the hermitage is the hermitage’s administrative office and kitchen. It’s to the left of this administrative office that you’ll find a large, golden prayer wheel. This golden prayer wheel stands several metres in height and looks down upon the long valley out towards the city of Gurye. Around the base of the prayer wheel are handles to help you spin the wheel while in prayer. The bottom portion of the prayer wheel is covered in manja, as well as the Sibiji-shin (The Twelve Spirit Generals). A little further up, and around the midway portion of the golden prayer wheel are lotus flower designs and the Om symbol. The upper portion of the prayer wheel is adorned with reliefs of various Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. And all of this is crowned in a Tibetan-like finial.
Beyond the administrative office, and next to the elevated monks’ dorms, is a stone stairway that leads to the upper courtyard at Yeongiam Hermitage. After mounting the stairs, you’ll find a statue of Yaksayeorae-bul (The Medicine Buddha) inside a stone enclosure in an outdoor shrine. The stone enclosure is adorned with reliefs of Bicheon (Flying Heavenly Deities), lotus flowers, and Vajra Warriors.
To the right of this shrine is the Daejeokgwang-jeon Hall. Out in front of the main hall is a three-story stone pagoda with reliefs of the Four Heavenly Kings around the first story of the structure, as well as a pair of book-ending seokdeung (stone lanterns) in front of the foundational stones of the Daejeokgwang-jeon Hall. The exterior walls to the Daejeokgwang-jeon Hall are adorned with the Palsang-do (The Eight Scenes from the Buddha’s Life). Stepping inside the Daejeokgwang-jeon Hall, you’ll find a triad of statues resting on the main altar. The image in the centre is that of Birojana-bul (The Buddha of Cosmic Energy). This central image is joined on either side by Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha) and Nosana-bul (The Perfect Body Buddha). Hanging on either side of the main altar are two shrines dedicated to Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion) in a uniquely shaped 3-D-like shrine with smaller images of the Bodhisattva. And on the far right wall is a well-populated Shinjung Taenghwa (Guardian Mural).
To the right of the Daejeokgwang-jeon Hall, and next to the Yosachae (monks’ dorms), is a thirteen metre tall statue dedicated to Munsu-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Wisdom). This is a rare statue to find, as Munsu-bosal is typically a supporting Bodhisattva in Korea.
To the left of the main hall, on the other hand, is a peculiar shrine hall. One rarely found at a Korean temple, it’s the Munsu-jeon Hall. The exterior walls are adorned with various Buddhist motif murals like Bicheon and Jijang-bosal, as well as a vibrant painting dedicated to Munsu-bosal riding a blue dragon/haetae (which is a mythical creature that controls and consumes fire). Stepping inside the Munsu-jeon Hall, you’ll find only two statues on the main altar, instead of the more traditional triad. On the left sits an image dedicated to Jijang-bosal (The Bodhisattva of the Afterlife), while on the right sits an image dedicated to Munsu-bosal. Also housed inside this hermitage shrine hall is a mural dedicated to Jijang-bosal.
The final shrine hall that visitors can explore at Yeongiam Hermitage is to the left rear of the Munsu-jeon Hall and across a bridge. This unpainted shrine hall is the Wontong-jeon Hall. Stepping inside, you’ll find an image of Gwanseeum-bosal on the main altar joined by Yongwang (The Dragon King). Hanging on the left wall is a mural dedicated to Chilseong (The Seven Stars) embossed with golden outlines around each of the deities in the mural. And hanging on the right wall are simplistic murals dedicated to both Sanshin (The Mountain Spirit) and Dokseong (The Lonely Saint).
How To Get There
From the Gurye Intercity Bus Terminal, you’ll need to take a bus bound for Hwaeomsa Temple. This bus leaves every ten to twenty minutes, and the first bus departs at 8 a.m. The final bus leaves Hwaeomsa Temple at 8:10 p.m. From where the bus lets you off, it’s an additional fifteen to twenty minute walk to get to Hwaeomsa Temple. And from Hwaeomsa Temple, you’ll need to continue north of the temple towards Gucheungam Hermitage. Continue along this way in a northwesterly direction for a kilometre until you come to Mitaam Hermitage. Once you’re at Mitaam Hermitage, you’ll need to continue to follow the northwesterly hiking trail for another kilometre until you eventually arrive at Yeongiam Hermitage. The hike is uphill and about 2.5 km in total. So be prepared for a bit of a hike.
Overall Rating: 5/10
Yeongiam Hermitage is filled with beautiful surprises like the amazing view down the valley that houses Hwaeomsa Temple. Also, the sentinel-like golden prayer wheel, the rarely seen Munsu-jeon Hall and statue dedicated to the Bodhisattva of Wisdom, and the 3-D-like shrines dedicated to Gwanseeum-bosal inside the Daejeokgwang-jeon Hall all make for a beautiful hermitage deep in the heart of the mountains that surround Hwaeomsa Temple.