Seokguram (Stone Cave Hermitage)
Located some distance up Mt. T'oham from Bulguksa itself, Seokguram is justifiably world famous. It
has been designated National Treasure No. 24. More recently, in December 1995, together with
Bulguksa it was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list.
Seokguram was carved at about the same time as Bulguksa was originally constructed, in the middle of
the 8th century during the reign of the Silla King Kyongdok. Its grandeur, indeed, has been related by
some scholars to the increasing deployment of Buddhism as a ruling ideology at the time. Legendarily
it was the work of Prime Minister Kim Taesong, who also planned Bulguksa, and was constructed to
honor the parents of his former life (see Bulguksa section). However, some details, particularly the
placement of the central Buddha statue such that it gazes precisely in the direction of the underwater
tomb of King Munmu located just off the coast in the East Sea, suggest that the carvings may have
been executed to glorify the king or the royal lineage instead.
During the Choson period, or at least during portions of it, Buddhism was officially discouraged and
both Bulguksa and Seokguram fell into disrepair. The story is sometimes told that Seokguram was
rediscovered by a Japanese postman taking shelter on T'oham Mountain in 1909. It is, however,
probably something of an overstatement to say that it had been completely forgotten by local people
up until that point. "Rediscovery" might be more accurately described as "discovery for the Japanese
authorities," who at that moment just prior to formal annexation had a great interest in Korean
antiquities, and indeed had for some years.
*Restoration and preservation
The various attempts to repair and renovate Seokguram during the twentieth century form a complex
narrative in themselves and are the focus of a good deal of controversy. One fundamental reason is
that, while the artistic importance of Seokguram's carvings is readily apparent, the complexity and
subtlety of the engineering that went into the original construction of the cave have often been
inadequately appreciated. Those with a special interest in such matters may wish to visit the Silla
Science History Museum, located in Kyongju's Folk Craft Village, where the design and repair of
Seokguram is explained more extensively by means of a series of displays and cutaway models.
Between 1913 and 1915, the grotto was dismantled as part of the original repair effort undertaken by
the Japanese authorities. During this process, a complex infrastructure of stone was found beneath
the visible carvings. This design had permitted the circulation of air, regulating the temperature of
the inner chamber. A lack of appreciation for the reasons for this design, however, led to the decision
to repair the chamber using cement. As a result, air circulation was blocked, and the stones began to
sweat, leading to a serious water leakage problem that threatened the integrity of the sculptures. A
second reconsruction effort in 1920, focused on waterproofing, did something to alleviate the
immediate threat but did not fix the underlying problem. Finally, between 1961 and 1964, a further
effort was made under the auspices of UNESCO; air conditioning and heating were installed at this
point to regulate the temperature of the chamber precisely. While this restoration program has
stabilized the situation, it is no improvement over the original design, and is far from ideal for other
reasons: the glass window that now separates visitors from the inner chamber is partially justified by
the need to control the chamber's air temperature.