Hwangnyongsa-ji Temple Site – 황룡사지 (Gyeongju)
Hwangnyongsa-ji Temple Site, in central Gyeongju, means “Imperial Dragon Temple Site,” in English. The construction of the massive temple started in 553 A.D., during the reign of King Jinheung (r.540-576 A.D.), and it wasn’t completed until 644 A.D. during the reign of Queen Seondeok (r.632-644 A.D.). The temple stood over seventy acres, or 283,280 m2, in size.
There are several legends surrounding this famously historic temple. The first is that King Jinheung planned to build a new palace northeast of the royal palace compound of Banwolseong, or “Half-Moon Palace,” in English. During this construction, a yellow dragon purportedly appeared, which was taken as an auspicious sign. So instead of having a new palace constructed, King Jinheung decided to have Hwangnyongsa Temple built. Hwangnyongsa Temple, under the patronage of the Silla royal family, was built as a place where monks prayed for the welfare of the Silla Kingdom (57 B.C. – 935 A.D). In their prayers, the Buddhist monks prayed for the divine assistance of the Buddha (Seokgamoni-bul) to protect the kingdom and impress foreign dignitaries.
Hwanyongsa Temple is situated in a beautiful valley with Mt. Tohamsan (745m) to the north and Mt. Namsan (494m) to the south. Also, it’s closely located next to Bunhwangsa Temple to the north, as well. The original design of the temple was a three halls and one pagoda design. This meant that a pagoda was centrally located in the temple complex and joined by three flanking shrine halls. Of these three shrine halls, the main hall, the Geum-dang Hall, would be situated in the centre behind the pagoda. In total, Hwangnyongsa Temple would eventually consist of a middle and south gate, a wooden pagoda, the main prayer hall, and a lecture hall, which were all arranged in a straight line. Two additional prayer halls, which book-ended the main hall were added, as were a bell tower and a scripture hall. Together, all of the structures at Hwangnyongsa Temple formed a beautiful symmetry. In total, the outer wall enclosed approximately 80,000 m2 of the temple grounds. The longest outer wall was 288 metres in length. And the bell that took up residence at Hwangnyongsa Temple was four times larger than the Bell of King Seongdeok, which is also known as the Emile Bell. To give a bit of perspective on just how massive the bell at Hwangnyongsa Temple must have been, the Bell of King Seongdeok, which is now housed at the Gyeongju National Museum, is 3.75 metres in height, 2.27 metres in diameter, and it weighs 18.9 tons. The size and scope of Hwangnyongsa Temple at its height was something that Korea hasn’t seen since.
In 574 A.D., the bronze Buddha triad was made and later occupied the Geum-dang Hall at Hwangnyongsa Temple, which was built in 584 A.D. The main hall was believed to be 47 metres in length and 17 metres in height. As for the the Buddha triad, it stood sixteen metres in height, and it was revered as one of the “Three Treasures of Silla.” The other two treasures being the Nine Story Wooden Pagoda of Hwangnyongsa Temple and King Jinpyeong’s Heavenly Jade Belt. The central Buddha in the triad weighed twenty-one tons (35,007 geun) of copper and an additional 4 kg (10,198 bun) of gold. The two accompanying Bodhisattvas that helped comprise this golden triad each weighed 7.2 tons (12,000 geun) of copper, and an additional 4 kg (10,136 bun) of gold. The size of the statues varied between 5.8 to 6 metres in height. And they were the largest gilt bronze statues produced during the Silla Dynasty.
A legend associated with this golden Buddha triad that’s recorded in the Samguk Yusa, or “Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms,” in English, states that the gold for these statues came from King Ashoka. King Ashoka had attempted to cast a golden triad of his own but failed. With this failure, and because of it, King Ashoka placed the gold on a boat, along with models of the Buddha and Bodhisattva. Each country that received this boat were also unable to cast statues of the Buddha and Bodhisattva from King Ashoka’s gold. Eventually, the boat arrived in the Silla Kingdom, and King Ashoka’s gold was used to cast the statues that would become the triad at Hwangnyongsa Temple.
In 646 A.D., and for which Hwangnyongsa Temple is most famous, the Baekje Kingdom (18 B.C. – 660 A.D.) architect, Abiji, was commissioned to build the nine-story wooden pagoda. The nine stories were meant to symbolize the nine nations of East Asia and the Silla Kingdom’s hope to be protected from them. In total, two hundred artisans were used to build the massive pagoda. Abiji was invited to build the pagoda by the famed monk Jajang-yulsa (590-658 A.D.). In fact, Jajang-yulsa enshrined a portion of Seokgamoni-bul’s sari (The crystallized remains of the Buddha) under the central pillar of the pagoda, making it one of the Jeokmyeol-bogung like at Tongdosa Temple. Eventually, the pagoda would be completed in 645 A.D. The pagoda was the largest Korean pagoda ever built, coming in at a staggering eighty metres in height. And the entire body was made from wood. Only the foundation, which covered 565 m2, was made from stone. The whole structure was supported by sixty foundation stones. But not only was it the largest in Korea, but it was also the largest, at this time, and for the next five hundred years, in East Asia, as well. Tragically, the pagoda was destroyed by fire during the Mongolian invasion in 1238. Sadly, not only does no wooden architecture exists from the Silla Dynasty, but the Hwangnyongsa Temple nine-story wooden pagoda was never rebuilt.
During a 1976 excavation, nearly forty thousand artifacts were discovered on the temple site. These artifacts included gilt-bronze Buddhist statuettes, bells, ornaments, glass vessels, and a massive one hundred and eighty two centimetre long ornamental end tile. Additionally, there were shards of white porcelain from a jar from Tang China that were discovered at the site of the wooden pagoda. This is concrete evidence that the two nations traded and cooperated with each other.
Now, sadly, all that remains of Hwangnyongsa-ji Temple Site is a large empty field south of Bunhwangsa Temple and north of the Gyeongju National Museum. With that being said, there still remain elevated foundations that once housed the massive temple structures. You can get a real sense of just how massive the wooden pagoda must have been based on its elevated foundation that still exists. Much is the same for the elevated foundation that still remains of the Geum-dang-ji and the massive stones that still remain that once held the golden Buddhist triad on its main altar. In fact, the entire elevated foundation still remains, which gives you a real sense of the sheer size of Hwangnyongsa-ji Temple Site including the foundation for the walls and the middle entry gate to the south. While it may not look all that impressive, it must have been something spellbindingly beautiful during the Silla Kingdom and early Goryeo Dynasty.
More recently, the Hwangyongsa Temple History and Culture Center was opened. Housed inside it is a one-tenth scale model of the wooden pagoda that once stood at Hwangnyongsa Temple. Also, there are replicas of key artifacts that were found on the temple site. There are also models and pictures of what the golden triad must have looked like, as well as a deck that looks out and over the temple site. If you have the time, I recommend a look inside the culture center to gain a greater appreciation of the Hwangyongsa-ji Temple Site. Additionally, the Korean government passed a budget last year around one trillion won that will go towards excavation and rebuilding efforts in the downtown Gyeongju area. This also included Hwangnyongsa-ji Temple Site. It’s unclear just how much the government plans on rebuilding the former temple. Only time will tell, as the Korean government has been talking about rebuilding the majestic temple for the past thirty years.
Hwangnyongsa-ji Temple Site is itself Korean Historic Site #6. And at the Gyeongju National Museum, the Engraved Gilt-bronze Plaques from the Nine-story Wooden Pagoda of Hwangnyongsa Temple is Korean Treasure #1870.
Admission to Hwangnyongsa-ji Temple Site is free, but the Hwangyongsa Temple History and Culture Center is 3,000 won.
HOW TO GET THERE: To get to Hwangyongsa-ji Temple Site, you’ll need to make your way down a country road that starts at the Gyeongju National Museum. Halfway down this field, and just past a railway crossing, and to your right, you’ll find the vast and empty field that once housed Hwangyongsa Temple. Continuing north, and the only modern building in the area, is the Hwangyongsa Temple History and Culture Center.
OVERALL RATING: 5/10. The Hwangnyongsa-ji Temple Site is a hard one to rate. Perhaps the hardest temple to rate, because it’s actually now only a site, which is nothing more than a large field with elevated foundation stones and a collection of stone artifacts that were once a part of the temple itself. However, in combination with the newly built Hwangyongsa Temple History and Culture Center and both Bunhwangsa Temple and the Gyeongju National Museum being so close, it can make for a nice little stop, especially on a sunny day. Either way, there’s no denying just how important this temple is to the history of Korean Buddhism and Korea as a whole, so it’s worthy of our respect and admiration.