East and west stone pagodas from the site of Galhangsa Temple


Essay by Yim Jaewan

East and west stone pagodas from the site of Galhangsa Temple, 758 (Unified Silla Kingdom), Gyeongju, National Treasure 99 (National Museum of Korea)

East and west stone pagodas from the site of Galhangsa Temple, 758 (Unified Silla Kingdom), Gyeongju, National Treasure 99 (National Museum of Korea)

In 758, two stone pagodas with beautiful proportions were built at Galhangsa Temple in Gimcheon. The pagodas were commissioned by Lady Gyeo (繼烏夫人)—who was the mother of King Wonseong—along with her brother and sister. It is not known who these patrons were praying for or who the pagodas were dedicated to. The inscription on the pagodas that lists the three patrons was written twenty-seven years or more after the pagodas were erected, during the reign of Lady Gyeo’s son, who granted her the honorary title of Queen Somun.

Left: east stone pagoda from the site of Galhangsa Temple (National Museum of Korea; photo: Cultural Heritage Administration of the Republic of Korea); center: west stone pagoda from the site of Galhangsa Temple (National Museum of Korea; photo: Cultural Heritage Administration of the Republic of Korea); right: Seokgatap Pagoda at Bulguksa Temple, mid-8th century (Unified Silla Kingdom), Gyeongju, National Treasure 21 (photo: Cultural Heritage Administration of the Republic of Korea)

Left: east stone pagoda from the site of Galhangsa Temple (National Museum of Korea; photo: Cultural Heritage Administration of the Republic of Korea); center: west stone pagoda from the site of Galhangsa Temple (National Museum of Korea; photo: Cultural Heritage Administration of the Republic of Korea); right: Seokgatap Pagoda at Bulguksa Temple, mid-8th century (Unified Silla Kingdom), Gyeongju, National Treasure 21 (photo: Cultural Heritage Administration of the Republic of Korea)

Same beautiful proportions as Seokgatap Pagoda

The style of Korean stone pagodas changed significantly in the seventh century, after Silla’s unification of the Three Kingdoms. The various existing styles of Silla and Baekje pagodas were incorporated into the Unified Silla style, as exemplified by the three-story stone pagodas of Gameunsa Temple and Goseonsa Temple in Gyeongju, which were built around the late seventh century. As if symbolizing the authority and grandeur of the newly unified kingdom, these pagodas impart a sense of stability and majesty. The lower half of the pagodas (i.e., the platform and the first story) was shaped roughly like a triangle with a wide base, while the upper half (i.e., the second and third stories) gradually decreased in proportion moving up to the roof.

Diagram of Seokgatap Pagoda at Bulguksa Temple, mid-8th century (Unified Silla Kingdom), Gyeongju, National Treasure 21 (photo: Cultural Heritage Administration of the Republic of Korea)

Diagram of Seokgatap Pagoda at Bulguksa Temple, mid-8th century (Unified Silla Kingdom), Gyeongju, National Treasure 21 (photo: Cultural Heritage Administration of the Republic of Korea)

However, the stable stone pagodas of the early Unified Silla period quickly changed, as the overall proportions became longer and thinner, even as the overall size decreased, and the base of the lower triangle became narrower. Also, the stones were combined and placed with more precision and efficiency. By the mid-eighth century, Silla stone pagodas reached the peak of their beauty, as epitomized by Seokgatap Pagoda, with the lower half shaped like an equilateral triangle and a superb rate of decrement moving up towards the top. Pagodas with these proportions were enormously popular not only in the Silla capital of Gyeongju, but also in the regional provinces.

Although some parts of the east and west stone pagodas from the site of Galhangsa Temple are missing, they still show almost the same lovely proportion as Seokgatap Pagoda, indicating that they were produced around the same time period.

Nail holes on south side of east and west pagodas from the site of Galhangsa Temple (National Museum of Korea)

Nail holes on south side of east and west pagodas from the site of Galhangsa Temple (National Museum of Korea)

Nail holes

Interestingly, both of these pagodas have numerous nail holes all over their surface, a detail that is not seen on Seokgatap Pagoda and has rarely been seen on other typical stone pagodas with a similar form that were produced in the previous era.

From the late seventh century to the mid-eighth century, nails or spikes were rarely used on stone pagodas, except perhaps to attach a wind chime to a roof stone. However, the stone pagoda from the site of Goseonsa Temple, which is estimated to have been made slightly earlier, also has nail holes on the surface. The nail holes were likely used to attach ornaments, such as metal plates, to the pagoda.

Comparison of nail holes on stone pagodas. 1: body of first story of the stone pagoda on the site of Goseonsa Temple; 2: east and west stone pagodas from the site of Inyongsa Temple—roof stone and body of the first story; 3: east pagoda from the site of Galhangsa Temple—roof stone and body of the first story (south side)

Comparison of nail holes on stone pagodas. 1: body of first story of the stone pagoda on the site of Goseonsa Temple; 2: east and west stone pagodas from the site of Inyongsa Temple—roof stone and body of the first story; 3: east pagoda from the site of Galhangsa Temple—roof stone and body of the first story (south side)

Inscription carved on the platform of the east pagoda from the site of Galhangsa Temple, 758 (Unified Silla Kingdom), Gyeongju, National Treasure 99 (National Museum of Korea; photo: Cultural Heritage Administration of the Republic of Korea)

Inscription carved on the platform of the east pagoda from the site of Galhangsa Temple, 758 (Unified Silla Kingdom), Gyeongju, National Treasure 99 (National Museum of Korea; photo: Cultural Heritage Administration of the Republic of Korea)

This raises an interesting question: why would two pagodas in a relatively remote location (Gimcheon, North Gyeongsang Province) be covered with such decorations? The inscription states that the two pagodas from Galhangsa Temple were built in 758, and that information corresponds to the arrangement and proportion of materials in the platform. Two similar pagodas can be found at the reported site of Inyongsa Temple in Gyeongju, and they also have nail holes. The east and west stone pagodas from Inyongsa Temple, which are estimated to date from the late eighth century, have been badly damaged over the years, but their roof stones and the body of the stones in the first story are similar to the pagodas from Galhangsa Temple. Although the arrangement of nail holes on the roof stone is different from the Galhangsa Temple pagodas, both sets of pagodas have holes along the edge at regular intervals. Thus, based on the surface decorations, the Inyongsa Temple pagodas seem to have been constructed after the Goseonsa Temple pagoda (prior to the late seventh century), but before the Galhangsa Temple pagodas (758).

In fact, however, the Inyongsa Temple pagodas are estimated to have been produced in the late eighth century, and the Galhangsa Temple pagodas were produced in 758.

This discrepancy forces us to reconsider the circumstances of the inscription on the Galhangsa Temple pagodas. The inscription can be translated as follows:

These two pagodas were completed in 758, thanks to the good deeds of one brother and two sisters: the brother is Monk Eonjeok of Yeongmyosa Temple in Gyeongju; the older sister is Queen Somun; the younger sister is the maternal aunt of Great King Gyeongsin.

(二塔天寶十七年戊戌中立在之 娚女市妹三人業以成在之 娚者零妙寺言寂法師在 女市者照文皇太后君妳在 妹者敬信太王妳在也)

East stone pagoda from the site of Galhangsa Temple, 758 (Unified Silla Kingdom), Gyeongju, National Treasure 99 (National Museum of Korea; photo: Cultural Heritage Administration of the Republic of Korea)

East stone pagoda from the site of Galhangsa Temple, 758 (Unified Silla Kingdom), Gyeongju, National Treasure 99 (National Museum of Korea; photo: Cultural Heritage Administration of the Republic of Korea)

The names “Great King Gyeongsin” (敬信太王) and “Queen Somun” are also recorded in History of the Three Kingdoms, in reference to King Wonseong and his mother. Notably, the inscription refers to him as the king, and uses the name “Gyeongsin,” as he was known during his lifetime; “King Wonseong” is an honorary title that was posthumously granted to him. Thus, the inscription must have been carved during the reign of King Wonseong, from 785 to 798.

But why wouldn’t the patrons have made the inscription in 758, at the time that the pagodas were built? Then again, why did they feel the need to create the inscription many years later, and to mention their relation to the reigning king? One possible theory is that, after King Wonseong ascended to the throne, his maternal relatives celebrated his enthronement by making Buddhist dedications and offerings at Galhangsa Temple, the temple that was dedicated to their family. Although the details of these dedications and offerings are not known, the nail holes and the inscription may provide some important clues.

Perhaps the nail holes, a unique feature of the Galhangsa Temple pagodas, were newly added when surface decorations were attached to the pagodas during the reign of King Wonseong. The general arrangement of the decorations and nail holes may have been based on the Inyongsa Temple pagodas, which were built near the city wall in Silla’s capital. This hypothesis would resolve the aforementioned discrepancy caused by the surface decorations.

Stone surface of the body of the first story of the east pagoda from the site of Galhangsa Temple, 758 (Unified Silla Kingdom), Gyeongju, National Treasure 99 (National Museum of Korea; photo: Cultural Heritage Administration of the Republic of Korea)

Stone surface of the body of the first story of the east pagoda from the site of Galhangsa Temple, 758 (Unified Silla Kingdom), Gyeongju, National Treasure 99 (National Museum of Korea; photo: Cultural Heritage Administration of the Republic of Korea)

Rough texture of stones in the first story

Another curious feature of the Galhangsa Temple pagodas is the rough texture in the center of the stones in the body of the first story. Such rough texture, which indicates that the stones were not completely smoothed and finished before being placed, is usually found on areas of a stone that will not be seen by viewers. In this case, however, the rough texture appears in plain sight on the center of the first story.

Ko Yuseop, the first Korean art historian, suggested that these rough spots were probably relief sculptures of the Four Heavenly Kings or bodhisattvas. Along with the aforementioned nail holes, this rough texture is another detail that can offer us a better understanding of these two pagodas. In fact, these two unique features might be related. The relief sculptures may have been carved on the first-story stone at the time that the pagodas were built, and then removed during the reign of King Wonseong, in order to attach the metal plates and surface decorations. Thus, the rough texture of the stone in the first story seems to support the hypothesis that the nail holes were made during the reign of King Wonseong.

Sarira reliquaries from the east and west stone pagodas from the site of Galhangsa Temple, 758 (Unified Silla Kingdom), Gyeongju, Treasure 1904 (National Museum of Korea)

Sarira reliquaries from the east and west stone pagodas from the site of Galhangsa Temple, 758 (Unified Silla Kingdom), Gyeongju, Treasure 1904 (National Museum of Korea)

Many unanswered questions

Because of their beautiful proportions and inscribed production date, the east and west stone pagodas from the site of Galhangsa Temple represent crucial benchmarks for studying pagodas of the Unified Silla period. Nonetheless, there are still many unanswered questions surrounding these two pagodas. For example, even though the two pagodas are almost identical, there are some slight differences in the details of the sarira reliquaries. Also, to improve our understanding of the pagodas, further research should examine the “Cundi Mantra” (准提眞言) from the sarira reliquaries, and determine where exactly the sarira reliquaries were enshrined within the pagodas.

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Additional resources

Read this essay and learn more on the National Museum of Korea’s website.

Cite this page as: The National Museum of Korea, "East and west stone pagodas from the site of Galhangsa Temple," in Smarthistory, January 30, 2023, accessed February 26, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/east-west-stone-pagodas-galhangsa-temple/.