Sarira reliquaries from east and west stone pagodas of Gameunsa Temple

Essay by Chae Haejeong

Left: sarira reliquaries from the west pagoda on the site of Gameunsa Temple, c. 682 (Unified Silla Kingdom), Gyeongju, inner container: 16.5 cm high, Treasure 366 (National Museum of Korea); right: sarira reliquaries from the east pagoda on the site of Gameunsa Temple, c. 682 (Unified Silla Kingdom), Gyeongju, inner container: 18.8 cm high, Treasure 1359 (National Museum of Korea)

Left: sarira reliquaries from the west pagoda on the site of Gameunsa Temple, c. 682 (Unified Silla Kingdom), Gyeongju, inner container: 16.5 cm high, Treasure 366 (National Museum of Korea); right: sarira reliquaries from the east pagoda on the site of Gameunsa Temple, c. 682 (Unified Silla Kingdom), Gyeongju, inner container: 18.8 cm high, Treasure 1359 (National Museum of Korea)

These days, when people venture into the mountains to visit a Korean Buddhist temple, they often crowd into the main hall to admire the enshrined sculptures. But most people pass right by the pagodas that stand outside the main hall, likely without realizing that they also may contain enshrined statues. Pagodas are one of the most important structures at a temple, because they are used to enshrine “sarira,” which are sacred relics that are believed to represent the remains of the Buddha. For enshrinement, sarira are usually sealed inside one or more ornate containers known as “reliquaries.” This traditional Buddhist practice can be understood by examining these two exceptional sarira reliquaries, which were recovered from the east and west stone pagodas from the site of Gameunsa Temple in Gyeongju.

West pagoda at Gameunsa Temple site, c. 682 (Unified Silla Kingdom), stone, Gyeongju, National Treasure 112 (photo: Cultural Heritage Administration of the Republic of Korea)

West pagoda at Gameunsa Temple site, c. 682 (Unified Silla Kingdom), stone, Gyeongju, National Treasure 112 (photo: Cultural Heritage Administration of the Republic of Korea)

Enshrining Buddha’s sarira

In Buddhism, relics representing the cremated remains of the Buddha are called “sarira,” a word that originates from “śarīra” (in Sanskrit) and “sarīra” (in Pali), which can mean “body,” “remains,” or “bones.” In Pali records, “sarīra” (“body of the deceased”) and “dhātu” (“remains after cremation”) are differentiated. Buddha’s sarira are traditionally enshrined inside a pagoda, which serves as a type of a tomb. As the final sanctuary of the Buddha, pagodas are the most important objects of religious worship in Buddhism. In India, where Buddhism began, pagodas are usually located in the center of temples. Also, pagodas were produced in India before statues of Buddha. Most people who visit temples today are probably unaware that the pagodas they pass by hold such a long history.

According to History of the Three Kingdoms and Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms, sarira were first introduced to Korea in 549, during the Three Kingdoms Period. The records state that, during the tenth year of the reign of Silla’s King Jinheung (i.e., 549), Buddha’s sarira were sent from China’s Liang Dynasty, and that 1200 pieces of the sarira were enshrined in Donghwasa Temple in Daegu in 582. In Volume 3 of Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms—entitled “Pagodas” (塔像)—it is written that

On his return from the Tang Dynasty in 643, the monk Jajang brought 100 pieces of Buddha’s skull, teeth, and sarira, as well as one kashaya (robe). The sarira was divided into three portions: the first portion was enshrined in the pagoda of Hwangnyongsa Temple; the second in the pagoda of Taehwasa Temple; and the third portion with the robe in the ordination platform of Tongdosa Temple. The whereabouts of the rest are unknown.

Gameunsa Temple site, west stone pagoda (left) and east stone pagoda (right), c. 682 (Unified Silla Kingdom), Gyeongju, Historic Site 31 (photo: Cultural Heritage Administration of the Republic of Korea)

Gameunsa Temple site, west stone pagoda (left) and east stone pagoda (right), c. 682 (Unified Silla Kingdom), Gyeongju, Historic Site 31 (photo: Cultural Heritage Administration of the Republic of Korea)

Gameunsa Temple: dedicated to the Silla royal court

On the way from Gyeongju (the capital of Silla) to Gampo, the huge three-story stone pagodas (13 meters tall) at the site of Gameunsa Temple stand near the East Sea. They are known to be the oldest extant three-story stone pagodas that were produced during the Unified Silla period. In 682, shortly after Silla unified the Korean peninsula, King Sinmun dedicated Gameunsa Temple to his father King Munmu, who had preceded him on the throne. Since the temple was constructed by the Silla royal court, it must have been built with the most advanced technology of the time. But by the twentieth century, Gameunsa Temple had long since disappeared, so that only the two stone pagodas remained: one to the east and one to the west of the temple site.

The excavation of the temple site began on October 30, 1959. The excavation had special significance as the first excavation of a temple site in Korea since the country regained its independence in 1945. With funding from the Harvard-Yenching Institute, the excavation was led by Dr. Kim Chewon, the first director of the National Museum of Korea, who also wrote the reports. After being found in a state of disrepair, the west pagoda was dismantled for restoration. On December 31, the researchers discovered a set of reliquaries inside a rectangular enclave in the upper part of the third story of the pagoda, which had been enshrined there when the temple was first built. The enclave was carved on a North-South axis, and the reliquaries were placed in the southern part. At the time of discovery, one side of the outer sarira container was almost destroyed, and the inner sarira container was also severely damaged. The broken pieces were collected and the containers were eventually repaired, and they are now exhibited at Gyeongju National Museum. Then in 1996, the east stone pagoda was dismantled for restoration, and it was also found to contain a set of reliquaries in the upper part of the third story, in the same spot as the west pagoda. The set of sarira reliquaries from the east pagoda is currently housed at the National Museum of Korea.

Sarira reliquary set from the west pagoda on the site of Gameunsa Temple, c. 682 (Unified Silla Kingdom), Gyeongju, inner container: 16.5 cm high, Treasure 366 (National Museum of Korea)

Sarira reliquary set from the west pagoda on the site of Gameunsa Temple, c. 682 (Unified Silla Kingdom), Gyeongju, inner container: 16.5 cm high, Treasure 366 (National Museum of Korea)

Reliquary sets from the pagodas at the site of Gameunsa Temple

Crystal sarira bottle, east pagoda, Gameunsa Temple site (National Museum of Korea; photo: Cultural Heritage Administration of the Republic of Korea)

Crystal sarira bottle, east pagoda, Gameunsa Temple site (National Museum of Korea; photo: Cultural Heritage Administration of the Republic of Korea)

For the enshrinement process, the tiny grains of sarira would first be poured into a sarira bottle, which was then placed inside the other container (or containers) made from gold, silver, or bronze; finally, the entire set would be sealed inside an enclosed part of the stone pagoda. The practice of putting sarira in multiple containers derives from a sutra, which says that the body of the Buddha was placed (sequentially) in a gold coffin, silver coffin, bronze coffin, and iron coffin. In accordance with this record, sarira were also sealed in multiple metal containers.

As expected, given that they were enshrined in two pagodas that were produced at the same time, the two reliquary sets have a similar form and composition. Each one consists of a crystal sarira bottle, an inner container shaped like a miniature palace, and an outer container shaped like a box. However, they show some differences in terms of the sculpting techniques and other details. In the east pagoda, for example, the crystal sarira bottle was placed in the center of the inner container, and then hidden beneath a domed lid decorated with cintamani (an auspicious jewel) and lotus petals.

Gilt-bronze outer sarira containers embossed with images of the Four Heavenly Kings from the west (left) and east (right) pagodas, Gameunsa Temple, c. 682 (Unified Silla Kingdom), Gyeongju, Treasure 366 (National Museum of Korea)

Gilt-bronze outer sarira containers embossed with images of the Four Heavenly Kings from the west (left) and east (right) pagodas, Gameunsa Temple, c. 682 (Unified Silla Kingdom), Gyeongju, Treasure 366 (National Museum of Korea)

That container was then placed in the gilt-bronze outer sarira container, which is embossed on all four sides with images of the Four Heavenly Kings, the guardians of the Buddhist faith. Each of the four kings is responsible for guarding one of the four cardinal directions, led by Vaisravana, the king of the North, who is shown holding a pagoda. The outer containers from the two pagodas are similar in size and form, but there are some subtle differences in the appearance of the Four Heavenly Kings, the cloud design on the four corners, and the other patterns around the edges. Based on the delicate rendering and natural poses of the Four Heavenly Kings, who are clad in armor, the containers must have been produced with the most advanced metalcraft technology of the time.

Inner sarira containers from the west (left) and east (right) pagodas, Gameunsa Temple, c. 682 (Unified Silla Kingdom), Gyeongju, Treasure 366 (National Museum of Korea)

Inner sarira containers from the west (left) and east (right) pagodas, Gameunsa Temple, c. 682 (Unified Silla Kingdom), Gyeongju, Treasure 366 (National Museum of Korea)

The inner container from the east pagoda is shaped like a small palace or pavilion with railings around the platform. On the platform, several monks and the Four Heavenly Kings protectively encircle sarira in the center. Placed in the four cardinal directions, the Four Heavenly Kings hold symbolic objects. On the other hand, the inner container from the west pagoda is decorated with Heavenly Musicians playing cymbals, a hip drum, a flute, and a stringed instrument. The container is shaped like a miniature palace with a canopy resplendently decorated with a scroll design and flame design. These two palace-shaped inner containers stand out from most inner sarira containers of Unified Silla, which are usually shaped like a box. In various records, these unique containers are said to resemble a palace, a house, or a “jeweled palanquin” (寶帳). The latter term refers to the palanquin that carried the coffin of Shakyamuni Buddha, as depicted in the mural of the Nirvana Sutra (涅槃經變) in Cave 148 of the Dunhuang Mogao Caves. For many years, such containers (known by diverse names) were thought to have been produced exclusively by Unified Silla, but recent research has uncovered records indicating that sarira reliquaries with a similar style once existed in China. Because of their exceptional shape, the sarira containers from Gameunsa Temple have sparked much discussion and research, and will likely continue to do so in the future.

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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, "Sarira reliquaries from east and west stone pagodas of Gameunsa Temple," in Smarthistory, January 30, 2023, accessed April 19, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/sarira-reliquaries-east-west-stone-pagodas-gameunsa-temple/.