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Sculpture in Gyeongju Museum Grounds

Gyeongju Museum

Silla Dynasty

Most of the religious sculpture from the Silla Dynasty is in the Art Hall. The images of Eight Congregated Devas were retrieved from the Silla site of Cheongwangsa. The images, all carved in low relief on square blocks of granite, depict Mahayana Buddhist versions of Hindu dieties. Two Asura images are shown with three heads and eight arms in a circle, holding the sun, moon, and other ritual objects. One of the images, marked Garuda, is not anthropomorphic as in Vishnu iconography, but a dragon-bird, as depicted in Buddhist scriptures. Garuda images were placed on foundation stones of stupas. At the centre are four blocks with apsaras in low relief, each in a different posture. These were embossed on a sarira reliquary.

At the far end of the foyer is an immense yet elegant Buddha head found in Cheola-gol. The head, carved in the round and shown with the traditional curls, usnisa, half-closed eyes and smile, is about three feet high, suggesting that it was part of a statue that must have been over twenty-five feet in height. Though the front of the face is well-carved the back is left uncarved, so the image probably stood against a rock face.

The Four Guardian Kings, who rule the four quarters of the earth in Buddhist mythology, are frequently depicted in Korean Buddhist Art. Two remarkable images of Guardian Kings depicted in low relief on green glazed tiles are displayed. The images are shown in battle outfits, with fierce expressions, sitting on prostrate human figures. One King holds a bow-and-arrow while the other holds a sword. Makaras placed at the corners of the square tiles, spout a decorative band that surrounds the image. Placed next to these is a sculpture, carved in low-relief on stone, of a lion rubbing against, or trying to climb, a tree. The bho motif in thirteenth century Orissan art, of lions climbing an elaborately carved arch, may have derived from a similar image.

Bronze Gallery

The Bronze gallery has a large collection of images of Mahayana Buddhist dieties. These include the Buddha at birth and Contemplative Bodhisattva from the early Silla era. More popular in later Korean Buddhism were Buddha Vairocana, an image that represents Buddhism itself, and hence does not preach. Another popular diety from the late era was Bhaishyarjaguru-Vaidurya Buddha or the Medicine Buddha.


The main sculpture hall has several important stone images recovered from Silla sites. This include the remarkable (and famous) "Baby Buddha" image which shows a seated Buddha flanked by standing, crowned Bodhisattvas. All three images have large haloes with a circular frame of lotus petals, a common Korean motif. Also remarkable are the stone images of Avalokitesvara, including one eleven-headed image. The ten heads above the centre are arranged, not in a row, but piled up 4-3-2-1, above the main image. Perhaps the best-preserved image in the collection is a standing gilt-bronze image of Bhaishyarjaguru-Vaidurya. At the centre of the hall are four pillars, probably from entrances to temple sites. These contain unusually prominent depictions of the fierce-looking, robed images of Korean Buddhist dvarpalakas.

Artifacts other than stone images are kept in a separate gallery. These include a wide collection of roof-tiles from various temple sites. The design on the circular end-tiles at the edges of the roof were particularly important, and varied over the centuries. In late Silla temples, the lotus was most common, but in early Silla art the monster mask (as at Seokguram Grotto) is the common pattern. Other variations include the Gylin (a figure with a human body and bird feet, much like the kinnara in Indian art), the twin-birds (similar to devahamsas), and images of the Buddha. A rare variant is the smiling human face, of which a broken tile is preserved in the museum. This image is famous for its unusual expression, and has been adopted as the symbol of Gyeongju city.

Prayer Bells

Large bronze prayer bells, placed in separate covered pavilions outside Buddhist temples, were intricately, though not profusely, sculpted. Several examples recovered from Silla sites are in the Art Hall collection. The design on the bells conforms to a standard. The ring, attaching the bell to the ceiling, is an elaborately carved dragon. On the surface of the bell are two tiers of decoration. On the top tier, are four squares, each containing nine lotus flowers. The lower tier has alternating images of large lotus flowers, and elaborate kneeling (flying) apsaras, carved in low relief. The large Sacred Bell of King Songdok, placed in a large pavilion outside has good depictions of these motifs.

Museum Grounds

Many of the larger objects retrieved from various Silla sites are displayed outside, on the museum grounds. These include stone lanterns, pagodas, statues, water-tanks, lotus-pedestals, and sculpture panels. An interesting series of sculpture panels, near the Anapji Pond Hall, shows human-animal images representing the twelve constellations. Several Buddha images are in a garden near the Art Hall. Of these two seated Buddha Sakyamuni sculptures are well-preserved, but many of them (kept in a row at the back of the garden) are quite damaged. At the centre of the garden is a beautiful crowned statue of standing Avalokitesvara. This image is surrounded by several empty lotus pedestals. There are also two examples of square stone platforms supported by turtles. One of these, kept near the Bell of King Songdok, is a twin-turtle. The turtle-platform is not uncommon in Korean art. In the Bulguksa Temple, a wooden turtle platform in the Sumeru pavilion supports a large prayer drum. This art-form probably derived from Hindu-Buddhist scriptures where the turtle, as Kurmi avatar in Vishu mythology, supports Mount Meru, during the Samudra-Manthan.

Bangalore, 2006

Photos and Text © Amit Guha