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Characteristics of pagoda designs in different eras

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Writer Jogye Date04 Jul 2023 Read422 Comment0



In the Three Kingdoms era, Goguryeo, Baekje, and Silla each developed their own unique style of pagoda. Goguryeo pagodas are characterized by their octagonal shape and the use of wood, which is confirmed by excavations carried out at the archeological sites of Jeongreung-sa and Geumgang-sa Temples. The octagonal shape in particular was inherited and popularized by the Goryeo Dynasty, who claimed to be the legitimate successor of Goguryeo, as seen in the nine-story octagonal stone pagoda at Woljeong-sa Temple in Pyeongchang (National Treasure 48). Construction of octagonal pagodas continued until the early Joseon period, as evidenced in the octagonal five-story stone pagoda at Sujong-sa in Yangpyeong (Treasure No. 1808) and octagonal seven-story stone pagoda at Myojeok-sa in Namyangju. The stone pagodas at Sujong-sa and Myojeok-sa Temples are known to enshrine ashes of Buddha and were commissioned by King Sejo. ; The octagonal design is believed to be a special expression of sacredness.


Baekje’s stone pagoda on the Mireuk-sa site in Iksan is notable in that it closely follows the prescribed conventions of wooden pagodas. But this appears to have been an exception, and a more typical example of Baekje stone pagodas is found at the site of Jeongrim-sa Temple in Buyeo, whose eaves are spread broad and slim with slightly upward-curving edges. The pagoda exhibits a relatively small degree of taperingas it rises.


Silla craftsmen originally used wood to build pagodas. The best-known example of this type of wooden edifice stood at the Hwangryong-sa site, which no longer exists. Eventually they moved away from wood towards chiseling stone into brick shapes (\'stone-bricks\') and used them for pagoda construction, presumably due to the technical difficulties involved in hoisting heavy stone slabs to the top of a tall pagoda. Eventually, these so-called \'fake brick\' structures developed into the regular stone pagodas most commonly seen today.

Perhaps because of the history of stone-brick pagodas in the earlier era, later stone pagodas still retained elements of brick masonry, as shown in the stepped design underneath the eaves, with stones carved to emulate layered bricks sloping inward.

Another characteristic of Silla stone pagodas is that they are sometimes erected in pairs, as seen in the East and West three-story pagodas on the site of Gameun-sa Temple, which was built to honor King Munmu, credited with unifying the three kingdoms, after his death. This tradition of erecting twin pagodas is traced back to the two wooden towers built at Sacheonwang-sa Temple in an earlier time.

Sacheonwang-sa Temple was commissioned by King Munmu during the war between Silla and Tang China to defeat the invading Chinese armies by invoking the power of sorcery. Charged with the task of conjuring up the tantric magic called ‘munduru,’ Master Myeongrang ordered the buildings to be configured in a special way, which required a pair of pagodas. This occult practice proved to be successful, and the twin pagodas soon became popular in Silla’s temples as symbols of Buddhism’s power to help defend the country. It is around this time that the pagoda began to gain recognition as a summoning agent of mystic forces, independent of the worship it evoked as a shrine for the sacred relics of Buddha.

United Silla Period

United Silla was culturally at its peak in the mid-eighth century when Seokgul-am Grotto (National Treasure No. 24) and Bulguk-sa Temple were commissioned, and Bulguk-sa’s two stone pagoda masterpieces, the three-story Seokgatap (National Treasure No. 21) and its counterpart, Dabotap (National Treasure No. 20), were created.

Silla’s stone pagoda design was said to have reached perfection with the austere yet elegantly proportioned Seokgatap, which served as a prototype for later period pagodas. Silla artisans began to add decorative patterns on Seokgatap’s basic design, one of which was the door-shaped bas-relief on the base of the pagoda, with Vajra Warriors standing guard next to it. The five-story stone pagoda on the site of Janghangri-sa in Gyeongju (National Treasure No. 236) is a classic example of this new approach. A door on the face of the pagoda signifies that people began to see the pagoda in a different light. Rather than a tomb--an inescapable, final resting place—it began instead to be regarded as a building for the living where they could freely come and go.

Pagoda design became more elaborate with the addition of the Eight Divine Beings sculpted on the base. There had been cases of bas-relief decorations earlier than this period, such as the carvings of the door and Vajra Warriors on the first tier of the Silla stone-brick pagoda at Bunhwang-sa, and those of the Eight Divine Beings on the base of the wooden pagoda at Sacheonwang-sa Temple. However, they eventually fell out of fashion and disappeared until they re-emerged in the late 8th century. Buddhist deities and devas played increasingly important roles in rites at this time, and as a result pagodas become more embellished. The trend was reinforced further when the concept of the altar as a sphere of the mandala expanded to include the space outside the Dharma hall.

Crowning the pagoda was a finial, marking the cap or terminus of the structure. Resembling an antenna, a finial consists of metal discs pierced by an iron rod. This decorative device most likely originated in India when the staff used by the deceased occupant of the tomb was stuck in the mound of the stupa and people hung flower garlands on it to honor the monk’s memory. This custom may have evolved into the more decorative finial seen today. The discs are decorated with floral patterns and called Dharma wheels, symbolizing Buddha’s teachings. A ball-shaped decoration called a boju, which literally means ‘precious bead or jewel,’ is also employed to emphasize the apex of the pagoda.

In India, the stupa was the focal point of religious worship and offering rituals, but in East Asia its function as an object of veneration was largely taken over by the statue of Buddha. The stupa eventually evolved into the pagoda and is still seen as a sacred religious symbol. Buddhism went through numerous transformations as it spread, taking on diverse forms according to local cultures, but its original essence was always kept intact and alive. Much has changed, yet nothing is lost. This reflects the core teaching of the Heart Sutra, which states: “The true nature is of no birth or death, of no increasing or decreasing.”

Buddha is everlasting, an immutable object of adoration by all Buddhists. However, Siddhartha Gautama, a historical person, lived a mortal life until his parinirvana. Pagodas teach us not to forget that Buddhism started with Siddhartha Gautama, a prince from faraway India, no matter how far it has traveled from its origin. They are also a sanctuary where we honor him, bow to his attainment, and revere him as the Awakened One.

Article is from the book of 'Stepping into the Buddha's Land, Published by the Association of Korean Buddhist Orders.

Pictures are from Cultural Heritage Administration.

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