Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Guksadang Shrine

On Saturday, I decided to take a hike a up Mt. Inwangsan, on the northern side of Seoul. Once the home to wild tigers which died out just over a century ago, it is now famous for being home to Guksadang, Seoul's most important shamanist shrine.

Getting off at Dongnimmun station, just north of Gyeonbukgung Palace, I began my walk along the path upwards. Unfortunately not to the tranquil tones of the birds singing in the summer sun as I'd been hoping, but to the morose drone of bulldozers tearing up the landscape.

A little way up I came to a large gate and just beyond this were some Buddhist temples set amongst some houses. Fortunately I couldn't hear the sound of the construction work going on down below, which allowed me to have a little walk around whilst admiring the temples in peace.

On all of the temples there were many beautiful designs and paintings, the most impressive being on the gates of the largest temple, Bongwonsa, depicting the guardian kings of heaven who protect Buddhists from evil and harm. There is a huge bronze bell at the entrance and a side shrine for the shamanist deities Sanshin(the mountain god), Chilsung(the seven stars of the Big Dipper) and Doksung(the river god).

Just behind Bongwonsa lies the Guksadang Shrine. Quite small and simple in its structure, it has none of the ostentatious decor or designs that I've seen at other temples on my travels so far throughout Asia.

It was originally built at the request of King Taejo, the founder of the Joseon Dynasty on top of Mount Namsan, at the southern end of Seoul. Destroyed during the Japanese occupation in 1925, it was then secretly rebuilt on Inwangsan.

Korean shamans worship things in the natural world such as trees, mountains, rocks and streams, as it is believed that thousands of spirits and demons dwell within them.

A religion that is thousands of years old, it eventually gave way to more sophisticated ones such as Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism. Today it is not very widespread and there are believed to be no more than 100,000 people currently practising it in South Korea.

Laid on an alter outside was food including rice cakes and a pigs head, as shamanists believe that dead still require food and drink.

I also got to see a gut ceremony, which you may remember I saw for the first time when I went to the Dano Festival in Gangnuem a few weeks ago. This time I didn't take any photos, in respect of the wishes of the people I spoke to at the shrine. The last thing I wanted to do was disturb the ritual.

Gut ceremonies involve contacting departed spirits, who are attracted by the offerings of food and drink. They are often used to help cleanse a spirit of its impurities allowing it to enter the world of the dead. They are also used to wish for the wellbeing of a village or hamlet, for good fortune and prosperity, to make contact with a deceased relative or to cure an illness.

To accompanying drums, the female shaman priest, known as a mudang, gradually worked her way up to a frenzied state and went into a trance that allowed her to contact the spirits and it is even possible for her to become possessed by them. It was incredibly interesting to watch, even more so than at the Dano Festival, due to the more intimate nature of the ceremony.

Seoul Fortress Wall

Further up I came across two huge black rocks, which through thousands of years of weathering and erosion looked like two enormous lumps of slightly melted Swiss cheese and had a somewhat eerie feeling to them. It is here that people come to pray for a son, as there has always been much importance placed on having a boy in Korean culture as the inheritor of the family line, especially during the Joseon period of Korean history. Whilst here I saw people lighting candles and placing them in glass cabinets and various other places around the rocks.

Going upwards I noticed more candles and incense sticks randomly dotted over the rocky landscape. Following the path, I eventually came to an area with a small shrine and a small picture of the Buddha carved into the rock. The man here told me that it was over 300 hundred years.

Here it was peaceful. A complete contrast to the construction going on down below.

After waiting here a short time to gather myself and cool down, a feet easier said than done in the humidity South Korea is currently experiencing, I then made my way back downwards.

Taking this route I saw part of the recently renovated Seoul Fortress Wall. Twisting across the landscape like a huge snake, it was originally built in 1396 and at one point in time it was 18.1km long, but now just small parts of it remain dotted around various parts of the city.

I stopped quickly to take some more photos and then returned to the Buddhist temples that I saw at the beginning of my climb for some quick refreshment, before finally returning home.

You can see all the photos here.