GYEONGJU, North Gyeongsang Province ― What are believed to be the sarira of Sakyamuni enclosed in urns kept inside the Three-Storied Stone Pagoda at Bulguksa Temple in Gyeongju, North Gyeongsang Province, were removed on Tuesday in preparation for repairs to the nearly 1,300-year-old structure.
This is the first time the bead-like objects said to have been found among the cremated ashes of Buddha were removed from the stone pagoda and shown to the public since 1966.
Byun Young-sup, the newly appointed chief of the Cultural Heritage Administration, Buddhist monks, restoration experts and officials gathered at the 1,273-year-old Buddhist temple to observe the disassembling of the pagoda, known as National Treasure No. 21, for restoration work.
The Three-Storied Stone Pagoda at Bulguksa Temple in Gyeongju, North Gyeongsang Province, is disassembled on Tuesday. (Yonhap News)
A large crane held up the 6-ton lid of the second story and a copper box containing a set of urns was found covered in a cloth. Byun said that the container will be moved to Bulguksa Temple and put on display through next year, when the operation is expected to wrap up. The repair work on the pagoda can be seen through transparent plastic walls erected around the pagoda.
The Three-Storied Stone Pagoda at Bulguksa Temple, as known as “Seokgatap,” has undergone seven major renovations since it was built in 740. The latest was in 1966, after the upper part of the structure was damaged in a robbery attempt by a crime syndicate. The relics of Buddha and urns were discovered during the repair process. Replicas of the urns were created and placed inside the pagoda while the originals were transferred to the Central Buddhist Museum.
A copper box containing the urns of Sakyamuni kept inside the Three-Storied Stone Pagoda at Bulguksa Temple. (Cultural Heritage Administration)
This is the first time in about 1,000 years that a full-scale dismantling is being conducted and all eyes are on the 48 sarira that are believed to have come from the body of Sakyamuni, which was brought to Korea from India through China.
“The sarira of Seokgatap are a mystery: According to ancient historical records, a total of 46 pieces of sarira have been kept inside the pagoda, but in 1966, we found two more. We have no plans to examine the authenticity of the relic. Sarira and urns are not subject to scientific verification ― they are more religious items,” said Bae Byung-sun, an official at the National Research Institute of Cultural Heritage.
The repair was suggested by an inspection panel which found cracks in the lower part of the stupa in 2010. A total of 3 billion won ($2.7 million) has been allocated for the project that kicked off in September 2012.
By Bae Ji-sook (email@example.com