This past fall, I visited the Jongmyo Shrine, located close to the Changgyeonggung Palace. Our guide explained how the long buildings were part of the shrine that housed the ancestral tablets of deceased kings and queens of the Joseon Dynasty. Originally built in 1395, Jongmyo was burned down during the Japanese invasion of 1592 and rebuilt in 1608. Throughout the years, the buildings were enlarged to accommodate additional enshrinments of royalty. The buildings themselves are not ornate. Visitors are not allowed to see the enshrined tablets or other items inside the chambers, leaving the contents of the shuttered buildings up to unfamiliar conjectures.
Facilities at the Jongmyo Shrine all have a very specific purpose and meaning according to Confucian philosophy. For example, Sillo, the long walkway with three parallel stone footpaths leading from the main gate to the two main shrine buildings is the passageway for the spirits of the deceased; The center path is for officiants carrying the tablets, offerings, etc., while the right path is for the king and the left path is for the crown prince. Each path was paved with rough stones, forcing people to walk slowly and solemnly. Special platforms called Panwi denoted where the king and crown prince would stop and pay their respects. The gates to each of the spirit chambers have double doors with one being slightly misshapen, with the crack symbolizing the coming and going of the spirits of the deceased, as well as allowing air to get in and moderate humidity. Special staircases each have a special function and are reserved for specific people to go up and down. But for the most part, Jongmyo, with its massive stone yards surrounded by shuttered buildings, felt empty and lacked the vibrancy of the royal palace grounds. I would have to come back when the ritual ceremony take place. Only then could I begin to appreciate why Jongmyo was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1995 and the rites & ancestral ritual music designated by UNESCO as Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2001.