Sunday, May 25, 2014

Samgwangsa Temple, Buddha's Birthday

True to virtually every place we visited, we arrived late at Samgwangsa Temple due to the traffic. Thankfully it was not as crowded as the temple we had visited in the morning. Although it was still daylight, nightfall was soon upon us. Intent to view and photograph the main temple buildings all decorated for Buddha’s birthday while it was still light, we walked a bit more quickly past the tall clothed zodiac sculptures near the entrance. 

Established in 1983, Samgwangsa (otherwise spelled as Samkwangsa) is an expanding collection of ornate temple buildings dedicated to the Bodhisattva of Compassion. During Buddha’s birthday, the large courtyard, stairways, walkways and levels of the multi-storyed buildings are transformed into colorful displays of lanterns and other light displays. Rather calm music and chanting (likely recorded) emanated from the speakers scattered throughout the complex. Massive colorful dragons flanked both sides of the stairway leading up to main hall. Their heads moved back and forth, sometimes even shooting bursts of flames from their mouths. On the back of each dragon stood a calm Buddhist statue, whose clothing and skin reflected the glow of the ever-changing colors of the lights on the dragon’s scales. To the side of the main hall was a tall pagoda, whose base was surrounded by several rows of colorful lanterns. A dazzling display of neon Hangeul characters and colorful (changing) background would have fit right in with the displays in Los Vegas. 

Visitors willing to take off their shoes were allowed inside the main hall. The elaborately  carved wooden altar was piled with gifts and offerings of food and flowers. A large golden statue of the Historical Buddha commanded the center, while the Bodhisattva of Compassion and the Bodhisattva of wisdom and Power occupied the right and left murals of the triptych. More relief-style figures surrounded the sculptures enclosed in ornate frames. Above, blue-scaled dragon heads spit out their tongues. In typical Korean style, the ceiling and column tops were elaborately painted. Heads of even larger dragons emerged from the painted beams. Devotees kneeling on square cushions bowed, gazing towards the beautiful altar.

The sky now a deep, dark sapphire blue, the entire scene outside was illuminated. Eager to get a better view, we entered into the building containing a large auditorium and ascended the steps to some open windows. The scene before us was magical. Lanterns everywhere glowed. Selective lanterns in the middle of the canopy of lanterns glowed in the shape of the swastika. The dragons were even more impressive, casting their glow. Higher strands of lanterns looked like beads, twinkling against the dark hillside. 

We followed an ascending canopied pathway to another massive building. From above, the canopy of colored lanterns along the curved path looked like an expressway of color. White and cream lanterns glowed on the building’s balconies. Following a winding path up a hill also illuminated by lanterns, we reached a tall pagoda created from handmade hanji paper. The stark white of the illuminated paper pagoda contrasted against the inky black sky and meandering strands of taller colorful lanterns. 

I’d love to read statistics on this temple’s preparation for the festival. How many lanterns were used? How many meters of hanji paper, silk, etc. were needed to create the lanterns? How long did it take to erect the scaffolding and string all the lanterns? How many visitors come to the temple? I read that this year’s celebrations at Samgwangsa was downscaled a bit out of reverence to the lives lost in the Sewol ferry disaster. Considering the display before me, how magnificent it must be in typical years? Truly a must-see.

See more photos of Samgwangsa Temple at my Flickr album.

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