The Last King of Gaya

by Philip Gowman on 27 August, 2010

in Gaya, Gyeongsangnam-do, Historical, Travel diaries

King Guhyeong's Tomb

Korea is rightly proud of its heritage, and submits the most select elements of its long history to UNESCO for inscribing in the list of important world heritage items. One of the most recent items to have been so listed is the Joseon Dynasty Royal Tombs. They are beautifully peaceful places to visit. Perfectly manicured grassy mounds, in a perfect setting: hill behind, river in front.

The tomb of the last king of Gaya is a different affair: darker, enclosed, and more melancholy in feeling. And the most obvious difference is that there is no grass growing on the mound.

Statues in front of King Guhyeong's tomb

The Gaya confederacy flourished 42-532 CE. It was based in the South-western part of current Gyeongsangnam-do, incorporating Jirisan mountain. Though blessed with rivers, sea and mountains the space was not perhaps big enough to enable Gaya to survive against its stronger neighbours – and in particular the Silla kingdom whose centre was in Gyeongju, in modern Gyeongsangbuk-do. With his life coming to an end, King Guhyeong of Gaya realised that his kingdom would not survive his death, and he felt unworthy of the expense of a grassy burial mound. He ordered that his tomb should be unfinished, just a mound of stones.

At least, that’s the local story, and a moving tale it is. And more, the site is said to be influenced not by the conventional pung-su to be found in royal tombs (hill behind, water in front), though to most people’s eyes that is indeed a factual description of the topography of the place. There is said to be deeper meaning in the landscape, revealing the shape of a tigress suckling her cub. According to the tale, just as when a tiger looking after her cub will not defend herself, so the last king of Gaya accepted his fate and met his end gracefully, and the site for the tomb was chosen so that the landscape was similar to the shape of the tigress.

Statue in front of King Guhyeong's tomb

The information provided at the entrance to the tomb provides a more cautious and pedestrian speculation as to its history, but the signposts on the mountain trails are bolder, pointing unequivocally to Wangneung: the King’s Tomb. Together with Wangsan, the King’s Mountain, the place names in Sancheong claim a history back to pre-Silla times.

Tomb of King Guhyeong

The site is one of the many interesting attractions of Sancheong county, and as if to emphasise its special history when I visited in early May there was one last cherry tree holding on to its blossom, long after all the blossom further north in Seoul and elsewhere in Sancheong and Hadong counties had fallen from the trees.

King Guhyeong's Tomb

A short drive back to the seal centre for lunch at a local speciality restaurant serving Shabu Shabu – piles of mushrooms, mountain leaves and thinly-sliced beefed boiled in stock at your table. This was our farewell lunch and we toasted the end of our travels with some creamy dongdongju – far to be preferred over the thinner and sometimes slightly acidic makgeolli.

Shabu shabu

Historical Figures:

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