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Buddha’s Voice – The Bell of King Seongdeok

Sacred Bell of King Seongdeok, 771 AD, H 365.8cm
Sacred Bell of King Seongdeok, 771 AD, H 365.8cm

People sometimes take a jaundiced view of Korea’s estimation of the importance of its cultural heritage. In the case of the Sacred Bell of King Seongdeok, however, it was foreigner, Dr. Otto Kummel, a director at the National Museum of Germany, who suggested that the museum’s description of the bell as ‘the best in Korea’, should be altered to ‘the best in the world’.

If you’ve visited Gyeongju, and its museum, you will have seen the bell in the courtyard. It has not been rung for some time, but a recording (not very well reproduced in the YouTube video below) is played through speakers at regular intervals.  The sound of a bell was thought to represent the Buddha’s voice. The Sacred Bell was originally used in a temple to mark times of prayer or general assembly.

27 tons of bronze were used in the making of this bell. It is largest bell surviving in Korea today, standing 3.75m high. Like many other artefacts and ancient structures, the techniques used in the making of the bell are still not fully understood. We would be unable to make a similar bell today without a blast furnace, for example, which did not exist at the time. When the rod at the top of the bell was due to be replaced, a modern attempt to create a replacement failed. The original is still used today.

The depictions of heavenly beings on the surface of the bell – which may well look familiar – are truly iconic, but represent only one aspect of the bell’s splendor. The deep, resonant and lingering sound of the bell is what perhaps leaves the deepest impression on visitors.

A close-up of some of the decoration on the side of the bell
A close-up of some of the decoration on the side of the bell

The pulsating nature of the sound, which contributes to its length, is described by physicists as the “beat phenomenon”. The reason for this phenomenon in the case of the Seongdeok Bell is the asymmetry of the bell’s design, with differences in thickness in the walls of the bell leading to differing frequencies.

A ‘sound pipe’ above allows conflicting sound waves to escape without disrupting the overall tone – a feature not fully understood until very recently. A depression in the earth beneath the bell serves as an amplifier.

The rod, which can just about be seen here, could not be replaced by a modern replica, as the original methods used to make the rod are unknown

Apparently, the Sacred Bell could be heard over a distance of forty miles on a clear night.

The Bell of King Seongdeok is Korean National Treasure Number 29.

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